The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation's advisory board tabled a grant Wednesday for a new water source, tower and treatment plant on the Fond du Lac Reservation after board members said the band is “anti-mining.”
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa had asked for a $250,000 grant to help fund the $1.3 million project replacing an existing noncompliant system and serve 140 homes near Mahnomen and Brookston.
But state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a member of the IRRR’s board, objected to the IRRR funding the project because it is a state agency funded by taxes on taconite produced in the region and the Fond du Lac Band has taken what he called “anti-mining” stances.
“I’m pretty uncomfortable with this request,” Bakk said. “I mean, I’d like to do something for this part of the Taconite Relief Area because we don’t get many requests, but I can’t remember us ever doing a grant to a local unit of government that is publicly anti-mining.”
The Fond du Lac Band has repeatedly challenged permits for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine and joined a lawsuit challenging permits for U.S. Steel’s Minntac tailings basin.
“The anti-mining sentiment gives me some real anxiety about providing mining tax dollars to build anything,” Bakk said.
Other board members agreed, including state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, and state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin.
“I have the greatest amount of empathy and support for making sure that we do everything we can to help our Native American communities, but this is just at cross purposes with the very fundamental reason that we even have a Taconite Assistance Area,” Lueck said. “We will actually turn down things that don't make sense and frankly, this doesn’t make sense.”
In a statement, Rita Aspinwall of the Fond du Lac Band said, “The Band is not anti-mining but we are anti-pollution. Mining, the way it currently operates and is regulated in Minnesota, has destroyed wild rice, worsened the mercury in fish problem, and fundamentally destroyed and degraded thousands of acres of important natural and cultural resources in the 1854 Ceded Territory over the past century. This is fact, backed up by data and science. The Band will protect what still remains, now and for future generations.”
Paula Maccabee, counsel and advocacy director of WaterLegacy, an environmental group that has challenged PolyMet and Minntac decisions with Fond du Lac, told the News Tribune on Wednesday that she was angered by Bakk’s comments.
“This is not a luxury item, this is drinking water,” Maccabee said. “And if IRRRB is supposed to serve the community, it seems that drinking water for a reservation community ought to be a higher priority than political positioning.”
“The idea that politics and people's cheerleading for the mining industry is of higher value than clean drinking water for people is simply not right,” Maccabee said.
During the meeting, IRRR staffer Chris Ismil stressed the Fond du Lac Band’s request met the agency’s requirements.
“The water serving these folks is not drinkable. This water is contaminated at a level that people would be sick, going for treatments,” Ismil said. “The application met all the criteria requirements. It was scored competitively. And to be honest with you, it scored above other projects that came.”
Board members Lueck and state Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, questioned if the Fond du Lac Reservation was outside of the IRRR’s service area, therefore making it ineligible for the agency’s grants, but Ismil said the band qualifies for projects because part of the reservation is within the agency’s service area.
Once IRRR staff vets projects and they make it on the agenda, very rarely does the board recommend a project be rejected.
Because the IRRR’s board is in an advisory role, it makes recommendations to the agency's commissioner, Mark Phillips, who reports to Gov. Tim Walz.
“I believe that the board is advisory and you’re giving the advice that you have concerns and you want to lay this on the table,” Phillips said. “I don’t see why that would be problematic.”
Lueck suggested the band seek funding for the project at the federal level or from different state funding sources before coming to the IRRR.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Fond du Lac Band $900,000 in Indian Community Development Block Grant for the construction of the water tower.
Earlier this year, Bakk canceled a political fundraiser scheduled for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa-owned Fortune Bay Resort Casino near Tower after the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe supported a bill that would ban mining in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and kill the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, according to the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
This article was updated at 12:38 a.m. on Friday, June 12 with comments from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. It was originally posted at 11:51 p.m. on June 10.