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How could a Trump presidency affect mining?

A haul truck carrying more than 240 tons of taconite ore takes a load to the crusher in the Thunderbird Mine of United Taconite. (2014 file / News Tribune)

The election of Donald Trump as the United States’ next president has left some in the Northland wondering what comes next for the balance between environmental and mining interests.

Conservationists say that although it’s too early to know the exact policies that will come out of the Trump administration, they have concerns about the possibilities, while mining industry representatives say that companies will continue to follow regulations.

However, Tuesday’s election comes after two years of idled taconite mines and laidoff workers on the Iron Range due to the glut of foreign steel imports, and that uncertainty and frustration was seen at the ballot box at both the state and federal levels.

Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association, said the mining industry would be OK with either Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading the country, but it seemed like people’s anger came out in Tuesday’s election.

“The shutdowns didn’t help and then the general animosity towards mining has been really surprising,” Johnson said. “People say it’s geared just toward copper nickel mining, but copper nickel mining is still mining.”

There’s been too much rhetoric over mining — when miners are good at what they do and have been doing it on the Iron Range for more than a century, she said. “We have a duty because we have the history and we have the ability to be responsible. We have the duty to do it and do it well,” she added.

Johnson noted that the mining industry is lucky to have strong support from legislators, but it was unfortunate that veteran DFLers Sen. Tom Saxhaug and Rep. Tom Anzelc lost in their western Iron Range districts.

“I think it’s really a reflection of people’s frustration over a variety of different things, but I think that, especially as it applies to mining, the over-regulation of mining and this rulemaking process they use that we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks and months, and even years, has been a real detriment to our industry and they really throw our industry into, not necessarily turmoil, but it’s coming very fast, often without a lot of science behind it and isn’t necessarily helpful for the industry.”

Johnson explained that fewer regulations don’t necessarily make things easier for mining companies and that the mining industry is happy to meet and exceed regulations that are supported by science. Frank Ongara, executive director of Mining Minnesota, explained, “From an industry perspective, any project that demonstrates it can meet state and federal standards can move forward before the election and nothing changes after the election.”

However, Johnson said the concern comes when a regulation is based on an emotional stance rather than fact-based science. Constantly shifting regulations and processes make it difficult to do business, she said.

“More importantly, these regulations have implications on people’s jobs. It’s not a simple paperwork thing. This actually has implications on how people are able to work, and I think people are afraid. They’re afraid for their jobs because for so long we’ve seen the tumultuous water shifting and it’s not been easy,” she said.

Dave Zentner, a Minnesota conservation activist and past national president of the Izaak Walton League who has championed wetlands preservation and the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy sales tax expansion, said he feels the election of Trump poses a threat to the environment on several fronts, including public land access, conservation efforts and mining regulation.

Even more concerning, Zentner said, are Trump’s promises to roll back regulations aimed at curbing global climate change. Trump’s victory — combined with a Republican lock on Congress and, perhaps in the near future, the Supreme Court — casts doubts over public land and wetland protections, he noted. A push from some Western states for more development in federal wildlife areas would mean less access to land for hunters, anglers and others who use it, Zentner said.

Trump and the Republican Congress also are expected to be pro-mining, from coal and iron ore to copper mines like PolyMet and Twin Metals now proposed for the Northland — both of which need federal agency approvals to advance. Those approvals may now be easier to count on than under an Obama or Clinton administration.

While there have been promises that any copper mining in Northeastern Minnesota would be done at the “highest level of regulation to protect our water and adjacent resources,” Zentner noted “that was not the tone of Mr. Trump and that was not the tone of Republican representatives in general.”

Johnson pointed out that President-elect Donald Trump’s support of domestic steel appealed to people in Minnesota. The largest impact on the industry under the Trump administration won’t come come from mining regulation changes, but rather whether the U.S. can keep its domestic steel competitive, she said.

“That really comes down to whether or not we can work well with the Chinese to stop their major exporting of Chinese steel and diminish the overall capacity. Right now, we’re seeing a huge increase in their exports,” she said. She added that although there’s been an increase in foreign steel, there hasn’t been an increase in demand for steel and that has caused the prices to drop.

Paula Maccabee, advocate director and attorney for WaterLegacy in Duluth, said it’s hard to know at this point what impacts Trump’s policies could have on northern Minnesota.

“We have a system of checks and balances and have always had one in Minnesota so that if there was going to be industrial development, it would be done in accordance with law,” she said. “I am hoping, maybe hoping against hope, that that system of checks and balances, that the rights of people as well as the profits of corporations can all be protected and so that clean water that people rely on for their health and safety can be protected, as well as the potential for economic advances.”

Her concern is that it isn’t only Trump’s opinion on the environment that matters, but also his supporters.

“It’s an entire machinery that throughout this election has expressed indifference to the environment, indifference to human health, indifference to people who would be most burdened by the contaminated world and so I’m concerned, not just about who the president is, but do we have the moral strength in the community to protect our environment and protect our vulnerable people?” she said.

News Tribune reporter Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report. 
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