Bill would halt federal review of mine plans in Rainy River Watershed, Superior National Forest

While the language is aimed at halting the federal review of Twin Metals under the Trump administration, it could also impact potential reviews of existing iron ore mines.

File: Kawishiwi River in BWCAW
Canoeists paddle a quiet stretch of the Kawishiwi River near Ely on a day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (2002 file / News Tribune)
Sam Cook / 2002 file / Duluth News Tribune

Language in a federal environmental funding bill takes aim at the controversial copper-nickel mine proposed for the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and could also impact any future expansion plans for iron ore mines that straddle the watershed's border.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, who chairs the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies subcommittee, announced last week that language in the almost $37 billion bill would prohibit federal agencies from reviewing mine plans within the Rainy River Watershed and Superior National Forest during the 2021 fiscal year.

McCollum said it is aimed at halting the review of Twin Metals' proposed copper-nickel mine , a large underground copper-nickel mine and dry-stacked tailings storage facility near Ely and Birch Lake, but others have pointed out it would also mean any future mine plans for the existing iron ore mines that straddle the Rainy River Watershed and Superior National Forest could be impacted, too.

"None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to review or approve a mine plan proposed within the Rainy River Watershed of the Superior National Forest," the bill's text reads .

The bill was approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week and awaits a vote by the full U.S. House of Representatives.


The tailings basins and pellet plants of U.S. Steel's Minntac in Mountain Iron and ArcelorMittal's Minorca in Virginia are at least partially within the Rainy River Watershed and Superior National Forest, while the facilities' open mine pits sit mostly within the Lake Superior Watershed.

Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining mine pit near Babbitt sits in both watersheds and on the border of the Superior National Forest, while its plant and tailings basin are in the Lake Superior Watershed and outside federal land.

In a news release, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, said McCollum's bill "seeks to ban not only new mines, but future operations in existing iron ore mines within the Rainy River Watershed and the Superior National Forest."

"Congresswoman McCollum’s attack on iron mining is an all-time low, even for her," Stauber said.

McCollum's office countered Stauber's release and told the News Tribune the language would allow existing mines to continue operations under current mine plans, and any new mine plans could be reviewed in fiscal year 2022.

"This language protects the BWCA until we are able to work with a more trustworthy (presidential) administration next year,” McCollum said in statement.

The Trump administration has been criticized for fast-tracking the review of projects and for giving back mineral leases to Twin Metals that were rescinded in the final days of the Obama administration.

It's also unclear if any of those iron ore mines will go through the mine proposal process in the next year for any sort of expansion. ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel declined to comment on the bill and a question on whether they anticipated filing any new mine plans in the next year.


But in an emailed statement, Cliffs applauded Stauber's response to McCollum's bill.

"Congressman Stauber has raised valid concerns regarding the potential impact of this proposed policy on Iron Range mines and communities," Cliffs spokesperson Patricia Persico said.

Cliffs also did not address whether it anticipated filing a new mine plan within the next year.

Twin Metals, the company behind the proposed mine targeted by the bill, said it opposed the bill.

"The proposed legislation attempts to delay the development of mining projects in northern Minnesota and ignores today’s urgent need and growing demand for these critical metals," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement. "This legislation would be devastating to the economic future of our state and to a myriad of industries that depend on its mineral deposits."

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at or 218-723-5332.
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