MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday it has completed a final environmental impact statement on the effects of prospecting for copper, nickel, platinum and related minerals in the Superior National Forest of northeastern Minnesota, clearing the way for a federal agency to issue 29 drilling permits near Ely.
If the Bureau of Land Management issues the permits, the prospecting would have to abide by the protections specified in the final environmental impact statement that was posted online Tuesday, the Forest Service said.
None of the 29 areas are in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or in separate protected areas on the edges of the wilderness area. The sites are generally south of Ely and east of Birch Lake.
The decision does not authorize any actual mining, just prospecting, said Timothy Dabney, the acting supervisor of the Superior National Forest. Any mining proposal would go through a separate permitting process and environmental review.
In a letter to interested parties, Dabney wrote that he understands there are strong feelings about prospecting, including concerns about the impacts on the forest and the Boundary Waters, as well as the jobs that minerals exploration and mining could bring to the area.
"I believe that with this decision, we are in a position to fulfill the purpose and need for this project to facilitate minerals exploration to occur in an environmentally sound manner," Dabney wrote.
Prospecting in northeastern Minnesota has generated opposition for several reasons, ranging from noise and property rights to the potential long-term environmental threats from mining the metals in what geologists call the Duluth Complex, which are bound up in minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to the elements.
Several companies have been prospecting in the area for several years, a process that typically involves noisy, round-the-clock drilling to extract core samples, as well as constructing temporary roads and removing trees to clear space for drill pads. The EIS specifies measures to minimize the environmental impacts, to reclaim disturbed ground and to close temporary roads.
Dabney wrote that officials took a "hard look" at drilling noise. He said his decision includes measures for reducing the noise that reaches the BWCA, while state rules will reduce drilling noise that reaches homes, resorts and campgrounds outside the wilderness.
In a related report, Dabney said the scenario he chose from among five alternatives strikes the best balance "between resource use and resource protection" and the concerns raised during the public comment process.
Whether those protections will satisfy the concerns of environmentalists and residents remains to be seen.
Paul Danicic, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said his group had not had a chance to fully review the final EIS.
The decision is separate from two mining projects already under development in northeastern Minnesota — the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes and the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely.
It is also separate from a pending decision by Minnesota Executive Council, which meets Thursday, on whether to sell 77 minerals exploration leases for privately owned land in the region. The council pushed back that decision for six months last October because of landowners' concerns.