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The White House moves to ban copper mining near wilderness area in Minnesota


The Biden administration has taken a major step toward banning copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That's a million acres of federally protected lakes and forest on the Minnesota-Canada border. Last week's announcement is the latest in a long-standing tug-of-war spanning three White House administrations. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Ely, Minn., was founded in the 1800s as a mining town, but the last underground iron ore mine closed more than 50 years ago. And now the town is known less for its rocks and much more for its water. Every year, tens of thousands of people travel here to paddle and portage through the pristine boundary waters, and many of them rent camping gear from Steve Piragis.

STEVE PIRAGIS: Some of the cleanest water in North America comes out of these headwaters' lakes. And you can drink the water out of them in a cup by dipping it into the lake as you paddle along. Where are you going to find that? Not many places in North America.

ELLI PIRAGIS: Got it. All right. So this will be a new retail space for us.

KRAKER: Elli Piragis is general manager for the family canoe outfitting business, which she says is booming.

E PIRAGIS: It's been obvious for several years, but especially during the pandemic, that people are craving more of an outdoor experience, and we obviously have a pristine outdoor experience here.

KRAKER: Piragis says copper mining threatens the pristine wilderness and the tourism that's the bedrock of Ely. And the Biden administration shares that concern. Last week, the U.S. Forest Service applied for what's known as a mineral withdrawal and about 350 square miles of federal land south of the boundary waters. That process begins with an environmental study that could lead to a 20-year mining ban in the area. But not all canoe outfitters support the move.

DAN WATERS: I am in favor of mining if it can be done safely.

KRAKER: Dan Waters opened his business on Ely's main street in 1964, when two iron mines still operated. He argues that mining didn't impact his business then and doesn't believe it would today.

WATERS: I think it's sad when somebody is against something and they are against it no matter what. There are a lot of people that don't want the mine, even if they can be proven that it'll be done safely.

KRAKER: Just a few miles outside Ely, a company called Twin Metals wants to tunnel deep underground to mine copper, nickel and precious metals. The company insists that modern mining methods can protect the boundary waters and, at the same time, create hundreds of new jobs here. It submitted its mining plan for review two years ago. Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla says the plan is still viable, despite the Biden administration's actions.

JULIE PADILLA: I think the fear that the opponents have is that we are on the precipice of proving we can do this safely in the region, and they will do everything they possibly can to shut down the opportunity to prove that and show that we can do this right.

KRAKER: But opponents point to a legacy of toxic pollution created by mines elsewhere and argue that mining at the edge of the boundary waters is a mistake. Becky Rom heads the Save the Boundary Waters campaign and says the proposed 20-year mining ban is only a first step.

BECKY ROM: It should be permanent. We should be able to rest at night knowing that we have protected our beloved canoe country wilderness. And therefore, we need Congress to act.

KRAKER: But until that happens, the debate here, in part over tourism jobs versus mining jobs, will continue to rage.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Ely, Minn.


Dan Kraker