Bill to ban copper-nickel mining draws sharp contrast between Boundary Waters, Iron Range

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Green grass and trees are seen beyond a locked gate.
This area of forest near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake and just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is where Twin Metals plans to build much of its infrastructure for its mining operations.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

A bill that would ban copper-nickel mining on a huge swath of federal land near the Boundary Waters got its first hearing in Congress Wednesday in Washington.

But the fight over the legislation — and what it stands for — got underway on Minnesota’s Iron Range last week, in a packed union hall in the city of Virginia.

"I am tired of the Iron Range having to endure these attacks on our way of life,” Pete Stauber, the Republican congressman who represents the region, told the crowd.

When Stauber says "our way of life," he means mining. Iron ore mines have operated for well over a century in northeastern Minnesota. There are fourth-generation miners working there today, descendants of immigrants who mined the ore that made the steel that helped win world wars.

Three times Stauber repeated versions of the same promise to the gathering of local elected officials, union members and other mining advocates: “I am going to fight this week in Congress like I've never fought before, against this legislation.”

Steve Giorgi, director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, led the event. He channeled the late state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a staunch defender of the region’s mining heritage, saying the Range needs more high-paying mining jobs, not just the outdoor tourism jobs that have built up in recent years.

"These are fantastic jobs. And as Tommy always tried to tell people. We didn't come here to become sherpas, we came here because we're miners,” Giorgi told the crowd, choking up.

Giorgi and others fervently believe that the vast deposits of copper, nickel and precious metals in the Arrowhead region could lead to another economic heyday for the Range, like the one fueled by iron ore in the last century.

But most of those deposits would be off-limits under the bill introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents the 4th Congressional District, nearly 200 miles south, in the heart of St. Paul.

McCollum’s bill would permanently ban new copper-nickel mining over about 365 square miles of the Superior National Forest, in the watershed of the Boundary Waters wilderness.

"It’s America’s treasure, and it demands permanent protection from toxic mining,” McCollum told the House Natural Resources Committee as she introduced the bill Wednesday in Washington.

The risks of this kind of mining, which is new and untested in Minnesota and can cause severe water pollution, she said, aren't worth what she called the short-term economic gains.

"One mistake, one failure, one flaw means that an environmental disaster for this pristine ecosystem could happen," she said.

McCollum and others stress that the Boundary Waters is a designated federal wilderness. It belongs to everyone, they say, not just people on the Range who live nearby.

"The Boundary Waters is a global treasure,’ said Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of the Ely Outfitting Company, who traveled to Washington to testify. In 2019, he said, he saw travelers from 48 states and 13 countries.

“It is too special, too valuable, and too vulnerable to risk sulfide-ore copper mining on public lands immediately upstream of the wilderness,” he said.

The copper and nickel deposits that lie underneath the lakes and forests of northeastern Minnesota are encased in sulfide ore. When that ore is exposed in the mining process, it produces sulfuric acid. Copper-nickel mine opponents worry that acid will leach heavy metals into the surrounding environment and have devastating effects on the water.

Canceled moratorium, renewed mineral leases

At the center of this controversy is Twin Metals Minnesota. The company is proposing to build an underground copper-nickel mine outside Ely — and just a few miles from the edge of the Boundary Waters, within the wilderness area’s watershed.

In December, Twin Metals submitted its plans for the mine to state and federal officials, which the company contends lays out methods to mine the ore safely while still protecting the nearby Boundary Waters. That kicked off an environmental review and permitting process that could take years.

For a while, though, it looked as though the project mine might never even get to that point.

Back in 2016, the Obama administration proposed a 20-year mining moratorium for the area McCollum’s bill would cover, and launched a study on the impacts of copper-nickel mining on the surrounding environment.

The study was set to last for two years. But in 2018, the Trump administration canceled it, four months shy of its completion, and then renewed Twin Metals’ mineral leases, which had lapsed. Those give the company the rights to explore, and eventually mine, in the area.

McCollum’s proposal would make permanent, through legislation, what the Obama administration had proposed, temporarily, through executive action.

Tom Tidwell was chief of the U.S. Forest Service at the time of the moratorium proposal, and testified in support of McCollum’s bill. He said this kind of mining is just too risky, so close to the water-rich Boundary Waters.

"No matter what type of efforts are put forward, the best expertise, the best mitigation, there are unforeseen situations that occur in a natural environment, that you just can't plan for everything. And that's what happens with these mines,” Tidwell said.

He added that, if there’s new mining technology, it should first be tested in a more arid region where the risks of failure — and the potential for catastrophe — aren’t as great.

But mining supporters argue that companies’ proposals should be evaluated on their own merits. If they can’t prove they can meet state and federal environmental standards already in place, they say, then they shouldn’t be allowed to proceed.

"Perhaps the thing that frustrates me most is the fact the people of Northeast Minnesota are not being allowed to decide their own fate,” said Jason George, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 in Minnesota.

George encouraged the House committee to drive around the Iron Range to see the "We Support Mining" signs that are common in yards and windows across the region.

A new industry

Hundreds of George’s union members work in Minnesota’s iron ore mines. He said that future generations should have those same opportunities — in a new mining industry.

At the hearing Wednesday, Stauber told the House committee he's fighting for those people and their communities.

"This is not just a playground for a few, this is our home,” he said. “And we are not leaving.”

But Zaborktsky, the Ely outfitter, said the Boundary Waters also supports an important sector of the local economy, based on tourism and outdoor recreation.

"These first-ever proposed mines would be devastating to my business, to other businesses in my community, and they risk being devastating to one of the greatest natural places in this country," he said.

Even if it passes the House, McCollum's bill is a long shot for being signed into law by President Trump, who has publicly touted his moves to encourage more mining in northern Minnesota.

But it's sparked a debate over these two competing visions for the future of the region — and who gets to decide what that future looks like.