With the discovery of lucrative copper and nickel deposits underneath the Superior National Forest came a push by mining companies to creep closer than ever to the Boundary Waters.
Last December the U.S. Forest Service intervened, proposing a 20-year mining ban in areas adjacent to the BWCA, depending on the results of an environmental review that could take two years to complete.
The mining of sulfide-bearing rock could result in permanently stored waste upstream of the BWCA, "with the potential to generate and release water with elevated levels of acidity, metals, and other potential contaminants," the Forest Service explained.
Any failure to contain these contaminants "could lead to irreversible impacts upon natural resources."
Public comments on the plan ended August 17. Then the Forest Service was supposed to draft its environmental impact statement, which would inform Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke's final call.
But on Thursday, Minnesota Congressmen Tom Emmer (R) and Rick Nolan (D) proposed an amendment to the House's Interior-Environment appropriations bill that would totally defund the environmental study. It passed alongside a bundle of cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nolan is an Iron Range Democrat who grew up among miners, and claims to simultaneously support strong environmental protections. He once lamented that the Forest Service's study would unnecessarily delay job creation in the Iron Range because the agency "does not have unlimited resources, and subsequent [environmental reviews] would have to wait until personnel and funding were available."
Which he then cut.
Minnesota Congress members Erik Paulsen (R) and Betty McCollum (D) opposed the amendment and vowed to keep fighting it as it moves forward.
"The Trump and Obama administrations have both agreed that we need a thorough, science-based assessment of the best management of this sensitive ecosystem and conservation of our Boundary Waters," McCollum said on the House floor.
"The Emmer amendment upends this careful process. ... It intentionally ignores a public process that hundreds of thousands of Americans weighed in on, with comments on both sides of the issue. In my opinion, this amendment sets a horrible precedent, wastes taxpayer dollars already invested in the study, and threatens a national treasure. It should never become law."
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