Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Northern Minnesota hosted a mining industry infomercial masquerading as a U.S. House field hearing last week.

Like those off-hours TV ads hawking miracle wrinkle creams, this congressional forum held Tuesday at a Mountain Iron-Buhl school consisted of hype and a hard sell. It offered a superficially rosy view of a type of mining that hasn't been done before in the state and has a dismal environmental track record.

The forum was also likely intended to generate support for troubling legislation just introduced in Congress to undermine sensible new safeguards protecting the state's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from copper mining pollution.

A 2019 Star Tribune Editorial Board special report, "Not this mine. Not this location," outlined the case for stronger safeguards, particularly as Chilean-based Antofagasta pushed to open a large underground copper mine outside the BWCA but within its watershed.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration enacted a 20-year "mineral withdrawal" on 225,000 acres to protect the watershed, effectively banning copper-nickel mining during that period. Congress should make this ban permanent, not weaken it. But the one-sided field hearing illustrated how challenging this will be given the mining industry's clout with key lawmakers.

Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing the state's Eighth District, led the hearing. He chairs an influential subcommittee on energy and mineral resources and brought a delegation of mining-friendly Republican House colleagues to Minnesota.

Three witnesses testified. One was a government relations official for Talon Metals, another firm seeking to open a copper-nickel-cobalt mine in Minnesota. The second was a geologist for the Big Rock Exploration consulting firm. The third was a small-business owner from Ely, Minn., who launched the "Fight for Mining Minnesota" Facebook group.

Not surprisingly, the discussion focused on the potential for new jobs and gauzy, unquestioned assurances about the safety of modern mining technology. But an informed debate must also include the trade-offs, which are considerable here. They include: risking irreparable harm to the BWCA's delicate waters and the potential loss of the thriving outfitters and other businesses dependent on visitors drawn to a pristine wilderness.

It's telling that Stauber's field hearing colleagues did not tour the proposed site for Antofagasta's Twin Metals mine near Ely. Such a visit would have made clear the project's alarming proximity to the shoreline of a lake draining into the BWCA. That wouldn't have fit the hearing's sunny mining narrative.

The hearing's focus on green energy demands for copper and other metals is understandable. At the same time, it should have been clearer that the new mining moratorium does not pre-empt all proposed copper mining in Minnesota. It does not affect Talon Metals or PolyMet, another proposed copper mine. Both lie outside the BWCA watershed and, if approved, would help meet metals demand.

The moratorium strikes middle ground in a mining debate that's too often all or nothing — either a total ban or mine everything — on both sides. That's a key reason Stauber's legislative efforts to overturn it are disappointing.

In response to an editorial writer, Stauber's spokesman said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland approved the moratorium without knowing that critical minerals — such as those needed for energy and defense technology — were included in the affected area. "Because of this admitted lack of knowledge, all options are on the table to overturn this withdrawal," the staffer said. (To read the full statement, go to tinyurl.com/FullStauberStatement.)

A search of the scientific report that guided federal decision-making on this matter offers a different perspective. It makes clear that there are critical minerals in the affected area. The report was a collaboration between Haaland's agency and the U.S. Forest Service. It's unlikely this critical decision was made with a "lack of knowledge."

The field hearing was a missed opportunity to further inform this long-simmering debate in Minnesota. But it did make one thing painfully clear: Stauber's priority is protecting powerful mining interests over the treasured wilderness within his home district.