The Potluck

U.S. House bill to protect Minnesota watershed advances

By: - July 14, 2022 12:49 pm

Photo by Christina MacGillivray/Minnesota Reformer

A key U.S. House committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from sulfide mining.

The Boundary Waters Protection and Pollution Prevention Act would permanently ban sulfide-ore copper mining on 225,378 acres of federal lands and waters in the Rainy River watershed. The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill 24-16.

The bill has a long way to go before becoming law, but it’s an important salvo in a long-running battle over mining in the Boundary Waters.

Federal protection of the area was considered in 2016 when the U.S. Forest Service first proposed a ban on mining for the area, but the process was halted by the Trump administration.

In October 2021, the Biden administration ordered an environmental analysis of the potential impacts of mining within the watershed. That same month, the Forest Service again proposed withdrawing the area from new mineral leasing.

Last month, the Forest Service and Department of Interior released a draft environmental assessment for a proposed 20-year ban — the maximum ban the agencies can implement — on sulfide-ore copper mining. 

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s 4th District, would make the sulfide mining ban permanent. It wouldn’t affect other types of mining like taconite mining. 

“Once damaged, it would be damaged forever,” McCollum said in a release, referring to potential impacts of an environmental catastrophe.  “Protecting this national treasure in perpetuity ensures it will never again be treated as a political pawn — and will instead remain a source of clean fresh water and respite, recreation, and resilience into the future” 

U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents Minnesota’s 8th District encompassing the area, voted against the bill. “We should be tapping into Minnesota’s vast mineral wealth for the critical minerals,” Stauber said. The bill “directly threatens our mining industry, our union workforce, and our communities’ livelihoods.”

Several environmental conservation organizations — including the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, the MN Center for Environmental Advocacy and the National Parks Conservation Association — support the bill.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. A Tennessee-native, she recently graduated from Northwestern University.