Rep. McCollum proposes bill to restrict mining near BWCA

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Saying she wants to protect "two special national treasures" in northern Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum said Tuesday she will introduce legislation to ban future copper and nickel mining in areas of the state that could end up contaminating waterways in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

Specifically, her bill would prevent mining companies from obtaining leases to mine copper, nickel and other metals on federal land within the Rainy River Drainage Basin, an 11,000-square-mile watershed that flows into the BWCA and Voyageurs.

The two areas, which together cover 1.3 million acres of federally protected land and waterways near the Canadian border, are among the most unspoiled in the state.

McCollum, a Democrat representing the 4th District, said the pristine water, which is a hallmark of the two areas, is under threat because of pollution that would be created by copper-nickel mining just outside the protected lands, but within the Rainy River basin.

The process of extracting those metals is different than the taconite mining that's been going on for decades on the Iron Range, because the copper and nickel are trapped inside sulfide-rich ore.

The mining process produces sulfuric acid, a pollutant that mining critics fear would drain into the Rainy River watershed and contaminate waterways in the BWCA and Voyageurs.

Two copper-nickel mining projects are in the works right now: PolyMet, which is proposing a mine near Hoyt Lakes, and Twin Metals, which currently has leases for a proposed site within the watershed. Neither one would be directly affected by the measure, according to the Star Tribune.

Nonetheless, Twin Metals issued a statement saying it "strongly opposes" McCollum's legislation, noting that the area contains "millions of acres of valuable state and federal minerals," MPR News reports.

“Twin Metals Minnesota is fully committed to protecting Minnesota’s wilderness, natural environment and recreational resources,” the company added, according to the Star Tribune.

Both PolyMet and Twin Metals say new technologies can provide much better protection against water pollution than was the case years ago, the Star Tribune notes.

A group called the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which opposes the mining projects, praised McCollum for introducing the legislation.

The bill, called the National Parks and Wilderness Waters Protection Act, has virtually no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress.

But McCollum said she also plans to lobby the Obama administration to take steps that would limit copper-nickel mining in the region.

Want to know more about copper-nickel mining? MPR News has this primer.

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