WASHINGTON – Minnesota's congressional delegation, as well as its tourism and mining communities, split sharply Wednesday over Rep. Betty McCollum's bill to ban mining on more than 234,000 acres of federally owned wilderness near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the state's northeastern edge.

At a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, McCollum, a Democrat from St. Paul, argued that the potential threat of water pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining was not worth the risk to one of the country's natural wonders.

Her Republican colleague, Rep. Pete Stauber, whose district includes all of the land and water in question, criticized McCollum for not consulting him in drafting the bill, which he said would kill new high-paying mining jobs needed by his constituents.

"I am passionate about this hearing because this is our backyard," Stauber told witnesses and subcommittee members. "This is not just a playground for a few. This is our home, and we're not leaving."

Stauber and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota got permission to join the subcommittee, even though they are not members, in order to question witnesses. Both challenged the breadth and genesis of McCollum's bill. Emmer called the nature of its drafting "arrogance."

In a statement to the Star Tribune after the hearing, McCollum said, "As federal land that belongs to all Americans, the Superior National Forest and the [Boundary Waters] must be protected for future generations. … Why would I ever consult with Mr. Stauber or Mr. Emmer who are quite well known as champions of the toxic mining industry?"

Witnesses laid out the main issues the bill raises:

First, whether sulfide-ore copper mining is so likely to pollute the Boundary Waters that a general ban should supersede case-by-case reviews of individual requests by mining companies.

Second, whether pursuing policies that curtail the mining industry will ruin the economy in northeastern Minnesota.

Jason George, of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, said average pay in the tourism industry in northeastern Minnesota is roughly $18,700 per year, mostly without benefits. Union jobs in the mining industry pay an average of $60,000 per year and include health insurance and pensions, he said.

Still, those favoring the bill said a history of acid runoff at other sulfide-ore copper mines makes the scientific case for a ban. All 14 of the country's existing sulfide-ore copper mines have had accidental releases of acid water, said former U.S. Forest Service head Thomas Tidwell, and 13 of 14 could not contain "contaminated mine seepage."

Prohibiting mining on the 234,000 acres "is the right thing to do," said Tidwell, who recommended against renewing leases to Twin Metals, a Chilean-owned mining company, seeking to operate a sulfide-ore copper mine near the Boundary Waters.

The Trump administration reinstated the leases. The administration "supports the president's vision to balance conservation … with the need to produce minerals that add value to the lives of all Americans," Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French said.

Stauber and Emmer challenged the notion that mines cannot operate without polluting the Boundary Waters. Both men cited Minnesota's tough environmental laws.

"We will not compromise environmentally," Stauber said.

Emmer said McCollum's bill "relies on fear."

Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely is afraid of what will happen to his outfitting and guide business should the Boundary Waters become polluted.

"In addition to inevitable permanent damage to the Boundary Waters and downstream waters," Zabokrtsky said, "copper mining would harm our health, hurt our jobs and businesses, damage our property values and forever … negatively alter our way of life."

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432