Don’t rewrite the rules to mine next to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, located in northern Minnesota, is one of the last truly wild places in America. These 1.1 million acres of unspoiled woodlands and more than 1,000 pristine lakes are protected by the U.S. Forest Service, and are beloved by adventurers, canoers, and sportsmen from across the United States and around the world.

To safeguard this natural treasure, Congress has prohibited logging, mining, and even the use of most motorized vehicles on this federal land. But new legislation in Congress, proposed by Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), endangers this fragile ecosystem and the dynamic outdoor recreation economy it supports.

ADVERTISEMENT

Emmer’s legislative proposal, which will be considered by a House Natural Resources subcommittee this week, undermines bedrock environmental and public lands laws to enable the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta PLC to build a massive sulfide-ore copper mine in the Superior National Forest adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Sulfide-ore mining is the most toxic industry in America, polluting waterways with acid drainage that contains arsenic, mercury and lead. This type of mining is particularly unsuited in a vast, interconnected watershed that flows directly into the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park.

Antofagasta’s proposed Twin Metals mining project is downright dangerous, which is why leaders in Minnesota and at the federal level have taken action to stop it.

Last March, Gov. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) prohibited mining leases and access agreements on state lands near the Boundary Waters. In December, then-Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE and Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone Blind focus on ‘energy dominance’ may cripple Endangered Species Act MORE denied Antofagasta’s application to renew expired mineral leases in the area.

Citing the possibility of irrevocable damage, they called for a two-year environmental review to determine if the Boundary Waters is an appropriate place for dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining and whether a 20-year withdrawal of mining rights in the watershed is warranted.

That environmental review is proceeding as scheduled, considering scientific evidence and taking public comment to reach its final conclusions. At a hearing in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue affirmed the importance of this process in reaching a sound decision.

Unfortunately, Emmer wants to short-circuit this review and fundamentally alter federal environmental and public land protections to benefit Antofagasta.

The bill would automatically reinstate the foreign conglomerate’s two expired mining leases, which date back to 1966, before modern environmental protection laws like the Clean Water Act. It would override the Forest Service’s clear determination that these leases pose an unacceptable risk to the public lands, water, and wildlife that they manage, and should not be renewed.

Even state-of-the-art sulfide-ore copper mines consistently pollute their surrounding environments. For example, in August 2014, a copper mine in British Columbia released a toxic slurry of 10 billion liters of wastewater and 5 billion liters of solid tailings, creating a polluted dystopia of dead trees and a contaminated salmon spawning area.

Making matters worse, Antofagasta has a horrible environmental record in its home country. In fact, Chilean authorities are considering a $23 million fine against the company for water pollution violations at its flagship copper mine.

There is simply no justification for Congress to rewrite the rules to make it easier for Antofagasta to mine on protected federal land.

But that’s exactly what Emmer’s proposed legislation does. 

It does away with required environmental reviews and wipes from the public record research that shows that mining could harm the Boundary Waters. It would allow Antofagasta to renew the expired 50-year-old leases in perpetuity, removing scientific safeguards, environmental considerations and public input from the process.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill waters down the landmark Antiquities Act, legislation that has protected national icons like the Grand Canyon, by requiring congressional approval for future protection decisions. This sets a dangerous precedent that will have consequences across our country.

In short, this proposal is a giveaway of public lands to private interests — with one of our nation’s last wild places as the collateral damage. That’s wrong.

Today, the Boundary Waters is the United States’ most-visited wilderness area. And these visitors, 250,000 annually, have helped stimulate a vibrant economy and created jobs in northern Minnesota. It is a model of sound conservation.

We should do no harm to this special place set aside for Americans of all ages to cherish and enjoy. That starts by stopping Emmer’s misguided proposal.

Rep. Betty McCollum represents Minnesota’s 4th District in the United States House of Representatives. Rep. McCollum serves as Ranking Member of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.