The St. Louis County Board moved ahead with a resolution opposing proposed state and federal bans on copper-nickel mining Tuesday at its meeting in Virginia.
The resolution advanced 4-3, with the four rural and Iron Range commissioners affirming the resolution and Duluth’s commissioners objecting. The resolution faces final approval at the board's Feb. 2 meeting in Duluth.
Commissioners opposed to moratoriums on types of mining said to "follow the science" and permitting processes when it came to copper-nickel mining. Legislative bans proposed in Minnesota and federally would usurp existing scrutiny and permitting processes, they said.
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"This would effectively shut these projects down," Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, said.
“The proof is the permit,” Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said. “There’s nobody that wants to do unsafe mining.”
Ashley Grimm, representing western Duluth, called the resolution “a real disservice” for the way it occupied time over other matters without any service to constituents.
“I’m for most mining projects, but this type of mining has never been done safely in the United States,” she said. “If it was safe, it wouldn’t be on this agenda.”
A handful of citizen callers opposed the resolution, citing the potential for environmental harm and an economy they say would improve with a ban. They made a point that opposition to a ban was, in turn, opposition to a “prove-it-first” process.
“We don’t need to have a 'prove-it' law if we have regulatory agencies that do this,” Jugovich said. “We’ve come a long way in this process.”
The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel open-pit mine and processing facility near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes has aimed for years to be the first of its kind on the Iron Range, where taconite iron ore mining is commonplace.
But copper-nickel mining is untested in Northeastern Minnesota, and critics worry about what it could mean to the area's water-rich environments. A proposed underground mine, Twin Metals, would be based outside the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness.
Mining proponents worry President Joe Biden’s administration, along with a Democratic majority in Congress, could prevent existing and future proposals, costing scores of jobs and economic success.
Commissioner Keith Musolf, representing Hermantown and the areas outside Duluth, is a union leader who said he’s spent many hours on the PolyMet site. He described safety measures there that are “way ahead of our existing mining.”
“This doesn’t just affect the Iron Range. This affects everybody in this county,” Musolf said. “This is the environment and economy together.”
Duluth’s Frank Jewell chided the symbolic nature of the vote, and, in the spirit of it, said he’s preparing a series of resolutions aimed at symbolic measures: support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a livable wage, a women’s right to choose, and one opposing white supremacy.
“I’ll put these together and hopefully that discussion will generate support for our working together,” he said.
Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, said there was nothing symbolic about the resolution. He cited President Joe Biden’s executive order this week directing federal agencies to buy American-made products.
“Doesn’t 'American-made' mean 'American-mined' also?” Nelson said, before trying to paint the Duluth commissioners as anti-mining. “We all know you either support mining or you don’t."
Grimm made a point about how the issue divides the board, and doesn't serve “our relationship that we owe each other.”