Copper-nickel mining would be permanently banned upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota under a bill U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum introduced on Wednesday.
The Minnesota Democrat said at a news conference in Washington that the bill would protect more than 234,000 acres within the Superior National Forest and Rainy River watershed that lie outside the Boundary Waters from copper-nickel mining projects. The land includes the site of the proposed Twin Metals mine south of Ely.
“There are just some places in our country that are so unique, so special, that they demand protection so that future generations can experience them. The 1.1 million acres that is the federally designated Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is exactly that kind of place,” McCollum said at the livestreamed news conference, where she was joined by a bipartisan group of co-sponsors and activists.
The Obama administration took steps to withdraw the 234,000 acres of federal land from mining for up to 20 years, but the Trump administration reversed that decision last year.
While the Obama administration cited the risk of acid mine drainage to the wilderness, Twin Metals said as it presented its formal mine plan last month that its design would avoid the problem by preventing the exposure of sulfide-bearing rock to the elements.
Twin Metals issued a statement calling the bill “an attempt to bypass the rigorous regulatory and environmental processes already in place.” The company said a permanent ban “would be catastrophic for the economic future” of Minnesota.
The chances that McCollum's bill could become law this year appear poor, given the Trump administration's strong support for mining and the Republicans' control of the Senate. But it is likely to fuel the debate over mining, jobs and the environment in the 2020 elections, including divisions among Democrats in a state that President Donald Trump is trying hard to carry in November.
Republican Reps. Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, issued a joint statement depicting the bill as a job-killing attack against the mining way of life on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.