Even with DFL in control, bills to further restrict copper-nickel mining unlikely to pass this session
The bills have not been taken up by committees and would need Republican support to pass the Senate.
ST. PAUL — A handful of bills that would further restrict copper-nickel mining in Minnesota have been introduced at the Minnesota Legislature, but like in past sessions, the bills are unlikely to pass, even with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in control of both the House and Senate.
Committee hearings have yet to be held on the bills, signaling a lack of support. The bills targeting copper-nickel mining include:
- SF1416 / HF1618, or “Prove It First,” would require a similar mine in another state to operate and close pollution-free for a combined 20 years before permits could be awarded for a Minnesota project.
- SF167 / HF329 would prohibit nonferrous mining and exploration on state lands in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with exceptions for “national emergency.” Would allow for taconite, gravel, sand and granite mining if it’s determined it “will not be detrimental” to the BWCAW.
- SF169 / HF1225 would transfer the promotion of mining from DNR to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
- SF1190 / HF1619 would prevent the DNR from awarding permits to nonferrous mines if the company has a history of environmental or corruption violations.
Even if the bills were to eventually pass the House, where the DFL has a 70-64 majority over Republicans, the DFL only has a one-seat majority in the Senate.
And Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, said he opposes the bills that take aim at copper-nickel mining, making passage of the bills along party lines impossible. He said there’s other Democrats who share his stance.
“What I think we need to do is be as politically neutral as possible,” Hauschild said in an interview with the News Tribune.
“(Mining projects) should be evaluated by the state agency whose job it is to determine whether or not the project can move forward on environmental standards, labor standards and all the rest,” Hauschild said. “I have always favored the DNR having the opportunity to evaluate a mine plan.”
But Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, who authored or co-authored three of the four senate bills aimed at copper-nickel mining, said there was still momentum, particularly among DFL voters who are “very critical of the idea of bringing this new type of mining to Minnesota.”
There are a lot of bills moving through the Legislature already and session deadlines are approaching. If the bills aren’t taken up this year, there’s always next year, McEwen said.
“We'll kind of see where the chips fall,” McEwen said in an interview with the News Tribune. “But no matter what these bills are going to be part of the discussion. So we'll see if we get a hearing or not, but we definitely intend to keep this at the forefront in terms of the discussions that we're having.”
In a written response to the News Tribune, the DNR weighed in on each of the four bills. It gave a forceful answer to the bill that would reassign DEED the mineral promotion, or mineral leasing, responsibilities.
“Inherent in the proposal is an assumption that the DNR’s mineral promotion work inappropriately influences DNR’s regulatory decision making for mining proposals. This is absolutely not the case,” the DNR said.
The state agency maintained it was best suited for both duties.
“The Minnesota Legislature assigned DNR both mining regulation and mineral promotional duties precisely because it recognized that integrating this work provides more comprehensive and holistic management,” the DNR said. “DNR’s mining regulatory role is governed by separate rules and our regulatory decisions are not affected by our role as a fiduciary steward of state-owned mineral resources.”
The DNR said it was still reviewing the bill that would prohibit permitting to companies determined to be “bad actors,” as defined by the bill.
The DNR said the Prove It First bill would force the agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to interpret other states’ laws and apply those to Minnesota. And the agency said the bill would also require reissuing permits every decade, which could ”jeopardize the DNR’s ability to ensure mining companies remain responsible for proper reclamation of mine sites.”
The agency did not take a position on the bill that would ban mining on state land in the Rainy River Watershed.
It’s been reviewing state rules for copper-nickel mining in that area since 2021.
The process allowed the public to weigh in, and a decision on the siting rules will be made by May 31.
“We are currently evaluating those comments along with other relevant information,” the DNR said.