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Bill would restrict mining in Boundary Waters watershed

ELY -- U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum on Tuesday said she will introduce legislation this week to prevent copper-mine runoff from damaging the northern Minnesota watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and on into Voyageurs National Park.

The Twin Cities Democrat said the threat of acidic mining runoff from proposed mines in the region is too great to allow any problem to develop.

“Ensuring that the water flowing into Voyageurs and the BWCA is as clean and clear as the water inside these protected areas will not happen without direct action from Congress and the Obama Administration,’’ McCollum said in a statement sent to reporters Tuesday. “This week I will introduce legislation to do just that — extend additional protections to prevent mining-related pollution from destroying these two treasures.”

According to McCollum and staff, the bill — called the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act —would withdraw unleased federal lands in the BWCAW/Rainy River watershed from the federal mineral-leasing program, with no new mining leases allowed.

Where federal mineral leases already exist, the bill will require “modern, enforceable environmental standards to be met.” Violation of those standards would trigger the suspension of those mining activities.

While several companies have been exploring for copper, nickel and other valuable metals in the area, Twin Metals Minnesota is the only one so far to propose a project in the BWCAW watershed. The company plans a large underground mining operation east of Ely along the Kawishiwi River, which ultimately flows into the BWCAW and on north. Much of the land under which Twin Metals would mine is U.S. Forest Service property under the federal mineral-lease program. The mine would be just outside the BWCAW.

Twin Metals officials have repeatedly said they will abide by all state and federal water-quality regulations and that the BWCAW will not be impacted by the mine.

“Twin Metals Minnesota strongly opposes legislation being prepared by Congresswoman Betty McCollum that would withdraw federal minerals from future leasing and development within more than 11,000 square miles of the Rainy River Basin in northern Minnesota,’’ said Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals spokesman.

Closing off feral lands in the area to mining “would have a devastating impact on future job growth and the overall economy across the Iron Range and throughout northern Minnesota. Especially devastating would be the loss of billions of dollars in potential revenues to the Minnesota Permanent School Trust Fund,” McFarlin said.

The company has said it is still about two years away from submitting any proposal for environmental review but has already suggested it would process its ore outside the BWCAW watershed.

But McCollum said copper mining and potentially highly acidic runoff into waterways from those mining operations “poses a direct threat to the waters of Voyageurs and BWCA.”

“If sulfide-ore mining is allowed to take place on federal lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin ‘acid mine drainage’ will endanger Voyageurs’ and BWCA’s fragile water ecosystem, as well as the tourism economy they support,’’ she said.

The legislation may find some support from environmental groups but it faces an uphill climb in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Several members of Minnesota's Congressional delegation are likely to oppose it. Steve Johnson, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. said the northern Minnesota Democrat hasn’t seen the bill yet.

"We understand from Congresswoman McCollum's office that the bill is still being finalized. Congressman Nolan will want to read and review it thoroughly before commenting,” Johnson said.

Opponents of copper mining said McCollum’s bill is overdue.

“This Act is crucial to protecting large portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park from acid mine drainage,” said Becky Rom of Ely, chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Allowing industrialized mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would not only pollute water, it would also destroy National Forest lands in areas now used for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, hiking, skiing, canoeing, logging and other activities.”

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