House committee holds hearing on McCollum bill to block mining in wilderness watershed

Rep. Betty McCollum testifies in favor of H.R. 5598 at the subcommittee hearing on Feb. 5, 2020.

A hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday featured testimony for and against legislation proposed by Rep. Betty McCollum to prohibit most mining on Superior National Forest lands that drain into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources is chaired by bill co-sponsor Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California. It was the first stop on the bill’s path toward a vote in the House. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, H.R. 5598, was introduced in January. It would essentially accomplish through Congress what President Barack Obama attempted to do in the final days of his administration.

Obama initiated the process to withdraw the 234,000 acres of land from mining for two years, while the Forest Service conducted a study of whether or not the government should put a 20-year moratorium on any mineral development. President Donald Trump’s administration quickly overturned those actions, prompting extended legal and legislative battles.

Those moves were all debated during the two-hour hearing, including testimony from northern Minnesota residents, environmental advocates, and former Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell.


One mistake is too many

The hearing began with McCollum giving an opening statement from the witness table. She touted the benefits of the BWCAW to local communities, and its popularity for recreation.

“One mistake, one failure, one flaw, means that an environmental for this pristine highly-sensitive wilderness ecosystem could happen, and that would mean the death of this federally-protected wilderness,” McCollum said.

McCollum had to leave immediately after giving her statement because of duties as Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. Testimony from administration officials and several other wilderness advocates followed, with extensive questioning from the members of Congress.

In addition to the subcommittee members, Rep. Pete Stauber, a pro-mining Republican who represents northeastern Minnesota, and Rep. Tom Emmer, also a pro-mining Republican, were invited to sit at the dais and join in the hearing. Stauber quoted former Rep. James Oberstar, Governor Tim Walz, and Senator Amy Klobuchar in arguing that there is broad support for mining in Minnesota, and that the federal actions overrode the normal process for evaluating mine proposals.

“I am disappointed that members of my delegation introduced a bill that directly affects the livelihood of my constituents without providing me or my office any consultation whatsoever,” Stauber said. “The communities on the Iron Range are in desperate need of economic revitalization. There needs to be quality jobs available for folks to stick around after high school.”

Two administration officials also testified, with Chris French representing the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, and Leah Baker speaking for the Bureau of Land Management. They said reopening the region to mining was part of Trump’s plan to expand domestic mineral production and provide economic benefits.

“The administration supports the President’s vision to balance conservation strategies and polices with the need to produce minerals that add value to the lives of all Americans,” said French. “Domestic mineral production benefits the American economy by providing families with good paying jobs, businesses with economic opportunity, and manufacturers with raw materials that are produced at home, decreasing our reliance on foreign countries.”

A lack of transparency in the process, and involvement by industry but not other stakeholders, has been a key complaint about the Trump decisions. The day before the hearing, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness announced it was suing the BLM for documents related to its decisions.


Making mining decisions

One of the hearing’s featured witnesses was Tom Tidwell, an agency veteran who served in Obama’s administration and was involved with the decision to withdraw the area from mineral development. At the end of 2016, he revoked two federal mineral leases first issued in 1966 and today owned by Twin Metals, on arguments the leases were never supposed to be renewed indefinitely.

Tidwell spoke passionately about his duty to protect places like the northern Minnesota wilderness, which is both beloved and fragile.

“The Boundary Waters is both ecologically and culturally irreplaceable,” he said. “The very characteristics that make it so valuable also make it extremely susceptible to degradation and impossible to remediate should pollution occur.”

The copper mining industry’s track record of causing water pollution is why he sought to stop it from occurring upstream of the Boundary Waters. Tidwell compared the open public process that preceded his decision with the reversals by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and other current administration officials.

“During the period leading up to my December 14, 2016 decision to withhold consent to renewal of the leases, the Forest Service conducted a thorough scientific review, provided a 30-day comment period, and held two public meetings and numerous meetings with stakeholders, elected officials, and others,” he said. “In contrast, the process to reverse my decision and begin fast-tracking mining approvals has involved a complete lack of transparency and public input.”

Shortly after revoking the leases, Tidwell initiated the moratorium and withdrawal, and ordered the two-year study to examine a longer ban. During the public process leading up to that point, the agency received more than 180,000 comments from the public, with 98 percent supporting the withdrawal.

“This announcement was made 20 months into a 24-month study. The Department of Agriculture has thus far failed to share the results of this taxpayer-funded effort with the public or Congress,” Tidwell testified. “Moreover, while the Secretary of Agriculture asserted that the study had uncovered no new scientific evidence, in fact new scientific reports were submitted during the study.” He closed by pointing out that if the study truly found no new evidence of mining threats to the Boundary Waters, the government should release it to support its decisions.


Local voices

Two more witnesses brought two more opposing viewpoints. Wilderness guide, outfitter, and employer Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Co. spoke in favor of McCollum’s legislation, while trade union representative Jason George testified about the economic impact of mining.

George’s union includes Iron Range heavy equipment operators. He said the union’s members depend on the mining industry, and anticipate high numbers of new jobs if projects are approved. George urged the representatives to keep Congress out of the issue, and let the Twin Metals or other proposals in the affected area be decided on a case-by-case basis. “I am here to strongly oppose the passage of H.R. 5598 because I believe arbitrarily banning copper nickel mining activity in an area where mining is currently permitted will rob future generations of their chance at a good life and our local communities of their chance to thrive,” he said.

From the other side, Zabokrtsky’s business in Ely depends on the wilderness, attracting customers from across the United States and around the world. He said the beloved wilderness is only so popular today because of a century of advocacy and conservation.

“For more than 100 years, national leaders have recognized the vital importance of protecting the Boundary Waters,” Zabokrtsky said. “We are the beneficiaries of policies to prevent intrusive road development, hydroelectric dams, the drone of float planes, and logging and mining within the Wilderness boundaries.”

Zabokrtsky also pointed out several other people in attendance that depend on the wilderness for their livelihood, including Sue Schurke, co-owner of Wintergreen Northern Wear and Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, and Jack Lee of the Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS), which is located on the Kawishiwi River a short distance from Twin Metals’ proposed mine site. Zabokrtsky said mining was an existential question for the 56-year-old institution.

“Among the most powerful courses at VOBS are those serving military veterans, including the Forgotten Battalion of Afghanistan veterans who have endured trauma and high suicide rates since their return to the United States,” he said. “These veterans were specifically directed to the Boundary Waters because of the Boundary Waters’ unique, calming environment.” But, if Twin Metals goes forward, VOBS would be forced to close its doors, he testified.

“The Boundary Waters economy supports a diverse and growing business environment and in-migration of new residents seeking to live near the Boundary Waters and in the Superior National Forest region,” he said. “Sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would harm our local economy and cause the loss of businesses, jobs, residents and visitors.”

The anti-mining group Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters posted an online follow-up to the hearing correcting what it called “a number of red herrings and falsehoods from those opposed to H.R. 5598.”

No action was taken on the bill during the hearing. It faces a difficult path, ultimately needing Trump’s signature to overturn his own decisions.


Watch the entire hearing:


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