WASHINGTON – A proposal to add mining restrictions to federal lands in northeastern Minnesota is pitting Rep. Betty McCollum against her fellow Democrats in the delegation — including both senators and the congressman who represents the area.
McCollum, an eight-term congresswoman who represents St. Paul, says she wants to protect federal lands and their nearby pristine waters from proposed sulfide-ore mining.
But others, like Rep. Rick Nolan, whose Eighth Congressional District includes the federally protected Boundary Waters, say McCollum’s proposal goes too far and could hurt a region already suffering economically.
At issue is the Rainy River Drainage Basin, a broad swath of land hugging the beaches of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Besides those federal lands, the basin is home to four taconite mining operations, according to Nolan and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
McCollum said her legislation, which tacks on additional rules about mining in the basin, should apply only to federal lands.
But others say her proposal is broad enough to hurt existing operations in the area.
The dispute blew up on Tuesday, and McCollum attempted to assuage concerns by adding some language to the bill she introduced last week. She created a specific exemption for taconite mines and made clear the restrictions would apply only to federal lands within the Rainy River Basin rather than the entire area, which includes private property.
McCollum called the words “comfort language” for “people making excuses” not to support the legislation. She said the intent of the bill remains the same.
“The language wasn’t necessary,” she said. “This was a properly drafted bill. What we heard was excuses that people didn’t think it was clear enough. There are no more excuses. … It doesn’t change the substance of the bill one iota. This is to put to rest any excuses for individuals who want to interpret this bill in other than clear, plain language.”
Nolan has been railing against McCollum’s bill for a week, saying that in its original form it had the potential to put at least four iron ore mining companies out of business.
“Her concern is for protecting the Voyageurs and Boundary Waters Canoe Area; we’re all on board with her on that,” Nolan said. “But I think she’s been persuaded to do this by some forces that are just anti-mining.”
Nolan’s office said Tuesday he will need to review her additional language before commenting.
Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also issued statements opposing McCollum’s bill. Franken said he doesn’t think “we need new legislation to pre-empt the process that we have in place.”
Times have been tough on the Iron Range. Roughly 1,100 people have been laid off or soon will be, after U.S. Steel announced plans to idle two plants and Magnetation idled a plant on April 7.
McCollum’s proposal feels like salt in the wound, said Tom Rukavina, a St. Louis County commissioner and former state legislator representing northern Minnesota.
“It’s totally unnecessary,” Rukavina said. “We had a long fight over the Boundary Waters up here and, quite frankly, I was on the side of the Boundary Waters when I was a young, idealistic, environmentalist hippie. But the fact is, you can only give up so much.”
Even though the bill has an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled House, McCollum said she wanted to start the conversation about future ore operations polluting federal waters.
She noted she has a lot of support “from tens of thousands of people back home, lots of phone calls. People are very excited that I’m doing this.”