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St. Louis County dives into federal copper mining debate

St. Louis County commissioners Tuesday will likely approve a resolution calling on President Donald Trump's administration to overturn a recently imposed copper mining prohibition near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In this photo from 2010, a worker holds a core sample showing a polymetallic deposit from the Twin Metals exploration area east of the Kawishiwi River in northern Lake County. (2010 file / News Tribune)
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St. Louis County commissioners Tuesday will likely approve a resolution calling on President Donald Trump's administration to overturn a recently imposed copper mining prohibition near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The County Board's resolution is part of a region-wide effort to show support for copper mining in the Superior National Forest after the Obama administration decision to at least temporarily ban mining exploration over about 235,000 acres adjacent to the federal wilderness.

The federal order also calls for an ecological study and a two-year prohibition on any mining in the area, with federal officials echoing environmental groups' concerns over the impact of acid mine runoff into the sensitive BWCAW water environment.

The decision, which came in December, could effectively end the Twin Metals mine proposal southeast of Ely along the Kawishiwi River. But the agency decision also can be overturned with a stroke of a pen by the new Trump administration, something Minnesota copper mining supporters are banking on.

Copper mining supporters and opponents are expected to pack the County Board chambers in Duluth for the vote even if the outcome is presumed.


Mining "is our way of life. This is our culture. This is nothing but a land grab," Commissioner Tom Rukavina of Pike Township said of the federal action.

The resolution in front of the board's Committee of the Whole states that "the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners hereby requests the Trump administration to immediately rescind the (Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service) proposal to withdraw 240,000 acres of land in Northeastern Minnesota from future leasing, exploration and potential development."

The county resolution calls the federal action "politically motivated" and says it will cause "irreversible damage" to the Iron Range economy by limiting the state's expansion into copper mining.

The resolution says the federal fears of potential water pollution are "based on hypothetical and unfounded fears of generalized impacts from mining."

The county resolution also would be sent to U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken seeking their support in overturning the federal agency decision.

A similar resolution already has passed the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

A County Board effort to weigh in on the federal mining issue nearly passed Jan. 24 when the board met in Gilbert. But the resolution, proposed by Rukavina and which was not on the public meeting agenda, failed to advance on a 3-3 tie vote after commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township having left the meeting to attend a funeral.

With Nelson back on Tuesday - and with Nelson now the author of the revised resolution - the effort is likely to prevail on a 4-3 vote, with Nelson and Rukavina joined by Commissioners Mike Jugovich of Chisholm and Pete Stauber of Hermantown voting in favor and Duluth Commissioners Frank Jewell, Patrick Boyle and Liz Olson likely opposed.


Rukavina and Nelson have been sparring over how the county's support for copper mining should be presented and worded but that bickering is not expected to change the result.

"I think we might see some changes (in wording) but there's going to be something and it will probably be 4-3. But we'll have an official resolution,'' Rukavina said, noting that U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, had called for local government resolutions to express opposition to the federal mining prohibition.

The effort already has revealed, once again, the longtime schism between Iron Range and Duluth commissioners as well as the seemingly inevitable battle between environmental concerns and the quest for more Northland jobs.

It's also raised the age-old question of why the County Board is delving into federal issues it has no control over or direct involvement in.

"We just should be voting on things that the county has responsibility for, and this clearly isn't one of them," said County Board Chairman Frank Jewell.

"These resolutions have no impact. We have no ability to change the situation. It's just stating our opinion on something," Jewell said. "But what makes it worse is how divisive it becomes. Not just among the board, but among our constraints. It's going to be a whole bunch of people arguing about something at our meeting that we really have no control over."

The proposed Twin Metals underground mine would employ about 800 people, although no formal proposal has been submitted for review by regulators. It would be much larger than the proposed open-pit PolyMet copper mine about 35 miles to the south. Twin Metals is in the Rainy River watershed that moves north into the BWCAW and on to Canada while PolyMet is in the St. Louis River watershed that flows into Lake Superior.

The County Board voted 4-3 in December of 2011 to support the proposed PolyMet copper mine between Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt after two long and acrimonious meetings in Duluth and Ely.


The Twin Metals issue hasn't just split the County Board but also the state DFL party, with Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum fervently opposing the project and Nolan in support.

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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