US Moves to Protect Minnesota Wilderness from Planned Mine

The Biden administration moved Thursday to protect northeastern Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from future mining, dealing a potentially fatal blow to a copper-nickel project.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order closing more than 900 square kilometers of the Superior National Forest in the Rainy River Watershed around the town of Ely, to mineral and geothermal leasing for 20 years, the longest period the department can sequester the land without congressional approval.

The order is “subject to existing valid rights,” but the Biden administration contends that Twin Metals Minnesota lost its rights last year, when the department rescinded a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases that were critical to the project. Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit in August to try to reclaim those rights, and reaffirmed Tuesday that it’s not giving up despite its latest setback.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”

Project’s critics praise decision

Critics of the project hailed the decision as a massive victory and called for permanent protection for the wilderness. But supporters of Twin Metals said the order runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of increasing domestic supplies of metals critical to the clean energy economy.

The proposed underground mine would be built southeast of Ely, near Birch Lake, which flows into the Boundary Waters. The project has been battered by shifting political winds. The Obama administration, in its final weeks, chose not to renew the two leases, which had dated back more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases. But the Biden administration canceled the leases last January after the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 relaunched the review and public engagement process for the 20-year mining moratorium.

While the Biden administration last year committed itself to expanding domestic sources of critical minerals and metals needed for electric vehicles and renewable energy, it made clear Thursday that it considers Boundary Waters to be a unique area worthy of special protections. A day ago, the administration said it would reinstate restrictions on roadbuilding and logging in the country’s largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

‘An attack on our way of life’

Twin Metals said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned” over the moratorium.

“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the company said in a statement. “We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals’ rights.”

Twin Metals says it can mine safely without generating acid mine drainage that the Biden administration and environmentalists say makes the $1.7 billion project an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. And it says the mine would create more than 750 high-wage mining jobs plus 1,500 spinoff jobs in the region.

Republican U.S. Representative Pete Stauber, who represents northeastern Minnesota, condemned the decision as “an attack on our way of life” that will benefit only foreign suppliers such as China that have fewer labor and environmental protections.

“America needs to develop our vast mineral wealth, right here at home, with high-wage, union protected jobs,” he said in a statement.

Democratic U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, who represents the St. Paul area, applauded the order, yet warned in a statement that a future administration could reverse the decision.

The order does not affect two other proposed copper-nickel projects in northeastern Minnesota — the PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes and the Talon Metals mine near Tamarack — which lie in different watersheds.

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Small Asteroid to Pass Near Earth Thursday

The U.S. space agency NASA says a small asteroid will pass very close to Earth Thursday, just 3,600 kilometers from our planet’s surface, well within the orbit of most geosynchronous satellites.
 

In a release on its website, NASA says the object, known as 2023 BU, poses no threat to the Earth. The agency says even if it entered the atmosphere it would turn into a fireball and largely disintegrate harmlessly, with some bigger debris potentially reaching the surface as small meteorites.

 

NASA says the object – just 3.5 to 8.5 meters across – represents one of the closest passes by a near-Earth object ever recorded. It is expected to pass over the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST (12:27 a.m. GMT). Experts say it would not be visible without a powerful telescope.

 

The agency said the asteroid was discovered and reported Saturday by amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who operates an observatory in Nauchnyi, Crimea.

 

NASA says additional observations were reported to the Minor Planet Center, or MPC, – the internationally recognized authenticator of the position of small celestial bodies. The MPC operates from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts under the authority of the International Astronomical Union.

 

The data was automatically posted on the Near-Earth Object Confirmation Page website. Within three days, several observatories around the world had made dozens of observations, helping astronomers better refine 2023 BU’s orbit.

 

The Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California analyzed the data from the MPC’s confirmation page and predicted the near miss. CNEOS calculates every known near-Earth asteroid orbit to provide assessments on potential impact hazards in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

 

JPL navigation engineer Davide Farnocchia said the CNEOS Scout impact hazard assessment system ruled out any threat of impact by the asteroid. But he said, despite very few observations, it was able to predict that the asteroid would make “an extraordinarily close approach with Earth.”  

 

“In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

 

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press

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Asteroid on Path for Close Call With Earth

An asteroid the size of a delivery truck will whip past Earth on Thursday night, one of the closest such encounters ever recorded.

NASA said it will be a near miss with no chance of the asteroid hitting Earth.

NASA said Wednesday that the newly discovered asteroid will zoom 3,600 kilometers above the southern tip of South America. That’s 10 times closer than the bevy of communication satellites circling overhead.

The closest approach will occur at 7:27 p.m. EST (9:27 p.m. local.)

Even if the space rock came a lot closer, scientists said most of it would burn up in the atmosphere, with some of the bigger pieces possibly falling as meteorites.

NASA’s impact hazard assessment system, called Scout, quickly ruled out a strike, said its developer, Davide Farnocchia, an engineer at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Despite the very few observations, it was nonetheless able to predict that the asteroid would make an extraordinarily close approach with Earth,” Farnocchia said in a statement. “In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

2023 BU

Discovered Saturday, the asteroid known as 2023 BU is believed to be between 3.5 meters and 8.5 meters feet across. It was first spotted by the same amateur astronomer in Crimea, Gennadiy Borisov, who discovered an interstellar comet in 2019. Within a few days, dozens of observations were made by astronomers around the world, allowing them to refine the asteroid’s orbit.

Earth’s gravity will alter the path of the asteroid once it zips by. Instead of circling the sun every 359 days, the rock will move into an oval orbit lasting 425 days, according to NASA.

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Ancient Jerusalem Hand Imprint Baffles Israel Experts

Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday that they are trying to uncover the meaning of a recently discovered hand imprint carved into the stone wall of an ancient moat outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

The imprint, which may been made as a “prank”, was found in a thousand-year-old moat exposed during works to expand a road in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem near Herod’s Gate, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

The massive moat was hewn into the stone around all of the Old City, stretching 10 meters (33 feet) across and between two to seven meters deep and, unlike typical European ones, not filled with water.

According to the IAA, Crusaders in 1099 needed five weeks to cross it and breach the city’s walls and defenses

While the moat’s function was clear, the hand’s meaning was elusive.

“It’s a mystery, we tried to solve it,” IAA’s excavation director Zubair Adawi said in a statement.

IAA archaeologists remained uncertain who carved the hand into the rock or its significance.

The moat and hand have meanwhile been covered to enable the continued infrastructure works just below the walls that currently surround the city, built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent.

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US Seeks Reengagement with China to Stop Illicit Fentanyl as Blinken Heads to Beijing

The United States is “actively seeking to reengage” China on counternarcotics, including stopping the flow of illicit synthetic drugs like fentanyl into the U.S., said the State Department ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing in early February.

U.S. officials admit engagement between the two countries on these issues “has been limited in recent months.”

“We don’t have any recent meetings to read out or to preview,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA on Tuesday, when asked if talks to combat fentanyl have been resumed after Beijing suspended collaboration with Washington on the issue in protest of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August.

“Though its past action has helped counter illicit synthetic drug flows, we do hope to see additional action from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) – meaningful, concrete action – to curb the diversion of precursor chemicals and equipment used by criminals to manufacture fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told VOA this week.

In 2019, China added fentanyl-related substances to the list of controlled narcotic drugs.

While Beijing is no longer a major source of the synthetic opioid flowing to the United States, U.S. officials said Washington continues to see Chinese-origin precursor chemicals being used in illicit fentanyl production and other illicit synthetic drugs.

Bipartisan congressional majorities have approved legislation to prioritize U.S. efforts to combat international trafficking of covered synthetic drugs.

The FENTANYL Results Act was signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 at the end of last year.

Fentanyl is the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49.

The FENTANYL Results Act would authorize programs through the State Department to build foreign law enforcement capacity to detect synthetic drugs and carry out an international exchange program for drug demand reduction experts, according to Democratic Representative David Trone and Republican Representative Michael McCaul, who co-authored the bill.

Trone said his nephew died of a fentanyl overdose alone in a hotel room.

 

A recent report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) underlined growing threats of an animal sedative called xylazine (often known as “tranq”) mixed with illicit fentanyl. The risk of overdose multiplies when xylazine is combined with fentanyl.

“A kilogram of xylazine powder can be purchased online from Chinese suppliers with common prices ranging from $6-$20 U.S. dollars per kilogram. At this low price, its use as an adulterant may increase the profit for illicit drug traffickers,” the DEA said in a report late last year.

On Dec. 15, 2021, the State Department announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Chuen Fat Yip, a Chinese national charged in a five-count federal indictment, including manufacturing and distributing a controlled substance knowing it will be unlawfully imported into the United States.

“We have no updates on Chuen Fat Yip,” a spokesperson told VOA when asked if the Chinese government is cooperating on his case.

Yihua Lee from VOA Mandarin contributed to this report.

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ChatGPT Bot Passes US Law School Exam

A chatbot powered by reams of data from the internet has passed exams at a U.S. law school after writing essays on topics ranging from constitutional law to taxation and torts.

ChatGPT from OpenAI, a U.S. company that this week got a massive injection of cash from Microsoft, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate streams of text from simple prompts.

The results have been so good that educators have warned it could lead to widespread cheating and even signal the end of traditional classroom teaching methods.

Jonathan Choi, a professor at Minnesota University Law School, gave ChatGPT the same test faced by students, consisting of 95 multiple-choice questions and 12 essay questions.

In a white paper titled “ChatGPT goes to law school” published on Monday, he and his coauthors reported that the bot scored a C+ overall.

While this was enough for a pass, the bot was near the bottom of the class in most subjects and “bombed” at multiple-choice questions involving mathematics.

‘Not a great student’

“In writing essays, ChatGPT displayed a strong grasp of basic legal rules and had consistently solid organization and composition,” the authors wrote.

But the bot “often struggled to spot issues when given an open-ended prompt, a core skill on law school exams”.

Officials in New York and other jurisdictions have banned the use of ChatGPT in schools, but Choi suggested it could be a valuable teaching aide.

“Overall, ChatGPT wasn’t a great law student acting alone,” he wrote on Twitter.

“But we expect that collaborating with humans, language models like ChatGPT would be very useful to law students taking exams and to practicing lawyers.”

And playing down the possibility of cheating, he wrote in reply to another Twitter user that two out of three markers had spotted the bot-written paper.

“(They) had a hunch and their hunch was right, because ChatGPT had perfect grammar and was somewhat repetitive,” Choi wrote.

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