WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a DFLer, hasn't let his party affiliation stop him from pushing the Trump administration to reverse a late decision by the Obama administration blocking a proposed northeastern Minnesota copper mine that's raised concerns about proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Nolan met recently with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to seek support for renewing mining exploration leases for Twin Metals Minnesota. Nolan called the meeting "very good" in an interview and said the appointee of President Donald Trump "said he would give it the most serious consideration."

In December, the Agriculture and Interior departments — then still under the leadership of Obama appointees — declined to renew two mineral leases for Twin Metals Minnesota. Environmentalists celebrated the decision, fearing the proposed mine near Ely would pose too great a risk of contaminating the nearby Boundary Waters. Nolan also met this week with Sonny Perdue, the new secretary of agriculture.

"This is something that Minnesotans care about very, very deeply, and what we're asking is to take the time to look at the science and make sure we're making the correct decision on this entire watershed area," said Doug Niemela, national manager of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals Minnesota, owned by Chilean company Antofagasta, has already brought suit against the federal government over the decision, and Nolan also recently met with its chief executive to talk about the issue. Nolan helped pass the legislation establishing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the late 1970s. He said he's against mining in protected areas but noted that the original legislation had set aside areas for commercial use. He believes the denial of the leases contradicts that law.

He said if Twin Metals Minnesota is banned from even conducting mining exploration, it violates the environmental review process undertaken once a company proposes a project.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters believes that Nolan is interfering in a broader review that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are undertaking to determine whether to ban copper mining and exploration for the next two decades on more than 230,000 acres of federal land around the Boundary Waters.

Those agencies, which are part of the federal Interior and Agriculture departments, denied Twin Metals Minnesota's lease renewals and want to more closely study the environmental impacts of mining. They are accepting public comments until August.

Niemela said Nolan is sending the message: "Give them the leases. … We don't need to finish this study."

Nolan's support for Twin Metals Minnesota even drew unusual criticism from a fellow DFLer in Congress, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum. She said in a statement that the denial of the leases and the environmental review underway are essential to protecting "national treasures" like the watershed of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.

She said that sulfide-ore copper mining would destroy those areas and vowed to oppose any interference by the Trump administration into that review.

The Department of the Interior didn't respond to a request for comment this week. But Nolan noted that Zinke has advocated for mixed use on federal lands.

"Having said that, he's not willing to give anybody a free hand to do as they like," Nolan said.

As long as jobs are created and environmental protections are in place, Nolan said, mining should be allowed to go forward.

"As long as the world needs iron ore and precious metals for a whole wide range of purposes … we need to be open to both the exploration to see what we have and the consideration of projects once they've been proposed," Nolan said.

On Thursday, the Ely Timberjay called out Nolan in an editorial: "the congressman has lost perspective and puts an outstanding resource at risk," the paper wrote.

Gerald Tyler shares Nolan's view. He's president of Up North Jobs, which is also pushing for Twin Metals Minnesota's rights for mining exploration in northeast Minnesota. If the government finds that the company can't carry out a mining project in an environmentally friendly way, they should go elsewhere, he said. But it shouldn't act pre-emptively, according to Tyler.

"We up here are struggling with an economy that is so difficult I could spend an hour talking about it," he said.

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433