McCollum bill sparks debate over copper-nickel

Jason George, business manager and financial secretary for IUOE Local 49, testifies in front of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Seven people representing Northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range, its unions and mining industry traveled to Washington, D.C. this week for a U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on a bill that directly targets copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota’s Fourth District, and it aims to permanently ban copper-nickel mining from more than 250,000 acres in the Superior National Forest that border the Boundary Waters.

H.R. 5598 was co-sponsored by 32 other representatives, including Republicans Francis Rooney of Florida, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Minnesota Reps. Dean Phillips and Ilhan Omar.

McCollum said said the Boundary Waters are too “unique and fragile” to have a copper-nickel mining project near it, citing potential damage to the wilderness area, the Rainy River Watershed, Voyageurs National Park and waters in Canada.

She said in her five-minute testimony to the committee, which was available through livestream, that the bill doesn’t target the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota underground mine near Ely, but dozens more prospecting requests near the watershed.

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

She was followed by Republican Eighth District Rep. Pete Stauber, who was joined at the hearing by the Range contingent consisting of: Democratic House 6B State Rep. Dave Lislegard, Jobs for Minnesotans Chair Nancy Norr, United Brotherhood of Carpenters representative Kyle Makarios, IUOE Local 49 representative Jason George, Mining Minnesota Executive Director Frank Ongaro and Twin Metals Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla.

Stauber invoked former Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar, who held the Eighth District seat for more than three decades, who urged former President Jimmy Carter not to sacrifice the “livelihoods, lifestyles and legitimate desires,” over outside interests, when speaking about the Boundary Waters.

He extolled the potential economic benefit of copper-nickel mining for the Range, a potential that could carry hundreds of direct jobs and hundreds of millions in economic impact if it’s built.

The land in question was the target of a 2016 executive order by the Obama administration, which sought a two-year moratorium on industrial activity in the Superior National Forest to study the impact of mining. That study was cut short by the Trump administration, which reinstated federal mineral leases for Twin Metals, prompting lawsuits from environmental groups.

Stauber told the committee that the bill authored by McCollum “insulted and disregarded” Range communities in need of an influx of jobs and activity, and expressed disappointment that his the Republican co-sponsors didn’t consult with his office before signing onto it.

“The communities on the Iron Range are in desperate need of economic revitalization,” he said in his testimony. “There needs to be quality jobs for folks to stick around after high school.”

Jason George, the business manager and financial secretary for the Local 49ers based in Minnesota, also testified in front of the committee. The union of heavy equipment operators and construction professionals represent workers in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, with about 4,000 residing in the Eighth Congressional District, many serving the region’s taconite mines.

Calling the bill frustrating, he added it would not allow residents in Northeastern Minnesota to decide the fate of the mine, and encouraged committee members to drive around the Range to see its support for copper-nickel mining, and not rely on polls that carry varying results.

“Many of my members owe their existence to the mining industry, and it’s a good living,” George said, noting their good wages, pension and healthcare benefits “I believe arbitrarily banning copper-nickel activity, in an area where mining is currently permitted, will rob future generations of these same opportunities.”

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