Congresswoman Betty McCollum

Congresswoman Betty McCollum, DFL-Minn., speaks to the crowd at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth during the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters Wild Waters Music Fest in August 2019. (File / News Tribune)

ST. PAUL — U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, introduced a bill Wednesday, Jan. 15, that would permanently prevent copper-nickel mining with the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, or H.R. 5598, is aimed only at banning sulfide-ore mining within the 220,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and within the Rainy River Watershed, the same watershed as the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. The bill would not impact the PolyMet copper-nickel mining project, which is proposed for the St. Louis River Watershed.

The Obama administration had placed a 20-year ban on mining within the same area during its final days in office, but the Trump administration lifted the ban in 2018.

The bill also does not ban the mining of iron ore, taconite, sand, gravel and granite within that area if it is determined water, air and forest quality would not be affected.

If made law, the bill would spell the end for the proposed Twin Metals mine. Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, filed its formal mine plan last month detailing its proposed underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed and on the edge of the BWCAW.

In a statement, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said, "A permanent withdrawal of these lands would be catastrophic for the economic future of our state.”

"The bill that was introduced is an attempt to bypass the rigorous regulatory and environmental processes already in place to review and permit mining and industrial projects on public lands ... Our stringent state and federal standards for protecting the waters of the region are and should be applied consistently to any proposed project," Graul said.

Part of Teck's Mesaba project also extends into the Rainy River Watershed, but the project is still in its exploratory stages. Encampment Minerals is also exploring for minerals within the watershed.

Opponents of copper-nickel mining say its risk for toxic acid drainage, a result of sulfide ore mixing with oxygen, is too great and would permanently damage Northeastern Minnesota's wilderness areas.

“From the pristine, clear waters, to the stillness and quiet that is nearly unmatched anywhere else in the nation — this place is a refuge and source of adventure for many," McCollum said in a news release Wednesday afternoon. "The BWCAW is intact today because of more than a century of protections. We have an obligation to continue this legacy. This bill establishes federal, permanent protections for this vulnerable and fragile ecosystem to ensure it is not damaged and polluted from sulfide-ore copper mining.”

The bill's co-sponsors include Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minnetonka; Francis Rooney, R-Florida; Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona; Alan Lowenthal, D-California; and Fred Upton, R-Michigan.

Proponents of copper-nickel mining the area's so-called Duluth Complex, a deposit of valuable minerals stretching through Northern Minnesota, would support many much-needed jobs.

In a joint news release, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Otsego, called McCollum's bill "Anti-Mining, Anti-Jobs Legislation."

“I am absolutely outraged to hear another harmful piece of legislation has been introduced to reinstate a mineral withdrawal in the Superior National Forest, once again attempting to place this vast, mineral-rich area off-limits," Stauber said. "The highly partisan ‘study’ implemented by the Obama Administration is nothing more than a political tool and delay tactic designed by anti-mining environmentalists who wish to paint mining projects in northern Minnesota as bad for the environment."

Tom Landwehr, Save the Boundary Waters executive director and former Department of Natural Resources commissioner, celebrated the bill.

"Rep. McCollum’s legislation is a necessary step to protect Minnesota’s crown jewel and one of America’s great national treasures. Sulfide-ore copper mining is one of the most toxic industries in America, and doesn’t belong anywhere near the Boundary Waters," Landwehr said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has taken it upon themselves to ignore the law, ignore science and fast-track this risky mining near the Wilderness, and Rep. McCollum’s bill is a welcome antidote.”

But Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said the ban is unnecessary and called the bill "a desperate attempt to pre-emptively sidestep the rigorous review processes already well-established under federal and state statutes to determine the feasibility and safety of mining projects on public lands."

"As an industry, all we are asking for is a fair environmental review process and the bill is designed to prevent it," Ongaro said.

McCollum has introduced legislation aimed at copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River Watershed in the past. In December, language she introduced that would have required a study of the impact of copper-nickel mining on the BWCAW and Superior National Forest was dropped from the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill by White House negotiators.

But language that McCollum included in that bill would require a study on the effects of copper-nickel mining on international waters shared with Canada. A report is due by Feb. 18.

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