REGIONAL— Rep. Rick Nolan, a northeastern Minnesota Democrat, has found common ground with some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress over his efforts to block a two-year study of a …
REGIONAL— Rep. Rick Nolan, a northeastern Minnesota Democrat, has found common ground with some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress over his efforts to block a two-year study of a proposed withdrawal of about 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from the federal minerals leasing program.
On Monday, Nolan led three GOP members of Congress on a tour of Iron Range taconite plants and on a visit to the site of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Minnesota Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar joined Nolan as part of the fact-finding delegation. Gosar, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, is among a handful of mostly western members of Congress working to hand over large tracts of federal lands to states and counties in the West to further oil, gas, and mineral extraction. According to the Congressmen, Monday’s visit was part of an effort to return “local control” over mining decisions on the Superior National Forest. Nolan said he has a meeting planned soon with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, to urge him to reverse the Obama era decisions.
The congressional visit was part of Nolan’s ongoing campaign to overturn decisions made late in the Obama administration that terminated two critical mineral leases for Twin Metals as well as proposed a 20-year mineral withdrawal within a major watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Rep. Gosar, who drew national attention in 2015 for boycotting Pope Francis’s speech to Congress over the pope’s views on climate change, called the proposed mineral withdrawal part of the Obama administration’s “war” on mining. “The Obama Administration attempted to decimate a crucial component of the Minnesota economy and wreaked havoc on the public education system in the state,” said Gosar. “When more than 17,000 jobs and billions of dollars in revenue are at stake, legacy building at the expense of our children’s future and education is simply unacceptable.”
The cancellation of the two mineral leases is currently the subject of a lawsuit by Twin Metals, which argues that the federal government has no discretion over renewal of the leases. The most recent leases expired in 2013 and Twin Metals had applied at the time for renewal of the leases, which are critical to their mining proposal. The Trump Justice Department recently filed a motion to dismiss Twin Metals’ lawsuit, suggesting that the administration has decided not to reverse course on the leases.
In congressional comments last month, Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell indicated that they intend to move forward with the two-year study of a possible 20-year moratorium on new mineral leasing in that portion of the Superior National Forest. Just last week, the Forest Service had announced additional public meetings as part of the scoping process for that study.
Nolan, however, is urging top Trump officials to halt the study and reverse any talk of a possible moratorium.
“We should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions,” said Nolan during his visit to the region on Monday. “We must allow mining initiatives to proceed through the proper, rigorous and thorough environmental review process – using science, facts and technology to guide our review of actual projects and environmental technology.”
Opponents of the Twin Metals mine have taken strong exception to Nolan’s recent actions, and were dismissive of his latest foray into the region in a statement issued Tuesday. “Rep. Nolan can’t find enough people in Minnesota who support threatening our pristine Boundary Waters with dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining, so he brought in hired guns with an extreme anti-public lands agenda,” said Jason Zabokrtsky, an Ely area outfitter and co-chair of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “The efforts of Reps. Nolan and Emmer to end the ongoing environmental review process in favor of the interests of a foreign mining company are an affront to Minnesota values. We urge them to rethink their priorities and join the large majority of Minnesotans who support the responsible environmental review process already underway.”
This week’s visit was just Nolan’s latest attempt to convince the Trump administration to reverse course on the Twin Metals project. In April, he met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to renew the mineral leases and end the study of the potential environmental risks associated with the proposed mining project.
Forest Service cites concerns
In rejecting the renewal of mineral leases in December, the Forest Service concluded that the mine, which would be located along the South Kawishiwi River, would pose a significant threat to the water quality of a large portion of the 1.1-million acre BWCAW. In the agency’s record of decision, Forest Service officials stated that the risks associated with sulfide-based mining are well-known and difficult to contain, particularly in a region with complex hydrogeology, such as in northeastern Minnesota. “The likelihood of these ore bodies being exposed to water is very high, and given these particular ore bodies’ composition, resulting drainage from the mine workings and mining wastes are likely to be highly acidic,” concluded the Forest Service in moving to block lease renewal. “Because of the hydrology and hydrogeology of this particular area, should contamination occur, it could cover a very broad region.”
Forest Service officials also noted that a portion of one of the two federal mineral leases overlaps with a state-enacted mining buffer zone established by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1991 to provide further protection to water quality in the wilderness. The DNR prohibits the issuance of state mineral leases or mining development within the buffer zone, putting Twin Metals’ former federal leases in conflict with state directives.