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Trump signs executive order to fast-track federal mining permits

According to the White House, “There are several key permits for mines that might be able to be completed and finalized in the next several weeks.”

Twin Metals.jpg
Twin Metals' headquarters in Ely. Even with federal approval, Twin Metals' proposed underground copper-nickel mine would face years of environmental and permitting review. (2017 file / News Tribune)
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President Donald Trump signed an executive order and declared a national emergency Wednesday to expand the domestic mining industry.

The executive order is also meant to support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays and reduce the nation’s dependence on China for critical minerals.

According to a White House description of the order sent to the News Tribune, it directs all relevant agencies to accelerate the permitting process for mining projects. "There are several key permits for mines that might be able to be completed and finalized in the next several weeks," the release said.

Twin Metals is under review by both state and federal regulators. Its proposed underground copper-nickel mine , processing plant and tailings storage facility is along Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness via the Kawishiwi River. Even with federal approval, Twin Metals would face years of environmental and permitting review by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The executive order would have little effect on PolyMet, which is trying to open Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt within the Lake Superior watershed. It was once fully permitted, but several of its permits have been reversed as it faces numerous court challenges.

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The order directs the State Department to report current efforts and potential policy options to work with allies and partners to develop supply chains that exclude China as well as highlight the United States’ dependence on minerals produced through labor practices that violate human rights and are environmentally destructive. According to the White House, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., has specifically requested this. Stauber has made the use of child labor in mines in other countries part of his campaign platform this year.

The order will also allow the use of national emergency authority to direct the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate and recommend additional executive action to address the threat to the nation from reliance on foreign supply of critical minerals.

The Department of the Interior is directed to use the Defense Production Act authority that was given in 2012 to support mining projects through grants and directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate federal research and development on mining projects and identify future research and development means. There is currently no research and development coordination within the government for these projects and activities, according to the White House.

The order also directs the secretary of energy to clarify whether Title 17 and other loan program funds can support domestic mining or processing projects. According to the White House, Title 17 funds are limited by statute to projects that reduce atmospheric pollutants, but the U.S. Department of Energy may be able to issue guidance that would permit certain mining and processing projects to receive funding in particular projects.

There is also a dedicated loan program to promote advanced automotive supply chains that may also be able to support projects and the Department of Energy is supportive of making these changes.

News Tribune reporter Jimmy Lovrien contributed to this report.

This story originally listed the incorrect watershed for PolyMet. It was updated at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 1. PolyMet is in the Lake Superior watershed. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Adelle Whitefoot covers K-12 education in northeast Minnesota for the Duluth News Tribune. She has been covering education in Minnesota since 2014.
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