The six Ojibwe bands forming the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have come together for the first time ever to publicly support a bill to ban copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters.

On Jan. 31, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe President Cathy Chavers, the chairwoman for the Bois Forte Band, signed a letter addressed to a trio of Democratic members of Congress in support of H.R. 5598, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents the Fourth Congressional District in Minnesota, would permanently ban new copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest, in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

The letter specifically references Twin Metals Minnesota, a company owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, which has spent about a decade preparing to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. “The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is concerned with the prospect of a series of sulfide mines being developed in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed,” Chavers writers in the letter obtained by the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Friday. The watershed of the Boundary Waters, in the 1854 Ceded Territory, “is comprised of vast area of pristine interconnected waterways that have been used by the Chippewa for centuries” and “low buffering capacity of water and soil and the interconnection of lakes and streams, make the BWCA watershed particularly vulnerable to the impacts of mining.”

As first reported by The Timberjay, the letter expresses support for McCollum’s bill which was heard in a congressional hearing this past Wednesday in front of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee in Washington D.C. If passed, the measure would expand the “mining buffer zone around the Boundary Waters by an additional 234,000 acres” and essentially stop copper-nickel mining on the lands. It would not prevent iron ore, taconite, gravel or granite projects.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe addressed the letter to McCollum, who chairs the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, in addition to Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and California Congressman Alan Lowenthal, the chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

In the letter presented to Congress, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe cites possible impacts that the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine could have on fish and wild rice in northeast Minnesota.

“As former US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell stated, sulfide-ore copper mining has the potential to permanently destroy the pure waters and intact forests in the area of the proposed Twin Metals mine. The fish in adjacent waters — Birch Lake, the South Kawishiwi River and downstream water bodies — are subject to consumption advisories designated by the Minnesota Department of Health because of mercury in their flesh. Sulfide-ore copper mining will increase the amount of mercury in the fish, a toxin of great concern to our members who depend on wild caught fish for their sustenance. Wild rice and terrestrial species will also be at risk, as pollution and habitat destruction will have wide reaching impacts.”

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is comprised of about 41,000 members of six bands: Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth. The Fond du Lac and Grand Portage tribes have publicly challenged proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the state, The Timberjay noted. But the Bois Forte, with about 3,500 enrolled members, has not publicly announced its opinion on copper-nickel projects that could affect the 700 members residing across three sections of the nearby reservation in Deer Creek, Nett Lake and Tower.

Regional tribal leaders say the letter carries importance since it marks the first time the Bois Forte is publicly taking a stance on copper-nickel mining, specifically the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota project that neighbors tribal land.

The HDT reached out to Chavers and the officials at the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for comment, but did not receive a reply as of press time on Friday night.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents the Eighth Congressional District in northeast Minnesota, spoke out against McCollum’s bill during his pro-mining rally at the Carpenters Union Hall in Virginia. "I am tired of the Iron Range having to endure these attacks on our way of life,” he said, according to reporting from Minnesota Public Radio. He promised his supporters that he would “fight this week in Congress like I've never fought before, against this legislation.”

Speaking at the congressional hearing on Wednesday, Stauber read a letter that Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, the late Democrat from Chisholm, penned to President Jimmy Carter in 1978. “I urge you not to trade off lifestyles, livelihoods and legitimate desires of the people of northeastern Minnesota for equitable treatment in favor of the vague and ill-defined interests of other, perhaps more clamorous constituencies far removed from the BWCA.”

Stauber and Iron Range based state legislators in support of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine have long opined that McCollum is “far removed” from being in-the-know of the needs of northeast Minnesotans. In the letter from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Chavers noted that “three MCT Bands, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte, retain hunting, fishing and other usufructuary rights that extend throughout the entire northeast portion of the state of Minnesota under the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe.” She added, “In the Ceded Territory, all the Bands have a legal interest in protecting natural resources and all federal agencies share in the federal government's trust responsibility to the Bands to maintain those treaty resources.”

Also at the congressional hearing, Stauber received verbal backing from U.S Rep. Tom Emmer, a fellow Republican who represents the Sixth District in Minnesota, along with members of the GOP in Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, a ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman.

In his own words, Stauber addressed the subcommittee, “Therefore, I am disappointed that members of my delegation introduced a bill that directly affects the livelihood of my constituents without providing me or my office any consultation whatsoever,” he said in a statement to the HDT. “The communities on the Iron Range are in desperate need of economic revitalization. There needs to be quality jobs available for folks to stick around after high school.”

Twin Metals, Stauber continued, has signed a Project Labor Agreement with the Iron Range Building Trades, “promising high-wage, labor protected jobs.” He added, “Your bill would nullify this PLA, making it clear you believe my constituents are not worthy of high-wage, labor protected jobs.”

Previously, Twin Metals officials told the HDT that it expects to hire 700 people at an underground mine and create 1,400 indirect jobs. The company has submitted an operating plan to state and federal regulators for environmental reviews. But there remains no expected timeline for that to finish. PolyMet’s permitting process took nearly 15 years, and both projects remain in legal limbo.

In the letter, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe urged the subcommittee to move McCollum’s legislation forward as they explained that their opposition to copper-nickel mining resulted from trying to defend their “way of life,” a similar argument being used by Stauber and other pro-copper-nickel mining supporters.

“We are currently blessed with a healthy environment, a healthy economy and a public resource that offers sustenance and solace,” Chavers writes in the letter. “All of this is at risk if any mining proposal in the watershed moves forward. It is unacceptable to trade this precious landscape and our way of life to enrich foreign mining companies that will leave a legacy of degradation that will last forever.”

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