McCollum and Nolan feud over BWCA mining bill

DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in his Washington office, April 16, 2015. Brett Neely | MPR News

WASHINGTON — DFL U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum are at odds over a bill introduced by McCollum that would significantly affect the prospects of future mining operations in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, both located in the 8th District Nolan represents.

McCollum’s bill, which was introduced this week, would bar new federal mineral leases to companies interested in extracting copper, nickel and other metals from sulfide ore within the surrounding Rainy River Drainage Basin that flows into both the BWCA and Voyageurs.

In an interview, Nolan was sharply critical of the bill, which comes as taconite mining operations on the Iron Range are closing and laying off workers due to falling global steel prices.

“It has the potential to put at least four of our iron ore mining companies out of business and prevent any mining from going forward in the future,” said Nolan.

McCollum vigorously disputed that characterization, noting that her legislation only applied to sulfide mining and not gravel, sand or granite mining. Nolan’s office argues that the bill as written does not provide a similar exemption for iron ore operations and would impose a heavy regulatory burden on the industry.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum in her office, April 16, 2015.  Brett Neely | MPR News

“I’m not shutting down any current mining,” said McCollum, who is the top Democrat on the Interior Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over parks and federal land.

This isn’t the first time McCollum has taken on other Democrats in the congressional delegation over an environmental issue. In 2011 and 2012, she sought to block plans pushed by DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to build a new bridge over the St. Croix River, a struggle McCollum eventually lost.

To some extent, the debate between the two is moot. The GOP-controlled Congress is extremely unlikely to take up or pass legislation imposing tougher environmental standards on mining.

“This bill is an uphill battle, but there are lots of things we do in Congress to start conversations, to lay down markers,” said McCollum.

There’s also a parochial undercurrent to the debate between Nolan and McCollum.

Nolan said that some of his constituents had jokingly suggested he introduce legislation to require a 50-foot barrier around buildings and parking lots in the Twin Cities.

  • cama1

    Rep. Nolan represents mining companies and his own interests. He does not represent the majority of people who live in northeastern Minnesota, only those promoting sulfide mining; the rest of us have no representation.

    Living in the U.S. adjacent to the Canadian border does not make one a resident of Canada, any more than sulfide mining projects proposed adjacent to the Iron Range would place a sulfide mine on the Range. The mining area that Congresswoman McCollum’s bill is referring to is in the Duluth Complex, never mined, and it is not part of the Iron Range where taconite is being mined. The Duluth Complex is an entirely different ore body, in an area where the waters of the Rainy River Watershed flow directly into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the waters of the Lake Superior Watershed flow to Lake Superior. 

    And in the case of Rep. McCollum’s bill, being adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness does make a difference because water pollution has no boundaries; it seeks and finds every fault and fracture, every conduit to our aquifers. Rep. McCollum’s bill has nothing to do with the so-called Iron Range; it has everything to do with a proposed toxic sulfide mining range a quarter mile from the BWCAW. When the BWCAW was established no one said it was okay for any industry outside its boundaries to pollute its waters. 

    We already know that sulfide mining will pollute our waters; the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet polymetallic sulfide mine in Lake Superior’s Watershed repeatedly told us so; but Representatives Nolan, Klobuchar, and Franken refuse to acknowledge the facts. Evidently they have not read PolyMet’s SDEIS, or done any research of their own, or they simply don’t care about the health and economic costs to the rest of us who depend on our clean water environment. All sulfide-mining operations in water intensive areas such as ours have polluted. Yet our legislators just keep repeating the mindless refrain that Minnesota has a permitting process in place, and that there are regulations that protect our waters. Our legislators are being significantly less than candid.

    Minnesota’s taconite mines are on their way out regardless of steel prices; ultimately nothing will be responsible for shutting taconite down but the product itself. The real issue no one is talking about is that taconite can no longer compete with high quality iron coming onto the market from Australia, Brazil, Russia, and Africa. In order to produce ‘cost-effective’ taconite, Minnesota’s waters have taken a hit for decades because our agencies have said it was not “economically feasible” for taconite operations to stop polluting. Not one taconite operation meets air and/or water quality standards in Minnesota; operating under expired permits, variances, amendments, or consent decrees courtesy of our agencies, ensuring the industry doesn’t have to obey the law or clean up its mess – so much for “process” and “regulations” in Minnesota.

    Minnesota already has all it can do to rescue the St. Louis River and its estuary on Lake Superior from taconite mining’s legacy of contamination. Sulfide mining’s pollution would be for perpetuity. That’s right, “perpetuity.” It was the word used in the preliminary draft of PolyMet’s EIS, until it was changed to hundreds of years – without any end date.

    Proposed sulfide mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageur’s National Park would be no different than PolyMet. Massive polluters. Forever. In PolyMet’s case, likely the unrecoverable tipping point for the St. Louis River.

    Northeastern Minnesota deserves better. It would be great if our representatives actually represented us; instead of protecting and shoring up an industry we now know is water destructive and not economically feasible unless it pollutes Minnesota’s most valuable natural resource, its waters. Case in point, Minntac, with multiple violations, has been told it can expand, adding more contaminants to an already unsolvable pollution problem. Has anyone bothered to determine the extent of contamination plumes under Minntac’s tailings basin? PolyMet’s? Minnesota’s groundwater non-degradation laws are being ignored.

    Since the article brought it up, the St. Croix River Bridge was another sell-out of the people and our laws (National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act) by Sen. Klobuchar and then Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. The St. Croix River is the only river in Minnesota given such federal designation and protection, but it didn’t matter to Bachmann and Klobuchar. We all have heard how Bachmann allegedly operated while in office; makes one wonder about Klobuchar’s incentive to support Bachmann’s boondoggle bridge plan.

    Minnesota’s elected representatives, not protecting Minnesota’s waters.

    Nolan, who makes inane remarks about constituents who joke about “requiring a 50-foot barrier around buildings and parking lots in the Twin Cities,” as if concrete and tar are equivalent to our water-rich landscape where toxic contaminants go with the flow, where no barrier will contain them for perpetuity. I don’t know which is more limited, the intelligence of the “constituents” or the legislator who finds it funny. Protecting our waters is no laughing matter to most Minnesotans.

  • dan iverson

    Congresswoman McCollum and Rebecca Otto have courageously decided to risk their political fortunes by defending Minnesota’s most precious resource, our pristine waters from powerful mining interests. And, i know that most Minnesotan’s would also lend their voice in their support if they knew the tragic outcomes of copper nickel mining everywhere, including Ladysmith, Wisconsin. A moratorium on copper nickel mining was enacted shortly after it’s closure.Mount Polly recently in British Columbia suffered a catastrophic failure of it’s holding basin.The fact is the United States has plenty of copper. The lions share of our recycled copper and a fair amount of our mined copper is sold to China or the highest bidder.Look to California, the southwest, Africa,Asia,India and even southwestern Minnesota to see just how valuable clean water is to an economy. And cleaning up poisoned water in the volumes anticipated is a fools errand. No, the future of Minnesota should not depend on a few noble representatives but on all of us.