By Beth Bily
In 2012, same-sex marriage appeared front and center in election campaigns – and candidates on both sides of the issue were eager to energize their base on the controversy. This election season – at least in Minnesota – the so-called hot button topic may well be support for or opposition to mining.
Iron mining in recent years has expanded and morphed into new ventures, such as Grand Rapids-based Magnetation – a company founded in 2007 that extracts iron concentrates from old tailings basins – and Essar Steel Minnesota, which plans to revive mining operations at the old Butler site near Nashwauk. Both projects have moved forward with little noticeable public opposition.
But there’s a new wave of mining expansion poised to begin operations on Minnesota’s Iron Range – non-ferrous, or precious metals, mining. Discussions around this next-generation mining industry have become increasingly polarized and contentious.
It’s an issue that not only impacts residents who live near and may someday work for proposed non-ferrous operations but also for political candidates. With state and federal elections slated for fall, it seems likely that where a candidate stands on the issue may well have an impact on his or her political fate.
Non-ferrous mining has been on the drawing board for economic developers and mining companies alike for more than a decade. Proposals from about a dozen companies, including PolyMet and Twin Metals, would develop non-ferrous mining in the Duluth Complex, identified as one of the world’s richest deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals.
A University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School study estimated the economic potential of non-ferrous mining at $320 million in direct and indirect economic impact with the potential to create 1,900 jobs.
Economic impact arguments hold little sway with environmentalists. Groups such as the Friends of the Boundary Waters have branded non-ferrous mining as sulfide mining because precious metals are bound to sulfides, which also are unearthed in the extraction process. When combined with air and water, sulfides can create sulfuric acid – the main culprit in the phenomenon known as acid mine drainage.
Pro-mining groups counter environmental concerns, saying that regulatory requirements will adequately protect the environment.
“We’ve got a solid regulatory standard in place in Minnesota,” said Frank Ongaro, president of Mining Minnesota, a group formed with the goal of moving non-ferrous mining projects forward.
Environmental activists, as well as pro-mining forces, have come in large numbers to public meetings held both in this region and the Twin Cities. Three such meetings, which were to provide public comment opportunities following the release of PolyMet’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Statement , held this past winter drew attendance into the thousands.
Regulatory officials are expected to issue a statement on the adequacy of PolyMet’s SDEIS in the next few months. The outcome, however, isn’t expected to have much impact on where people stand on the issue – and the discussion has become decidedly political.
Recent political events around the issue include:
• In a move early this year, the St. Louis County Unit of the Third Senate District’s DFL Executive Committee announced opposition to non-ferrous mining – a position not shared by any of the Iron Range Delegation DFLers.
• When Minnesota Auditor Rebecca Otto cast a lone Executive Council opposition vote to non-ferrous exploration late last fall, the result on the Range was swift – Dump Otto signs popped up immediately and several Range DFLers distanced themselves from her 2014 re-election campaign.
• In late June, St. Louis County commissioners passed a resolution 6-0 opposing PEIS (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement) mandates in the Superior National Forest, which pro-mining advocates contend is an unnecessary layer of regulation environmentalists are attempting to employ to delay non-ferrous mining projects.
Republicans, who generally lose by big margins to DFL competitors on the Iron Range, seemed to recognize an opening. In the immediate aftermath of splits within the ranks of statewide DFLers on the mining issue, Republican candidates organized a tour of the Iron Range declaring that they were “100 percent in favor of mining.”
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam, is chair of the Iron Range delegation. He acknowledges that the issue has become a hot topic but thinks the impact on elections will be seen statewide and in the Eighth District Congressional race more than locally, where eight of eight in the delegation support permitting PolyMet.
“The Republican Party and candidates in Minnesota have decided that (non-ferrous) mining can be an issue that allows them to get a chunk of the northeast Minnesota vote,” said Anzelc. “They are opposed to the very processes put in place to ensure mining will be done in a responsible way. Our delegation doesn’t see it that way. We are perplexed by people, even in our own party, who have added to the polarization of the issue.”
Aaron Brown, Hibbing Community College instructor and Iron Range political pundit, was sharply critical of those who seek to make mining a litmus test in upcoming elections. The issue is far more complex than being “for” or “against” mining, he said.
Brown contends that while the Eighth Congressional District has had three representatives in the last five years – James Oberstar, Chip Cravaack and Rick Nolan – little has changed in the regulatory process required for non-ferrous mining developments. He added that the divisiveness of the issue doesn’t help local Iron Range small towns facing an economic future deeply in need of diversification.
“I don’t see how any of this debate serves the communities of the Iron Range,” said Brown. “We’re being played by a handful of (special interest) lawyers who’ve framed this as an issue that will save the Iron Range or destroy it.”
Further east from Brown, however, this new hot-button issue seems to be a welcome debate – at least by local media.
Virginia’s Mesabi Daily News has written a number of articles and opinion pieces on local, state and federal political candidates – gauging their respective positions on the non-ferrous mining issue.
In a June editorial, the Mesabi Daily News headlines Otto’s October 2013 position as “One of the all-time dumbest votes.”
The newspaper went on to say: “That now leaves Nolan, Dayton and Franken in a political tightrope position on the Range … If they all get burned politically in some way on this it’s their own fault for blindly endorsing a state auditor who is clearly anti-copper/nickel/precious metals mining … After all, we are fighting for our very way of life and livelihood in the future, not for Auditor Otto and her followers’ misdirected, narrow-minded, selfish and hypocritical cause.”