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Wilderness supporters rally against Nolan for pro-copper stance

Supporters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness protest Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in front of the Technology Village in downtown Duluth, which houses U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s Duluth office, against the congressman’s support for copper mining near the federal wilderness. Samantha Erkkila / Forum News Service

DULUTH -- Supporters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness protested in front of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s Duluth office Thursday, Feb. 2, against the congressman’s support for copper mining near the federal wilderness.

About 100 people packed the entryway outside the Technology Village downtown to voice their opposition to Nolan’s pro-copper position.

Nolan in recent weeks has urged the new Trump administration to overturn an 11th hour move by the Obama administration to ban minerals exploration in areas adjacent to the BWCAW.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co., said Nolan’s stand on the issue “is just plain wrong for Minnesota.” He said the livelihoods of thousands of Northeastern Minnesota residents who depend on tourism-related jobs is threatened by copper mining pollution if Nolan’s stand prevails.

“This is the most toxic industry in America and they want to put it on the edge of the most visited wilderness area in America,’’ Zabokrtsky said. “I’m not anti-mining. But this is the wrong place to do this kind of mining.”

The Forest Service mining and exploration ban impacts about 235,000 acres in the Superior National Forest and would prohibit further work on the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine along the Kawishiwi River southeast of Ely.

The mine would be adjacent to the wilderness, and water near the mine flows into the BWCAW. Copper mining critics say any risk of acid-mine drainage into the BWCAW watershed is too much.

The Forest Service decision also includes an ecological study and a two-year and potentially 20-year timeout on mining in the area.

While the Forest Service said the BWCAW watershed may be too sensitive to withstand any potential pollution from a copper mine, Nolan says exploration should continue and that the Twin Metals proposals should get a chance to go through formal environmental review.

Earlier this week Nolan sent a letter to federal officials in the Trump administration asking that they overturn the earlier prohibition. Nolan’s letter went to acting Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dan Jiron of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The earlier decision can be undone with a simple agency order.

Nolan was not in the Duluth office, but Jeff Anderson, Nolan’s district director in Duluth, met with protesters Thursday and read a letter from Nolan noting that the congressman was one of the original authors of the legislation creating the current BWCAW in 1978.

“I am forever committed to protecting the BWCAW,’’ Nolan wrote in the letter. But “I support responsible mining.”

Nolan said the Forest Service decision was premature because no formal proposal has been submitted and no formal environmental review has been conducted on Twin Metals or any other plan within the area impacted by the agency decision.

Nolan, DFL-Crosby, who represents Northeastern Minnesota’s mining region, is at odds with some others in his own party on the issue. Both Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum say they support the Forest Service decision to keep mining away from the BWCAW.