MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota lawmakers are ramping up efforts to prevent mining companies from gaining a foothold in Minnesota with legislation that aims to slow or ban copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range.
Companion bills set to be proposed by state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum seek to block copper mining on federal lands in the Rainy River watershed, most of which is contained within the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The lawmakers joined anti-mining group Save the Boundary Waters at a news conference Thursday to outline the permanent plan to protect the wilderness area.
“A pollution-free, safe copper mine simply does not exist,” McCollum said. “The water quality remains clean only because the lakes and rivers and groundwater in the Rainy River watershed upstream from the wilderness are not polluted by toxic mining.”
Another state bill, which lawmakers dubbed “Prove it First,” proposed Wednesday wouldn’t ban mining. But it would force companies to prove that they had safely operated a similar non-iron mine elsewhere for at least 10 years without resulting in pollution or contamination.
The effort directly opposes a proposed Twin Metals underground copper-nickel mine near Ely that opponents say could contaminate the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Twin Metals mine and the proposed PolyMet mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes would be the first copper-nickel mines in the state.
The Trump administration has taken several actions in an attempt to fast-track mining projects across the country, including an order signed by the president a month before the November election declaring a national emergency in the industry in an effort to boost domestic mineral production.
The incoming Biden administration and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate is likely to be more sympathetic to the environmental groups. The Minnesota Legislature remains divided.
A bipartisan group of seven state lawmakers representing communities in northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range came out against the “Prove it First” bill, with a statement Wednesday calling it a “thinly veiled effort to thwart the startup of new mining operations in Minnesota’s mineral rich mining region.”
“Minnesota’s lengthy, painstakingly thorough environmental review and permitting process imposes the latest safety and environmental protection standards in existence on any proposed mining that comes forward,” the statement said. “Nothing is broken here, special legislation is neither needed nor warranted in this area.”
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.