McCollum and Nolan feud over BWCA mining bill

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DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in his Washington office, April 16, 2015. (Brett Neely | MPR News)

WASHINGTON -- DFL U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum are at odds over a bill introduced by McCollum that would significantly affect the prospects of future mining operations in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, both located in the 8th District Nolan represents.

McCollum's bill, which was introduced this week, 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 that flows into both the BWCA and Voyageurs.

In an interview, Nolan was sharply critical of the bill, which comes as taconite mining operations on the Iron Range are closing and laying off workers due to falling global steel prices.

"It has the potential to put at least four of our iron ore mining companies out of business and prevent any mining from going forward in the future," said Nolan.

McCollum vigorously disputed that characterization, noting that her legislation only applied to sulfide mining and not gravel, sand or granite mining. Nolan's office argues that the bill as written does not provide a similar exemption for iron ore operations and would impose a heavy regulatory burden on the industry.

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DFL U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum in her office, April 16, 2015. (Brett Neely | MPR News)

"I'm not shutting down any current mining," said McCollum, who is the top Democrat on the Interior Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over parks and federal land.

This isn't the first time McCollum has taken on other Democrats in the congressional delegation over an environmental issue. In 2011 and 2012, she sought to block plans pushed by DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to build a new bridge over the St. Croix River, a struggle McCollum eventually lost.

To some extent, the debate between the two is moot. The GOP-controlled Congress is extremely unlikely to take up or pass legislation imposing tougher environmental standards on mining.

"This bill is an uphill battle, but there are lots of things we do in Congress to start conversations, to lay down markers," said McCollum.

There's also a parochial undercurrent to the debate between Nolan and McCollum.

Nolan said that some of his constituents had jokingly suggested he introduce legislation to require a 50-foot barrier around buildings and parking lots in the Twin Cities.

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