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Biden Administration Cancels Two Trump-Approved Minnesota Mining Leases

Trump had revived the controversial project amid protests from environmental advocates and Indigenous groups.

An outdoor enthusiast takes a picture by one of the hundreds of fresh water lakes that make up the Boundary Waters in September of 2019 in the northern woods of Minnesota.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it has cancelled two mining leases near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, a move that will likely kill the project opposed by environmental activists and Indigenous groups.

The project, proposed by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, was revived by President Donald Trump when he took office and reinstated the leases, slashing environmental regulations that would have prevented the mine from being built. However, the Department of the Interior recently found that those leases were issued improperly.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement. “After a careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them.”

The agency said that the Trump administration hadn’t followed simple procedural steps and that the revival of the project had violated Interior Department regulations. Now that the leases have been cancelled, the project is likely dead.

The lease cancellation follows the Biden administration’s announcement last year that it would be pausing all mining activity in northern Minnesota in order to review environmental impacts.

Environmental advocates celebrated Wednesday’s news. “Today is a major win for Boundary Waters protection,” Becky Rom, chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement. “This action by the Biden administration re-establishes the long-standing legal consensus of five presidential administrations and marks a return of the rule of law. It also allows for science-based decision-making on where risky mining is inappropriate.”

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta which would have operated the project, had spent nearly $1 million lobbying for the copper and nickel mines when Trump took office. Billionaire Andrónico Luksic, whose family controls the conglomerate, had also rented a house to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in hopes of buying favor with the presidential family.

Advocates said that the leasing flew in the face of evidence that the mining would have resulted in polluting heavy metal runoff that would have flowed directly into the Boundary Waters, causing irreparable damage.

The Boundary Waters are incredibly significant to Indigenous communities in northern Minnesota. In their opposition to the mining project, Ojibwe tribes have noted that the Boundary Waters have been used by Chippewa people for centuries and are still used by Indigenous people today to harvest fish and Manoomin, or wild rice.

The over one million acre wilderness area is also home to 230 species of wildlife that would have been threatened by the mine.

Twin Metals has spent years lobbying politicians to support the plan, claiming that it would benefit the state economically. But environmental advocates contend that any jobs created by the mines would be completely offset by the harm that the mines would do to the area.

The Boundary Waters is the most heavily visited wilderness area in the U.S., supporting over 17,000 jobs in the area and driving nearly $1 billion in economic activity. A 2020 study on the area by Harvard University economists found that any potential positive impacts of the mine would be negated by long-term detriments to the recreation and tourism industry in the area.

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