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Cook County board stays mum on copper mining

Cook County business leaders this week urged their County Board of Commissioners not to act on a resolution opposing copper mining because they fear that angered Iron Range lawmakers would strip the county's eligibility for state taconite taxes.T...

Sen. Tom Bakk
Tom Bakk
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Cook County business leaders this week urged their County Board of Commissioners not to act on a resolution opposing copper mining because they fear that angered Iron Range lawmakers would strip the county’s eligibility for state taconite taxes.
The resolution, sponsored by county commissioner and environmental activist Frank Moe, would have expressed the county’s support for traditional taconite iron ore mining but opposition to copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - namely the proposed Twin Metals project near Ely that is in the BWCAW watershed.
The resolution said the county favors protecting the BWCAW and thus “we stand with Gov. Mark Dayton in his opposition to sulfide-ore mining in close proximity" to the wilderness. The resolution also urged Dayton to apply his same scepticism of Twin Metals to the proposed PolyMet copper project near Hoyt Lakes which is in the Lake Superior watershed.
Moe and other critics say the potential environmental harm is not worth the economic development and jobs that the new mines would bring, noting the county’s economy is heavily based on BWCAW and related tourism.
But Moe’s resolution failed to get a second by another commissioner and never came up for a board vote Tuesday.
Before that, however, the proposed resolution did spur a half-hour of testimony by county residents, including several business leaders who said Iron Range lawmakers told them that the resolution jeopardized Cook County’s position in the so-called Taconite Tax Assistance Area and Taconite Tax Relief Area.
Inclusion in those areas allows Cook County local governments and schools to receive a portion of the state’s per-ton tax on taconite produced. That money helps keep local property taxes down and helps pay for many public works and economic development projects, including projects by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Dennis Rysdahl of Tofte, owner and developer of the Bluefin Bay resort complex, urged county commissioners to leave the resolution alone because any action would bring a reaction by mining supporters. Rysdahl said he had met several times on the copper mining issue with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL Cook, who represents Cook County, and once with Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, who also represents Cook County.
“I really don't think that a resolution by the County Board is going to change the outcome of the decision" on whether mines are built, Rysdahl said. But “I do feel like it does put our relationship with the IRRRB at risk. ... I know that it puts our relationship with our (legislative) delegation at risk. I got an email from Tom Bakk yesterday, and he’s very concerned. He’s already hearing, again, what’s he’s heard many times before that Cook County doesn’t really belong in the Taconite Relief District, and if they’re going to take an action like this, they don’t deserve to continue to be involved.”
“I don’t know how likely that is for that to happen," Rysdhal added. “But I do know that we’ve depended very heavily on Sen. Bakk for many, many things that have happened in the county, and we continue to depend on him.”
The discussion on the resolution occurred during the public open microphone portion of Tuesday’s board meeting in Grand Marais.
Rysdahl and others also noted that Bakk’s position as Senate Majority Leader has helped land large state- and IRRRB-funded projects for Cook County. While he said he personally opposed the PolyMet project, Rysdahl said Moe’s resolution “will damage our relationship with Sen. Bakk in ways that really will matter."
Other high-profile Cook County business leaders said essentially the same thing, including longtime resort owner Bruce Kerfoot of Gunflint Lake and Howard Hedstrom of the Hedstrom Lumber Co. Family in Grand Marais. Discussion included the fact that Cook County has lost all ties to taconite production and may not belong in the taconite tax relief area after the Taconite Harbor ore docks near Tofte closed in 2001.
“The Range delegation knows that if we’re out (of the Taconite Tax Relief Area) they get a bigger slice of the pie," Kerfoot said, warning commissioners that the resolution would spur Range lawmakers to act. “I hope you’ll weigh the consequences.”
Bakk did not return the News Tribune’s request Wednesday to comment on the Cook County situation.
Several county residents urged the board to consider the resolution and allow a community forum on the issue of copper mining in the region. Marco Good of Grand Marais said he supported the resolution “to protect the natural world” in spite of any revenge that might come from copper mining supporters.
“I don’t think we should run our government on extortion, coercion and bribery," Good said.
Dave Seaton, a resort owner from the Gunflint trail, said the county should take a stand on something that could jeopardize the clean water that the county’s largest industry, tourism, thrives on.
“I believe that sulfide-ore mining is not compatible with our long-term environment," Seaton said.
Supporters of the resolution noted it strongly backed taconite iron ore mining. In years past, taconite from the former Erie (later LTV) mine on the Iron Range used to run by rail to the North Shore in Cook County where it was shipped out from Taconite Harbor.
“My dad worked at Erie Mining. My grandfather worked at Erie Mining. I’m not anti-mining. I’m anti-copper mining," Staci Drouillard of Grand Marais said in support of the resolution.
Moe said he thought his resolution was “fairly benign” but that it was important to show support of some northern county commissioners for Dayton’s stand. St. Louis, Lake and Itasca counties have passed pro-copper mining resolutions.
“I wasn’t surprised by the opposition but I am disappointed," Moe said Wednesday. “The threat of even debating this in public was apparently something the Chamber of Commerce or our legislative delegation didn’t want to happen. They don’t want any public discussion on this even though the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior are 80 percent of our economy.”

Related Topics: MININGCOOK COUNTY
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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