U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum is firing another shot in her war with the Trump administration over a proposed copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.
Legislation she plans to present Wednesday would compel the U.S. Forest Service to finish a canceled study of the mine’s potential environmental impacts on the pristine wilderness watershed. The order is part of the Interior-Environment’s $37.28 billion funding measure McCollum is slated to present to the full House Appropriations Committee Wednesday.
“Until the departments address the question of whether mining, especially copper-sulfide ore mining, is appropriate on National Forest lands in the Rainy River Watershed, no action to advance mining in this area should occur,” reads a report attached to the funding legislation.
The appropriations bill report directs the secretary of agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service “to reinstate and complete” an environmental study of mining near the Rainy River Watershed, which was ordered by the Obama administration but canceled after President Donald Trump took office.
“The Committee is deeply dissatisfied with the inexplicable actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service over the past two years with respect to the advancement of a copper-sulfide ore mine on the Rainy River Watershed,” the measure says.
The language is not in the funding legislation itself, but such bill reports are very powerful — particularly those attached to appropriations bills — and agencies take pains to follow them.
McCollum, chairwoman of the subcommittee that controls the Interior Department’s budget, has been demanding to see the materials used in the canceled study. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue terminated it last December, after giving McCollum assurances in 2017 that the study would proceed. Perdue oversees the U.S. Forest Service, while the Interior secretary oversees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
At issue is a two-year environmental assessment that the U.S. Forest Service was conducting of all impacts of proposed copper mining in the Rainy River Watershed, the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The Trump administration said the review hadn’t turned up any new information. However, the underlying materials used in the assessment have never been released, despite McCollum’s demands for them.
The review was canceled last December, when the Trump administration decided to renew two federal mineral leases held by the Chilean mining company Antofagasta and its Twin Metals copper mine project in Minnesota. The renewals were an abrupt reversal of the Obama administration’s decision in 2016 to terminate the leases after determining that copper mining was inappropriate so near a treasured, federally protected wilderness.
The Trump administration officially renewed the Twin Metals leases last week.
Twin Metals spokesman David Ulrich said the company considers McCollum’s appropriations direction as “unnecessary and redundant.”
“In the coming months, Twin Metals Minnesota will submit its mine proposal to state and federal agencies, launching an extensive and rigorous environmental and scientific review by regulatory agencies, a process which requires significant input from the public — exactly what congresswoman McCollum is seeking,” Ulrich said.
Ulrich said the company is already working on the process with the federal BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other regulatory agencies.
Two mines, two watersheds
Twin Metals has proposed a large underground copper mine that would lie in the Superior National Forest in the Rainy River Watershed, the same watershed as the Boundary Waters wilderness.
It’s one of two highly contested copper mining projects proposed near the wilderness that have touched off a roiling debate across Minnesota. Mining supporters say the new mines would create hundreds of high-paying jobs for the region and help fill society’s demand for copper, a crucial metal used in electrical wiring, industrial machinery, smartphones, televisions and other devices. Opponents say that so-called “hard rock” mining presents grave new environmental risks, including acidic runoff, that are unacceptable so close to Minnesota’s northern wilderness.
The other proposed copper project, an open-pit mine further southwest, is being developed by PolyMet, a Toronto-based, publicly held company in which Swiss mining giant Glencore is a major shareholder. It’s in a different watershed that drains into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
One of the most active advocacy groups, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the canceled U.S. Forest Service study is crucial because it offers the only opportunity to address the question of whether the watershed of the Boundary Waters is the right location for copper mining.
Tom Landwehr, the group’s executive director and Minnesota’s DNR commissioner until recently, issued a statement Tuesday saying McCollum’s legislation is necessary “because the Trump administration is hellbent on steamrolling through this risky mining project near a pristine wilderness without acknowledging the inherent problems.”
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683