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Bills would modify copper-nickel mining laws

Minnesota lawmakers are hoping to change which agency promotes mining and bolster the financial assurance requirements for mining companies.

FSA Minnesota Capitol 2019
Michael Brun / Forum News Service
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A pair of bills introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives this year seek to change the state’s mining laws.

The bills target copper-nickel mining, a type of mining that has never been done in the state, by changing the responsibility of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and boosting an existing law that requires mining companies pay financial assurances to reclaim the sites.

Transferring mining promotion to DEED

Currently, the DNR is responsible for both promoting mineral development throughout the state and weighing a potential mine’s environmental effects.

Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Wayzata, said that’s a conflict of interest. Her bill, HF 3331 , would transfer the responsibilities of mining promotion from the DNR commissioner to the commissioner Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Morrison, a physician, said she’s concerned about the potential for toxic acidic runoff from copper-nickel mining to pollute nearby waterways and sources of drinking water.

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“I think there probably was a time when it was appropriate to have DNR manage both promoting mining and preserving natural resources,” Morrison said in an interview. “But it seems clear that with a move to embark on this new kind of mining that carries much higher environmental and health risks than mining iron ore taconite, it’s just a clear conflict of interest for DNR to be in charge of both.”

She said the DNR’s responsibility of both promoting mining and conservation would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to halt a project proposal.

“(The DNR) may try to mitigate but it's not designed to stop even ones that might not be appropriate,” Morrison said.

In an email, Jess Richards, assistant commissioner of the DNR, told the News Tribune the agency hasn’t reviewed the bills and had not taken a position on either bill.

He noted that a similar bill was introduced last year.

“We stated then that we believe transferring duties to DEED would create a situation where it would be difficult to ensure broad natural resource protection topics are fully integrated with minerals promotion decisions,” Richards said. “We believed this was a fundamental flaw of the bill last year.”

Besides minerals management, he added the DNR has a “dual mission” in forest management, recreation and game and fish regulation.

“Regardless of the topic, we always conduct state business with the highest level of professionalism and integrity,” Richards said.

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The bill’s companion in the Senate, SF 3369 , is expected to be introduced Thursday and is authored by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

Financial assurance boost

Another bill, introduced by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, seeks to boost and clarify the financial assurance packages required by new nonferrous (metals that don't contain iron) mines in Minnesota.

“All Minnesotans, whether they support new mining or not, agree that new mining should not contaminate our lands and waters,” Wagenius told the News Tribune. “And if it does, then it’s the mining companies, not the taxpayers, who are responsible for the cleanup.”

Minnesota law already requires financial assurance meant to reclaim a site when the mine closes, either as planned or unexpectedly.

For example, PolyMet, which is trying to open a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt, posted $74 million in financial assurance prior to its permit to mine. That's expected to grow to $588 million when mining begins and exceed $1 billion at peak mining. The amount can be evaluated each year by the DNR.

Wagenius said the additional language in the bill would ensure money for cleanup.

“This bill clarifies, more than anything else, current law,” Wagenius said. “It lists lands and waters that need to be cleaned up and specifies treaty rights.”

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, and Morrison have signed on as co-authors, but as of Wednesday, the bill does not have a companion bill in the Senate.

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Bills face uphill battle

A number of bills aimed at regulating copper-nickel mining were also introduced in the House last year but made little progress after introduction.

A Republican-controlled Senate friendly to mining could make it difficult for these bills to ever become law, too.

“Even though we probably aren’t going to get hearings in the Senate, I think that highlighting this issue, continuing to educate people, continuing to have these conversations is very important to the future of our state,” Morrison said.

But Wagenius was more hopeful on the Senate side.

“Senators also say make sure our waters and our lands are protected,” Wagenius said.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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