In the years before WW2, it could be said that each batch of steel smelted in the U.S. contained at least some Minnesota ore. It was the result of a geological anomaly: the high-quality ore contained an extra molecule of oxygen that made it smelt hotter. At that time, Minnesota’s Iron Range, along the Lake Superior shore north and west of Duluth, helped make the steel that built America. During its peak in the 1970s, mines seeking iron and other minerals employed 15,000 people. Today, fewer than 5,000 work there. New investment at the proposed Twin Metals mine could offer economic revitalization to an area that has struggled to find new jobs. However, politicians at the state and local level are struggling to balance environmental and economic concerns.
North of Duluth, the Superior National Forest covers 240,000 acres of crystal clear lakes and fresh pine forest. Underneath the landscape are deposits of nickle, copper, and other metals worth an estimated $300 billion, one of the most valuable deposits in the U.S.
In December, during the final days of the Obama administration, the National Forest Service, which manages the land, called for a potential 20-year ban on mining on national forest land within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The announcement reversed nearly 50 years of precedent by denying the renewal of mineral exploration leases that had been held by several companies, including Twin Metals, for years.
Under the terms of the leases, no mines were yet in operation, but the companies retained the right to research the area and consider future projects. In its decision, the Forest Service said that mining posed too great a risk to the area watershed to even be considered and began taking additional action to prevent mining expansion in areas outside of the National Forest.
This expansion of federal power has earned the ire of some of Minnesota’s congressional delegation. Earlier this summer, the change earned the bipartisan Congressional scrutiny of Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.). Gosar is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, while Westerman serves both on that committee and on the Federal Lands Subcommittee.
All of them view the mining ban as a gross overreach of federal authority and are committed to working to roll back the move at the federal level. On the state level, the Twin Metals mine is the subject of additional controversy, this time between the Range and the Twin Cities.
“The point I am trying to make to my fellow Minnesotans is that my actions on this issue will not only protect the potential of thousands of jobs as well as the local economies of many small towns on the Iron Range, but also will leave intact an extensive environmental process that will protect and preserve our beloved Boundary Waters,” wrote Emmer in an op-ed published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Wednesday.
“This is about Minnesota’s right to these mineral leases promised by our federal government decades ago when the Boundary Waters were set aside and preserved.”
Minnesota Democratic Governor Mark Dayton opposes the project, saying that the new mine might be the exception to his belief that strong environmental protection and economic development are complementary.
“I believe that we don’t have the right to endanger the BWCA’s essential integrity as a pristine natural preserve, for any price, even important jobs,” he told the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board’s Environmental Congress in February.
At this stage, no mine has been proposed, let alone planned or permitted. Instead, Twin Metals seeks permission to submit a plan to be vetted for environmental compliance. Overturning the federal ban would be just the start of a lengthy approval process. The PolyMet mine, proposed for about 20 miles south of the Twin Metals mine and outside of the BWCA watershed, has spent 10 years passing through the permitting process before the state signed off on the final environmental study in March.
The local area welcomes the project, which would provide a long-term economic boost to part of the state that has struggled with unemployment and low wages. In mid-July, a coalition of unions, chambers of commerce, schools, and mining companies took out a full page ad expressing their frustration with a regulatory process that seemed more focused on St. Paul than the Iron Range. They threatened to boycott a meeting held in St. Paul, hoping that their absence would speak more loudly, and attend a meeting in Northern Minnesota instead.
“We’re fed up with jumping through federal hoops, burning gas, vacation days and family time to sit through your endless, taxpayer-funded meetings,” the letter stated. “It’s death by a thousand cuts. If you want to have a meaningful conversation about our region, our lands, waters or minerals, you’ll hear from us loud and clear at the last public hearing in Virginia, Minnesota, on July 25.”
Hundreds of people turned out for the meeting, filling a high school auditorium to give their comments in favor of mining in the area after attending a rally in a nearby park. The setting itself was significant. Mining is critical not only to the economy of the region but also to area communities. Schools in the area are funded in part by a production tax on the mines.
“If the mines are running at full capacity, schools receive funding based on the amount of minerals produced from the mines. However, when the mines are struggling, the production is low and schools see a reduction in revenue. Therefore, school districts have to make up the difference by taxing homeowners and businesses at a higher rate or by going without,” Mesabi East Superintendent Gregg Allen told an area paper.
Supporters of the mine stress that mining would not occur in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a 1,090,000-acre near-wilderness recreation area within the National Forest. In addition, the mining exploration would occur outside of the Rainy River watershed, which offers some reassurance to environmentalists fearing water contamination.
The issue exposes an interesting political split. In Minnesota, the Democratic Party is organized as the Democrat-Farm-Labor Party, generally called the DFL. The name reflects the alliance of union workers and farmers who formed the historical backbone of the party. Although the Iron Range consistently votes for Democratic representatives, the area has not embraced the environmentalism that is playing a larger role in the Democratic Party platform. As the letter showed, Gov. Dayton is facing opposition from area unions as well.