St. Louis County Board opposes new mining review

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday officially went on record opposing any new level of federal review of multiple copper mining projects proposed in northern Minnesota.

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday officially went on record opposing any new level of federal review of multiple copper mining projects proposed in northern Minnesota.

The board, at its regularly scheduled meeting in Ely, voted 6-0 to oppose any new federal review. Commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth abstained.

The U.S. Forest Service is considering a request by the environmental group Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness to open a new level of environmental review to consider the possible cumulative effects of several potential copper mining projects together, not just a single project that currently has advanced to the formal environmental review stage.

Supporters of the broader review - called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement - say federal environmental law requires potential cumulative impacts be considered before any single project can advance. Opponents say the request is nothing more than a stalling tactic to delay projects.

Commissioners had already debated and advanced the resolution, without opposition, at a Committee of the Whole meeting earlier this month. But on Tuesday they still took more than two hours of sometimes heated public testimony, both for and against.


Tensions erupted when Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township was disparaging environmental activists and lawyers who were promoting the larger federal review. Several people in the audience interrupted Nelson and at one point someone in the audience yelled “you lie’’ when Nelson was speaking. The person was gaveled out of order by Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely. Nelson asked that the meeting be stopped. Mark Monacelli, county records supervisor, called police, and the official call was listed as “meeting getting out of control,’’ said Sheriff Ross Litman.

Ely Police Chief John Lahtonen arrived at the meeting, held in the Semer’s Park Pavilion, but said the situation already had calmed down. Lahtonen said the audience member who had become agitated already had left the meeting on his own. Lahtonen said meeting continued with no arrests and no additional outbursts.

The county joins some city councils and Iron Range politicians in opposing a broader federal review, saying it’s not needed because each copper mining project will have its own environmental review. They contend any additional federal review would unnecessarily delay projects.

Nelson, who proposed the resolution, had said the broader federal review was being quietly pushed by “environmental wackos” who want to stop copper mining at any cost.

Jewell had said earlier that he wouldn’t vote against the resolution. But when Nelson asked for a roll-call vote after a voice vote, Jewell said he also couldn’t vote in favor of it.

“I abstained because of why this resolution was brought forward. … This decision is up to the U.S. government, not county government,’’ Jewell said after the meeting.

Becky Rom of Ely, a board member of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, said earlier this month that a broader review of potential combined mining activity is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Copper mining opponents say the Forest Service must consider the cumulative effects of multiple potential mines and include those effects as part of a broader forest-wide study.

It’s not clear if, or when, Forest Service officials may decide the issue. Brenda Halter, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, told the News Tribune earlier this month that there is no deadline for deciding the issue.


Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper mining trade group, has said that such a study, if pursued by the Forest Service, would be tantamount to a “moratorium on any new mining within the forest” because it probably would take several years to complete.

PolyMet has proposed Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, which also would produce precious metals. That proposal is in the final stages of an environmental impact statement that could be decided later this year.

Twin Metals is proposing a much larger operation, what would be Minnesota’s largest underground mine, near the Kawishiwi River east of Ely. Twin Metals is approaching the environmental review process.

Several other companies have looked for copper and other metals in the same area and have leases to mine on some land, but no other projects have been forwarded for any regulatory review.

Supporters say copper mining could create hundreds of jobs for the region and spur an economic boon. Opponents say the threat of polluted runoff from mines damaging sensitive waters is too great.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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