Bills take aim at copper-nickel mining in Minnesota

The bills face tough opposition within the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and the Republican-controlled state Senate.

The Minnesota Capitol building pictured in 2014. (File / Forum News Service)
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Several Democratic-Farmer-Labor state lawmakers and environmental groups announced a pair of bills this week seeking tougher restrictions on copper-nickel mining in Minnesota.

The "Prove It First" bill would require a similar mine in another state to operate and close pollution-free for a combined 20 years before permits could be awarded for a Minnesota project. The other bill would ban copper-nickel mining on state lands in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

But the bills face steep opposition within both the DFL party and Republican-controlled state senate.

The Iron Range Delegation, which includes three DFL state representatives, and two state senators that recently left the DFL to form their own independent caucus, called the effort "a thinly veiled effort to thwart the startup of new mining operations in Minnesota's mineral rich mining region," and said the existing review process was strong enough.

"Minnesota’s lengthy, painstakingly thorough environmental review and permitting process imposes the latest safety and environmental protection standards in existence on any proposed mining that comes forward," the delegation wrote. “Simply put, if it cannot be done safely from an environmental perspective, the operation is not permitted to go forward."


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Other legislation introduced in the last two years aimed at copper-nickel mining has not been taken up by the DFL-controlled state House.

Asked Wednesday what was different this time around, lawmakers cited widespread public opposition to copper-nickel mining.

While the "Prove It First" bill has 16 legislative sponsors, none are Republican.

With a majority in the Senate, the GOP controls which bills get hearings. And so far, no GOP senator has backed the bill, which has not been formally introduced yet.

"In the Senate, we'll wait and see what we've got," state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, said. "No GOP senator has yet to come up to me to discuss this bill."

'Prove It First' bill would delay permitting

In a virtual news conference Wednesday, lawmakers announced the "Prove It First" bill would prevent the state from permitting new copper-nickel mines until there is "independent scientific proof" another, similar U.S. copper-nickel mine can operate without pollution for 10 years and then be closed for 10 years without pollution — essentially a moratorium on the industry in the state.

The bill has the backing of Friends of the Boundary Waters and other environmental groups.


"We're not willing to serve as a test case for a bunch of wealthy — super, super wealthy — billionaire corporations coming into our area to do these experimental projects in our region that put our economy at risk, put our public health at risk and then put our whole region in danger," Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, said in the news conference. "We want them to prove it first."

Frank Ongaro, executive director of trade organization Mining Minnesota, called the bill "a desperate attempt by anti-mining groups to kill an industry."

"These groups do not want to make projects better," Ongaro said in a news release. "They want to make sure they never happen."

Responding to these arguments, lawmakers said the dangers of copper-nickel mining were too great, namely the potential for acid formed when sulfides meet oxygen to leach into the environment.

"This legislation is a recognition that Minnesota's mining regulatory structure is intended for taconite and iron ore mining, not copper-nickel mining," Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said. "And there's very different pollution threats to those two different types of mining,"

Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for the nonprofit WaterLegacy, said groups calling it a moratorium were "basically waving the white flag of surrender and saying the science is not there to justify what we're doing."

Twin Metals, which began the regulatory process in late 2019 to build an underground copper-nickel mine in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, argued it would need to prove it to get permits.

"We will have to prove we can meet the standards in place before earning permits to mine," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said. "This is the right process to evaluate projects — we should no more have blanket approvals of projects than blanket denials."


Bills seek ban on copper-nickel mining near Boundary Waters

In a separate virtual press conference Thursday, Rep. Davnie, state Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Wayzata, and Sen. Cwodzinsk announced they would be introducing a bill that would ban copper-nickel mining on state lands in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the BWCAW.

The bill has the backing of Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition of environmental groups opposed to Twin Metals.

It is meant to be the state counterpart to a federal bill introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from St. Paul, that would ban that type of mining on federal lands in the watershed.

In a prerecorded video shown at the news conference, McCollum said she planned to reintroduce the bill this session.

But pro-mining groups were quick to condemn the bills.

"Rep. McCollum’s proposal continues her desperate attempt to pre-emptively sidestep rigorous review processes already well-established under federal and state statutes to determine the feasibility and safety of mining projects on public lands," Ongaro, of Mining Minnesota, said in a statement.

Twin Metals, which has mineral interests on federal, state and private land, also criticized the bills.

"Slamming the door on the opportunity to develop those resources would be irresponsible, not just for our state’s future, but also for our country’s ability to secure these minerals domestically in an area where we have stringent worker and environmental standards," Graul said in a statement.

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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