Legislation that would reopen areas near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to copper-nickel exploration and potential mining cleared the U.S. House on Thursday.
The bill, which passed 216 to 204 and still must clear the Senate and be signed by President Trump before taking effect, would end an Obama-administration ban on exploration and mining near the federal wilderness.
The bill is aimed at Twin Metals, the Chilean-owned company that wants to build a massive underground copper mine near the Kawishiwi River southeast of Ely.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in January refused to renew mineral leases held by Twin Metals that allowed them to explore in the area. Moreover, the Forest Service moved to ban all new mining activities near the BWCAW for at least two years and potentially more while the agency conducts a generic study on the potential of mining to damage the wilderness.
Critics say that the mine could send tainted runoff into the pristine BWCAW watershed.
The bill passed by the House on Thursday - H.R. 3905, sponsored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. - also prohibits any president from creating any new national monument in Minnesota without congressional approval.
The final vote came after a heated debate Wednesday on the House floor which included lawmakers from across the nation debating the potential impact, or not, of copper mining on the Boundary Waters.
“This legislation is critically important to the United States,” Emmer said during debate on the House floor before the vote, saying the copper, nickel and other metals are “strategically important” for the nation’s economy and national defense.
Emmer said removing the mining moratorium simply opens the area to exploration and mining potential and that all environmental review and permitting regulations would still be in place. And supporters repeatedly noted that the project would not be located inside the BWCAW.
Copper mining supporters say Twin Metals, wholly owned by mining giant Antofagasta, should be given the chance to apply for environmental review for the massive underground mine. The company already has pumped $400 million into the project and plans to spend another $1.2 billion to develop the mine that could employ 650 people and spur hundreds of other jobs.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said he trusted Iron Range residents to guard the clean waters of northern Minnesota and said they deserve the chance at the jobs Twin Metals promises. He said the bill unlocked the region's potential that had been locked up by the last-minute Obama administration action, which Gosar said was illegal.
But the Forest Service concluded, and environmental groups agree, that the runoff from the mine poses too great a risk to the pristine waters of the federal wilderness to allow mining in the same watershed. They also say the company should have nothing to fear from the Forest Service environmental study.
The bill split Minnesota’s congressional delegation, with Republicans Emmer and Jason Lewis and Democrats Rick Nolan and Collin Peterson voting yes, and Democrats Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum and Tim Walz and Republican Erik Paulsen voting no.
The bill “will create an industrial wasteland” on the edge of the BWCAW, McCollum said in the floor debate. “One of our nation's last wild places becomes collateral damage.”
Ellison said the bill was a “job destroyer” because it threatened the “crown jewel of Minnesota” and the jobs that depend on clean water and wild places for tourism and recreation.
“The damage it will do is not Republican or Democrat, it’s American,” Ellison said.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who led the floor argument against the bill, said the Twin Metals project, while not inside the BWCAW, would be located upstream of much of the BWCAW.
“There is no gap. There is no buffer,” he said. “Any acid mine leakage would flow right into the Boundary Waters.”
McCollum later said she was buoyed by the close vote and hopes that the legislation could yet stall because of national opposition.
“The polluters won today, but the fight is not over,” she said in a statement Thursday. “This close vote sends a clear message to the Senate that this legislation is politically toxic and should not even be considered, much less passed.”
The House on Tuesday passed another bill that would force the Forest Service to move ahead with a land swap for another copper mining project, the PolyMet mine near Babbitt. The bill seeks to bypass four lawsuits filed in federal court aimed at blocking the swap for federal land at the proposed mine site.
“Both pieces of legislation… support the future of job creation and economic growth in Minnesota,” the group Jobs for Minnesotans said in a statement.