Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would be protected from some mining under legislation being introduced in Congress this week.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 4th District, said her bill would bar new federal mineral leases to companies interested in extracting copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide ore within the surrounding Rainy River Drainage Basin.
The basin drains into Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters, and opponents of copper-nickel mining say pollutants from the extraction process could threaten pristine ecosystems.
The so-called National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act has little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Congress, but McCollum said she is also putting pressure on the Obama administration to prevent copper-nickel mining in the area.
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The legislation would not affect PolyMet, a proposed copper-nickel mine that is located in a different watershed. But it could affect Twin Metals, a proposed mine located just outside of the Boundary Waters that is not as far along as PolyMet.
Twin Metals holds two old federal mineral leases that it has sought to renew. The conditions of those leases remain in effect until the federal government makes a decision on the company's renewal applications.
In a statement, the company said it "strongly opposes" the legislation, noting that the basin contains "millions of acres of valuable state and federal minerals."
The National Park Service celebrates its centennial next year, and McCollum said it's the perfect time for the federal government to protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs.
"Why not say that going into the parks' centennial that we are going to make sure that for the next 100 years, residents of Minnesota, citizens of the United States and visitors from all over the world can come see this national treasure and know that the water is being protected?" she asked.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which has been lobbying in Washington, D.C., for protections from copper-nickel mining, applauded the legislation. The group's chair, Ely resident Becky Rom, said if Congress steps in on the issue, it would expand protections from mining it gave the Boundary Waters back in 1978.
Editor's note (April 15, 2015): This story has been updated to clarify that while Twin Metals' federal mineral leases are up, they remain valid while the renewal process is pending.