Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

McCollum measure would mandate completion of mining withdrawal study

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/23/19

WASHINGTON D.C.—Minnesota’s Fourth District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, on Wednesday, was set to take another step in her efforts to block the Trump administration’s move to approve a …

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McCollum measure would mandate completion of mining withdrawal study

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WASHINGTON D.C.—Minnesota’s Fourth District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, on Wednesday, was set to take another step in her efforts to block the Trump administration’s move to approve a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters wilderness, near Ely.

McCollum, this week, introduced legislation that would require the U.S. Forest Service to complete a two-year study of a proposed mineral withdrawal affecting a portion of the Rainy River watershed just upstream from the 1.1 million-acre wilderness.

McCollum attached the measure to a $37.28 billion Interior and Environment funding package that was set to go the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday as the Timberjay went to press.

The Forest Service undertook the study of a proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal in early 2017 as part of a federal proposal initiated by the Obama administration. Top officials in the Trump administration, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, had subsequently promised McCollum that they would complete the study as part of an analysis of the mineral withdrawal proposal, but the administration later reneged on that promise. The administration cancelled the study earlier this year, just four months shy of its completion.

McCollum has repeatedly requested the underlying findings that the Forest Service assembled during the roughly 20 months that the study had been underway, but Trump officials have refused to release the information. Instead, just last week, the administration granted renewal to two mineral leases affecting the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, which are located within the area that the Obama administration had proposed for withdrawal. The Obama administration had cancelled those leases in January 2017 out of concern that a sulfide-based mine just upstream of the Boundary Waters would do “serious and irreparable harm” to the adjacent Boundary Waters as well as to area businesses that depend on the wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service reached those conclusions after initial review of Twin Metals’ lease renewal request and the agency exercised its statutory right to deny the lease application.

But the Trump administration dismissed those concerns, opting to renew the leases following an abbreviated review process which left the Forest Service largely cut out of the decision-making process.

Several Minnesota businesses and the Wilderness Society are suing the Trump administration over that decision, arguing that the administration’s action was illegal since it, in effect, reversed a decision that was already final. While Twin Metals still had the right to seek the issuance of new leases in the wake of the Obama administration’s cancellation of the original leases, that process would require far more extensive environmental review than would be needed for renewal of an existing lease. The Trump administration avoided that process by claiming that the Twin Metal leases were cancelled due to “legal error,” but as the Timberjay has previously reported, that claim is poorly supported by the historical record.

Opponents of sulfide-based mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters say they believe the science and economic analyses gathered by the Forest Service as part of their two-year study would bolster their arguments that the environmental risk posed by mining within wilderness watersheds is too great and that any economic benefits the mine might bring would be more than offset by job losses in outdoor recreation, home construction, and real estate among other sectors.

“This 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,” said Tom Landwehr, Executive Director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a group opposed to the mine plan.

McCollum’s legislation calls the Trump administration’s decision on the leases “inexplicable,” noting that the leases had sat dormant for more than 50 years. “The actions taken by the Interior and Agriculture departments over the past two years with regards to mining in the Superior National Forest overturn long-standing policies and practices, ignore science, limit public participation, and undermine the protection of iconic and irreplaceable wilderness and national park resources,” states McCollum’s legislation. “Until the departments address the question of whether mining, especially copper-sulfide ore mining, is appropriate on National Forest system lands in the Rainy River watershed, no action to advance mining in this area should occur.” The legislation further directs the Forest Service to complete the two-year study and make all of its findings publicly-available.

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