(Reuters) -U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday he is waiting for a legal opinion before deciding whether to approve Minnesota’s Twin Metals copper mining project, which labor unions support but environmentalists strongly oppose.
“We continue to wait for the Department of the Interior. They have to issue a legal opinion before we know what direction we need to take” at the Agriculture Department, Vilsack told a White House news conference.
The U.S. Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department, controls the surface land at the site. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, controls the underground copper deposit and must approve plans to extract minerals.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declined to discuss the project https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-interior-leasing-idCNL2N2O51QZ when asked at a congressional hearing this year by U.S. Representative Pete Stauber, a Minnesota Republican whose district includes the mine site.
The proposed underground mine would, if built, be a major U.S. copper supplier as President Joe Biden aims to build more electric vehicles, which use twice as much of the red metal as those with internal combustion engines. Opponents fear the project would permanently mar the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the U.S.-Canada border.
Twin Metals has said the project can be constructed safely and in a way that boosts the region’s economy.
Vilsack had blocked the Twin Metals project when he served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, only to see that decision reversed by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Vilsack in June said https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-antofagasta-idCAKBN2CM1WS that as part of his deliberations he was trying to balance environmental concerns and economic potential.
Twin Metals, controlled by Chile’s Antofagasta Plc, said in a statement it “looks forward to continuing to constructively engage the administration and advance the environmental review of the project.”
Vilsack has the power to block mining in the region for 20 years, though a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress this year could permanently ban it.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Ernest Scheyder in HoustonEditing by Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio)