Prove It First bill and a Path to Permanent Protection

Superior National Forest waters. (Jim Brekke/Flickr)

Several legislators and advocacy groups announced efforts to prevent copper-nickel mining from polluting lakes, rivers, and groundwater in northern Minnesota. The moves include state and federal legislation, executive actions, and more.

The Prove It First bill in Minnesota is authored by newly-elected Duluth senator Jennifer McEwen (DFL). The legislation introduced on Jan. 14 would require mining companies to point to another mine that has operated and closed without polluting before being permitted in Minnesota.

Sen. Jen McEwen, Duluth

“We are not willing to serve as a test case for wealthy international corporations to come into our area with experimental projects that put our public health, economy, and future in danger,” McEwen said. “We are going to insist that they Prove it First.”

Proof of no pollution

The legislation is supported by a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Other members of the coalition include Honor the Earth, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and WaterLegacy. Boundary Waters outfitter Sawbill Canoe Outfitters is also listed as a supporter.

The organization also lists 18 Minnesota legislators who are deemed “champions” of the legislation. Additional Senate authors include Sens. Eaton, Dibble, Torres Ray, and Cwodzinski.

“The [DNR] commissioner may not issue a permit required to mine nonferrous sulfide ore unless the commissioner and the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency both determine, based on published, peer-reviewed scientific information and public records, that a mine for nonferrous sulfide ore has operated commercially for at least ten years and has been closed for at least ten years without resulting in a release of a hazardous substance, hazardous waste, or pollutant or contaminant,” the legislation reads.

The Prove It First legislation requires such an example to be located in the United States in a similar environment to the proposal, using similar reclamation techniques.

The bill also amends the mission of the DNR to not only promote mining, but only when “consistent with the state policy to protect clean air, clean water, and other natural resources.” It would have no impact on taconite or iron mining.

Copper mining industry association Mining Minnesota criticized the legislation.

“Simply put, this legislation is a desperate attempt by anti-mining groups to kill an industry,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, in a statement reported by Business North. “They oppose projects in environmental review. They oppose projects in permitting. And, when they are losing, they file lawsuits in the courts. These groups do not want to make projects better. They want to make sure they never happen.”

Path to protection

With Joe Biden set to take over as president in the week ahead, and Democrats taking control of the Senate, there is also ample action on the federal front, focused on the Boundary Waters.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is pushing a three-pronged approach to block Twin Metals or any other mine proposal in the 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest land that drains into the wilderness.

Rep. Betty McCollum introduced legislation to ban any mining in the wilderness watershed last January, though it did not get a vote in the House of Representatives. She pledged last week that she will soon reintroduce the bill in the new Congress.

Rep. Kelly Morrison

But at the same time, Minnesota legislators are introducing their own version of a watershed ban at the state level.

“The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is an incomparable and irreplaceable part of Minnesota’s outdoor heritage and legacy,” said legislative author Rep. Kelly Morrison of Deephaven. “It is a state and national treasure beloved by Minnesotans and Americans from across the country for its clean water, magnificent wildlife, and unmatched opportunities for year-round outdoor recreation. We have a duty to protect it for our children and future generations.”

The legislation has not been officially introduced yet, but will reportedly be co-authored by Rep. Jim Davnie, with a companion bill authored by Sen. Steve Cwodzinksi.

It’s all part of a “path to permanent protection” that Save the Boundary Waters is supporting. The group is also calling on the incoming Biden administration to resume the Forest Service study of potential impacts from mining on the wilderness that was begun in 2016. The study was cancelled by the Trump administration in 2018.

Mining proponents were critical of the watershed ban, as they were of the Prove It First legislation.

“Rep. McCollum’s proposal continues her desperate attempt to pre-emptively sidestep rigorous review processes already well established under federal and state statutes to determine the feasibility and safety of mining projects on public lands,” Mining Minnesota’s Ongaro said. “All mining projects in our state must undergo extensive environmental and feasibility studies. The statutes were enacted to assure a fair, predictable process built on scientific and technical evidence, not the shifting winds of politics.”

The legislation would also not impact taconite or iron mining, nor any mine proposals outside the Boundary Waters watershed.

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