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McCollum says Trump administration won't reverse copper-mine moratorium

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum on Thursday said she was assured by top Trump administration officials that the new administration won't overturn the Obama-era decision to withdraw the federal mineral leases where Twin Metals wants to build a copper-nickel mine.

McCollum, D-St. Paul, said she received assurances from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that the Trump administration will proceed with the two-year, science-based study of whether copper mining should be permitted on federal lands in the watershed that flows into Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

If the leases aren't granted it's unlikely Twin Metals could proceed with their massive underground mine and processing center prospeed on the Superior National Forest Service just southeast of Ely.

Rep. Rick Nolan's office released a statement on Thursday evening saying that Nolan "believes the Twin Metals exploratory leases should be renewed, just as they have been without controversy in the past." Nolan opposed the study when it was announced in December and has advocated against it, "in part because it denies the opportunity for future mining projects before there is even a project to review — all without providing any additional environmental protections for the Boundary Waters and surrounding waters," the statement read.

McCollum also said that she received the assurances during a House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Thursday that also included U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Tidwell agreed that copper-sulfide ore mining in water-intensive areas like the Boundary Waters is "challenging" and that the study could conclude that mining near the BWCAW "may be too hazardous,'' McCollum said.

In addition to not renewing the mining leases the Forest Service also called a two-year moratorium timeout on any new mining adjacent to the BWCAW so a study could be conducted. That moratorium could be extended to 20 years.

"I very much appreciate that Secretary Perdue confirmed that the Trump administration will allow this important study to proceed and that Chief Tidwell acknowledged the serious risks that copper-sulfide mining can pose," said McCollum, an opponent of copper mining in the BWCAW watershed. "Minnesota's Boundary Waters are a national treasure, and I look forward to working together with Secretary Perdue to ensure that we 'do no harm' to this pristine wilderness."

In December, then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell denied the renewal of Twin Metals' leases for sulfide ore mining in the Superior National Forest bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Forest Service at that time also submitted an application to Jewell to withdraw 234,000 acres in the Superior National Forest from any kind of mining.

The news comes after repeated efforts by copper-mining supporters, including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan who represents Northeastern Minnesota, to have the Trump administration overturn the Obama-era policy and give Twin Metals back the leases.

Nolan in recent weeks met with administration officials to encourage them to drop the moratorium and allow the Twin Metals project to advance toward formal environmental review.

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