U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, reintroduced a bill Thursday that would permanently prevent copper-nickel mining within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The bill would ban sulfide-ore mining in the 220,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and in the Rainy River Watershed, the same watershed as the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. The bill would not affect the PolyMet copper-nickel mining project, which is proposed for the St. Louis River Watershed. The bill would also allow sand, gravel, granite and iron ore mining if it "is not detrimental" to the Rainy River Watershed's environment.
If passed into law, the bill would kill Twin Metals' proposed underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility proposed within the Rainy River Watershed and not far from the BWCAW. It would also reduce the amount of land that Teck's Mesaba project — which stretches into the Rainy River Watershed — could consider. Teck is still in the exploratory stages. Encampment Minerals is also exploring for minerals within the watershed.
"This bill establishes permanent federal protections where the water-rich Superior National Forest flows into the fragile ecosystem of the BWCAW, to ensure it is never polluted and poisoned from sulfide-ore copper mining," McCollum said in a news release. "Once damaged, it would be damaged forever. Some places are simply too precious to mine.”
McCollum had introduced the bill last year, but it was never voted on by the House.
The bill has the backing of environmental groups that are part of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and 35 Democratic co-sponsors.
Mining Minnesota, a pro-copper-nickel mining group, opposes the bill and pointed to a release it sent in January when McCollum said she intended to reintroduce the bill.
"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," Mining Minnesota said at the time. "All mining projects in our state must undergo extensive environmental and feasibility studies."
The Obama administration had placed a 20-year ban on mining within the same area during its final days in office, but the Trump administration lifted the ban in 2018.
Environmental groups are hopeful — and industry supporters are worried — that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could bring back those Obama-era restrictions on mining in Superior National Forest. Both have spoke out against mining near the BWCAW.
In a letter last month, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., urged the two to do just that.
Eighth District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a staunch supporter of the industry, has introduced two bills this year aimed at supporting copper-nickel mining in the Superior National Forest. One would prevent the president from barring mining on public land and the other would speed up federal reviews for mining projects on federal lands, like Twin Metals.