Proposal to ban mining near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters sets off battle in Congress

By: - May 30, 2022 11:00 am

(Photo by Dave Freeman, courtesy of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters)

A proposal to ban mining near the most popular wilderness area in the country is dividing members of Congress along party lines following President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this year to block federal approval of a new mine.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee said last week they supported Minnesota U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to permanently protect nearly a quarter-million acres of Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the polluting byproducts of mining for nickel, cobalt, copper and other minerals.

“There are just some places that there’s just too much risk to mine in,” McCollum, a Democrat from St. Paul, said.  “There’s no room for error. There is no level of acceptable risk for toxic … drainage in this watershed. Once it’s damaged, it would be damaged forever.”

Republicans, including Pete Stauber, the panel’s ranking member, whose Iron Range district includes the Boundary Waters and the surrounding area, said the bill would needlessly block a project that would provide good-paying jobs as well as critical materials needed for electric vehicles and other products.

The bill “arbitrarily withdraws the region — a historic mining district — from accessing the metals that electric carmakers and others so desperately need,” Stauber said. “The bill ignores the project’s potential for environmental benefits and is being offered against the wishes of unions and families in Minnesota.”

Earlier this year, the Biden administration reversed an approval made by former President Donald Trump’s administration for Twin Metals Minnesota to open a mine in the area. The Trump decision was itself a reversal of an Obama administration decision to deny mining.

McCollum’s bill would put an end to administration-by-administration flip-flopping and permanently ban any future mining in the area.

Thomas Tidwell, the U.S. Forest Service chief under President Barack Obama, said at Tuesday’s hearing McCollum’s bill was needed to provide certainty.

“What happened under the last administration, where my non-consent decision was reversed, and, without due process, the mineral withdraw study was stopped, it is clear that the Boundary Waters needs legislative protection to stop acid mine drainage from degrading the iconic values of this area,” he said.

The Boundary Waters is the most-visited wilderness area in the country, subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from California, said. It drives the local economy, he added, citing a Harvard University study that projected added protections would create 4,600 more jobs in the area.

 Domestic mining defended

Advocates for the mine said it would be at least carbon-neutral because of the materials it would provide for electric vehicles.

Julie Padilla, the chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals Minnesota, said the project posed no risk of acid rock drainage into the Boundary Waters.

“Our project will not negatively impact the Boundary Waters,” Padilla said. “It cannot by law, and it will not by design. This is exactly the mine that should be advancing in this area.”

Republicans said mining domestically was preferable to acquiring the same minerals from adversaries like Russia and China.

“It just seems immensely clear we are going to obtain these minerals in some fashion,” Idaho Republican Russ Fulcher said. “Quite frankly, we just have to. Well, the question is, do we do so responsibly, domestically? Or do we purchase from our enemies who harvest in a very irresponsible manner?”

Stauber said his district was home to 95% of U.S. nickel, 80% of cobalt and more than one-third of copper in the country.

But the ecosystem’s delicate ecosystem and pristine waters also merited protection, Democrats said.

“The United States needs minerals, but not from here,” Tidwell said. “The risk is just too great.”

State mining legacy

Republicans, led by Stauber, also argued a ban on mining would hurt the local economy and was antithetical to the region’s cultural identity.

Mining jobs pay an average of $100,000 a year with benefits, Padilla told the panel. Tourism jobs average only about $22,000 without benefits, she said.

Stauber noted mining has been a dominant industry in Northern Minnesota for more than a century.

“It’s about ending an industry that has employed Minnesotans and Iron Rangers for over 130 years,” he said.

McCollum noted there was a carve out in the bill for taconite mining, a traditional Iron Range product.

Tidwell said the proposed Twin Metals project differed from other mines in Minnesota, which he said had “a great history of mining,” because of the hydrogeology of the Boundary Waters and the risk from sulfide ore.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.