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St. Louis County Board joins pro-mining chorus with resolution supporting copper-nickel projects

The move Tuesday came after Iron Range lawmakers urged the establishment of a working relationship with members of President Joe Biden's cabinet.

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PolyMet is reusing and reclaiming the former LTV Steel Mining site near Hoyt Lakes. Photo courtesy of PolyMet Mining
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Fears that the state and federal governments may disrupt progress toward copper-nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota are causing the area's elected officials to react.

Members of the Legislature’s Iron Range Delegation wrote a letter last week to President Joe Biden’s secretaries-designate of the Interior and Agriculture asking them to work closely with the state legislators.

Earlier, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber was more frontal in a letter urging Biden to withdraw U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland , D-New Mexico, as secretary-designate of the Interior, referring to her as a supporter of project moratoriums and potentially “disastrous” for the region.

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U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque)

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Finally, on Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board settled its resolution in support of copper-nickel mining, ending two weeks of bickering with the board’s Iron Range faction overruling Duluth commissioners 4-3.

“The legislation being proposed is being proposed so that (copper-nickel) is never possible,” Virginia-based Commissioner Keith Nelson said, referring to legislative bans proposed in Minnesota and federally.

The County Board batted at the resolution for much of its meeting in Duluth — with an argument from Nelson supposing an end to dependence on exploitative practices in developing nations if the Iron Range could mine the country’s own precious metals.

“It is not an immediately obvious thing that we ought to pollute our neighborhood in an effort to keep this from happening,” Commissioner Ashley Grimm countered.

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Ashley Grimm

Grimm, representing western Duluth, joined in the Duluth chorus that said resolutions without jurisdiction were an imposition on the board’s time and efficiency. She described the resolution as being in bad faith, for not allowing Duluth participants to oversee the board.

"We don't have purview," she said. "It just keeps feeling like power plays that are happening."

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She suggested that Range and rural commissioners write letters to higher-up lawmakers.

“We should never be quiet about what we care about,” she said, while arguing the topic bogged down the business of the board.

Letters have been fast and furious since Biden’s inauguration two weeks ago.

The Iron Range delegation’s letter, released Monday, set a conciliatory tone, asking for the new, still-to-be-confirmed cabinet members to meet in the middle. Haaland and Tom Vilsack, picked to lead the Department of Agriculture, have already opposed copper-nickel mining in the Boundary Waters watershed .

The delegation's letter insisted mining and the great outdoors could and needed to coexist, and was careful not to mention any of the prospective bans that would impact proposed copper-nickel mines outside Hoyt Lakes and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“We are writing today to ask that you work closely with our delegation in the coming months and years on any decisions regarding mining and exploration in northeast Minnesota, including the Superior National Forest, as these decisions have a direct impact on the people we represent and serve,” said the letter, signed by a host of lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm; Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook; Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids; Rep. Rob Ecklund, D-International Falls; Rep. Julie Sandstede, D-Hibbing; Rep. Dave Lislegard, D-Aurora; Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin; and Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Grand Rapids.

Stauber’s letter drew attention for his desire to reject Haaland, the first tribal member set to join a presidential cabinet.

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U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber

State Sen. Jen McEwen, D-Duluth, was critical about how it attempted to thwart a meaningful and historic nomination, while also failing to consult tribes in his district. She helped sponsor a state Senate bill, which would place a moratorium on issuing permits for nonferrous sulfide ore mining.

"(Haaland) would prefer to rely on resources sourced from foreign countries with no environmental or labor standards," Stauber said, echoing Nelson's presentation to the board, which featured National Geographic articles and images of foreign mining practices.

In one salvo Tuesday, Nelson referenced McEwen in the never-ending debate about what is more formally known as non-ferrous mining.

“I would not have a resolution here today were it not for the legislation being put forward in the Minnesota State Senate by one of the citizens from this fair community and by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) in the U.S. House,” Nelson said.

Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing central Duluth, said he’s gone through a number of mining support resolutions led by the Range commissioners. He’s never voted in favor.

“To mine or not is not part of our responsibility,” he said of the County Board. “I will wait for those who do have that jurisdiction.”

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

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