WASHINGTON – Two controversial measures from Minnesota congressmen, both of which would ease the way for mining expansion in northeastern Minnesota, have divided the state’s congressional delegation while spurring a broader environmental debate in the U.S. House.
The House on Tuesday passed legislation by DFL Rep. Rick Nolan that would finalize a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and PolyMet Mining. Nolan said his bill is key to advancing PolyMet’s proposed northeastern Minnesota copper-nickel mining project, with 6,690 acres of private land becoming public while 6,650 acres of contiguous forest and wetlands would fall under PolyMet’s control.
“This bill is a win for taxpayers, for the environment, and for good-paying jobs,” Nolan said. Other prominent DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, have supported Nolan’s proposal, although it does not currently have a companion bill in the U.S. Senate.
Nolan was adamant that his legislation would not enable mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, pointing out that any new mining project would still have to pass muster with state and federal regulators before proceeding. But environmentalists have warned that copper-nickel mining is more harmful to surrounding waters than the region’s existing taconite mines.
Preservation of the BWCA was also the subject of spirited debate Wednesday on the floor of the U.S. House, as Republican Rep. Tom Emmer defended his measure that would require congressional approval of any move by the federal government to withdraw government-owned land from mining. The measure comes nearly a year after the Obama administration refused to renew leases for Twin Metals to conduct copper-nickel mining near the BWCA.
“If this bill passes it will create an industrial wasteland,” said Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum.
Emmer denied that the legislation would harm the environment.
“We are protecting the Boundary Waters, we are protecting the Superior National Forest, and we believe both the economy, tourism and the environment can exist in northern Minnesota,” Emmer said.
He and supporters said that the plan would create 17,000 jobs and $3 billion a year for the economy. More than 50 members of the Minnesota Legislature support the measure, Emmer noted. His proposal also drew the backing of the Congressional Western Caucus. The chairman of the caucus, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, spoke out in favor of the bill. He visited northern Minnesota over the summer on a tour led by Nolan and Emmer.
“The Minnesotans that I visited want it done right,” Gosar said of mining in the area.
He argued forcefully on the House floor that any mining exploration would not happen in the Boundary Waters.
“This bill alters no current federal laws or protections,” Gosar said.
But Emmer’s fellow Minnesota Republican, Rep. Erik Paulsen, crossed party lines to join McCollum and Rep. Keith Ellison in opposing the measure. Ellison also spoke against it on the House floor.
“If this becomes law, Minnesota’s land and water would be singled out as not worthy of the exact same environmental review and protections that exist in every other state in the country,” Paulsen said.
The House had initially planned to vote on Emmer’s bill on Wednesday, but that was delayed until Thursday.