Last week the U.S. House passed legislation that would not only reopen the possibility of copper-nickel mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters but would hamstring the government’s ability to prevent that possibility. It should go no further.

The “MINER” act — sponsored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th Dist. — would reinstate two expired mineral licenses in the Superior National Forest that were held by Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. The Obama administration declined to extend those licenses, and instead initiated a lengthy environmental review of the effects of copper-nickel mining in that area. The bill would also squash that review.

But it goes further and prohibits the government from ever conducting such a review in Minnesota (and in Minnesota only) without specific congressional authorization.

It should be noted that, unlike the PolyMet debate, there is no specific mining proposal for the Twin Metal sites. The PolyMet mine, if it is approved, would be in a different watershed. Gov. Mark Dayton, who has made water quality a hallmark issue of his administration has endorsed the PolyMet proposal, but opposes the Twin Metals licenses.

Emmer’s bill — co-sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-7th Dist., whose sprawling district includes Sibley County — cleared the House by a slender 12 votes, and the state delegation split 4-4, more on geographic lines than partisan lines. Tim Walz, the DFLer who represents southern Minnesota’s 1st District and is running for governor, voted no.

Sen. Al Franken is already on record as favoring the Obama administration’s move to block the Twin Metals licenses. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been silent on the issue, and Emmer hopes to get her on board his legislation.

Mining has become a tricky issue for Minnesota’s Democrats, who typically rely both on votes from the Iron Range and from environmental activists. The demand for mining jobs and the need to protect our valued wilderness areas are increasingly in conflict, and the Emmer bill emphatically comes down in favor of the former. The needle should be threaded with more care and with less rigidity than it would establish.

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