New MN House bills checking regulators would benefit mines

The tailings basin of Hibbing Taconite. Regulating water quality is an expensive part of the mining business, something that has prompted two pro-mining bills adding checks to the regulatory process this week.

The tailings basin of Hibbing Taconite shows how much water is involved in the aftermath of mining. Regulating water quality is an expensive part of the mining business, something that has prompted two pro-mining bills adding checks to the regulatory process this week. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

When Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) announced the formation of the Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, and then stacked it with GOPers and mining-focused Iron Range DFLers it was plain Republicans had plans to advance pro-mining legislation this session. I commented on this for a Briana Bierschbach story today in MinnPost. I’ve also argued that such legislation will not likely impact the specifics of the PolyMet EIS report due soon.

We got our first taste of some of the proposed new rules this week, summarized here by John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune.

Yesterday, Republicans and Iron Range DFLers in the GOP-controlled Minnesota House introduced HF 616, a bill to require an economic assessment of water quality standards, along with a companion bill, HF 617, that would require an independent study to verify MPCA water standards. Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) is the chief author.

Though not word-for-word, HF 616 in particular seems to bear striking resemblance to a 2012 policy proposal by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). During the last session under a DFL majority, Range lawmakers and Republicans floated another ALEC-inspired bill nullifying the authority of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which quickly fizzled out.

Essentially, HF 616 and 617 limit the power of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The agency couldn’t implement water standards without completing an economic impact study. Further, the PCA couldn’t base standards on data that hasn’t been verified from an independent source. In other words, conflicting research from industry scientists could be used to discredit current water standards.

That’s relevant, because the wild rice sulfate standard at the heart of many water quality debates in both nonferrous mining and taconite mining on the Iron Range is subject to such disagreement. The current wild rice standard, recommended by the PCA and supported by environmental groups and Ojibwa leaders, suggests no more than 10 sulfate parts per million will allow wild rice to grow healthily. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study suggesting the real number was closer to 1,600 parts per million. (Other research suggests appropriate amounts in between those two numbers, but far closer to the lower one; additionally, sulfate isn’t harmful but can become sulfide due to environmental conditions, which is harmful).

Given the political makeup of the bills’ authorship, this legislation will have a clear path through the Mining & Recreation committee. After sailing through the House, they’ll have some chance of being reconciled in the State Senate, led by DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk, himself an Iron Range delegation member. From there, to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has strongly suggested he doesn’t want to alter regulations without firm evidence and some sense of what emerges from the ongoing PolyMet Environmental Impact Study process.

At this point, I would argue that if you support mining what you want is to send trucks full of pizzas and coffee to the office workers in the PCA and Minnesota DNR as they tabulate and prepare the amended EIS for its final release this spring. (NOTE: That’s probably illegal; I’m speaking rhetorically).

Only this document, prepared properly in a way that is scientifically defensible, will allow projects like PolyMet to go forward without getting ensnared in endless litigation. PolyMet and its opponents will end up in court either way, but a well-composed EIS could allow permits to be rendered much sooner. Or, it could produce questions the companies don’t want to answer. That’s where reserving the option of flat-out changing the wild rice standard after the fact could be seen as the ultimate option for mining allies.

It bears mentioning that funding to support more robust, clearer and scientifically grounded data is not part of these new bills. Only the demand that such data be produced, somehow.


  1. Shady – now trying to run a mini state(‘s) rights juggernaut .

  2. Tina Rasmussen says

    Many orchids to Gov. Mark Dayton for rightfully according careful deliberation to the precedent-setting EIS . Environmentalism is a distributed network of countless flowers whose individual fruitlets fuse together and protect the central core.

  3. Since when is doing another study a bad thing? The EPA and MCPA will have another group looking into their parts per million study , if there is a discrepancy a debate can follow. Why is the EPA automatically right and trusted and the new study group formed by a bi-partisan group of trusted legislators is somehow shady. To the point of who’s paying for the study, the same folks who paid for the original 8 studies by MPCA, us the tax payer. That can’t be news to anybody!!!

  4. Shady when it’s dark money masquerading as a bi-partisan group of trusted legislators .

  5. Is the budget for MPCA shady? What is dark money?

  6. Maybe ‘dark money’ isn’t quite correct – ALEC doesn’t equate to Citizen’s United , per se , but its “public/private partnership” creates opacity by limiting public scrutiny of legislative process . The MPCA works for the state by acting as impartial science arbiter .

  7. The MPCA is run by a guy appointed by elected officials. Why are you assuming the scientists appointed by these elected officials are not honest. Why do you assume the MPCA is impartial and the other group is not. If the new group works for the state (which they will) why the concern? Did you have concerns when the MPCA called for a new study after Polymet met the original standards ?

  8. The two diverge on transparent accountability with that onus being on MPCA , whose impartiality derives from not being private industry . The new group isn’t, by definition, “working for the state” if they’re pursuing nullification doctrine.

  9. “intra-state nullification” – state being the people and all, not some ATV manufacturer and a cabal of mining interests .

  10. When they get appointed by state legislators they will be working for “we the people” just as much as the MPCA is. Why is having an opinion by a group of Eco scientists paid by the state representing Mining and Recreation committee different than the Eco scientists paid by the state and employed by MPCA? If a nullification is warranted then we will find out why through science.

  11. Yes, but they seek to nullify first and science later – read the blog post.

  12. No they are calling for bills to assess water standards and independent testing.

    • See above: ” That’s where reserving the option of flat-out changing the wild rice standard after the fact . . . “

  13. And the committee all hails from rural areas . What , people in Duluth don’t recreate outdoors ? Kurt Daudt is all Boomer and no Millenial, and would be wise to preserve an unblemished MN that can attract and retain the latter.

  14. Jobs attract everyone.

  15. Jobs are important , but they don’t get to degrade the public environment and subordinate widespread total quality of life .

  16. The mines have been here for 100yrs who’s quality of life has been degraded? This is about getting Polymet up and running as safely as possible. 1st time I can remember when having more studies is deemed a bad thing, most Greenies want to study a project for yrs and yrs.

  17. Just a couple of points to clarify issues:

    First, the wild rice issue is deeply entangled in Native treaty rights. In the long run it is probably not possible for Minnesota to legislate its own standards for wild rice protection without agreement with the Bands. If the state presses on with this approach, it will end up in the federal courts and that will delay mining development for a considerable time, even if it does not stop it. Seeking solutions that would avoid this confrontation would certainly be useful for moving the timeline forward faster, although those solutions may well include costs that the mining companies don’t want to pay. Chemically it is possible to attain any desired level of sulfate output, but the cost rises as the efficiency of clean up increases.

    Second, while sulfate is not harmful in and of itself, in addition to the impact on wild rice and other plants and the fact that significant levels lead to a “rotten egg” smell in the water that is not harmful to anyone except people in the tourist industry, sulfate plays a crucial role in the chemistry of mercury, facilitating methylation of mercury and putting it in a form where it is biologically active. There is considerable suspicion among scientists that the high levels of mercury detected in children and others in Northeast Minnesota as compared with other similar areas, such as Northern Wisconsin and Michigan and Northwest Minnesota, are due not to the levels of inorganic mercury in our water, but to the interaction of mercury with sulfate. Mercury in its methyl form is, of course, a significant toxin, especially dangerous for neuralgic development in children. Even mildly abnormal blood and tissue levels are associated with decreased school achievement and other measurable deficits. Studies by medical researchers show that many Northeast Minnesota children have levels of mercury that are in the range where these effects have been documented. Any discussion of sulfate pollution should consider this issue.

  18. I have no knowledge of sulfide and rice but believe that taking copper/nickel out of the earth can be done safely. It is being mined around the world without multiple Eco studies, might as we’ll be mined here with supervision. Copper/nickel is natural to our area so taking it out of the ground safely cannot be that complicated. Let’s get the new studies and debate it.

    • First of all, it is not being done all that safely elsewhere. Both Antofagasta, the parent of Twin Metals, and Glencore, the parent of PolyMet, run mines in other countries that are associated with severe environmental damage and health injuries to local people. Historically there have been copper mines in the US that have caused severe damage and injuries. There are also some unique issues involving the minerals that the copper and nickel are embedded in here — which is a part of the reason the deposits have not been exploited before this.

      That said, I too believe it can be done safely, but the question is if the mining companies are willing to pay the price it will cost to do that, as well as to indemnify Minnesota taxpayers against potential damage clean-up costs, a potential failure that the citizens of British Columbia and Canada are now learning about the hard way. As we saw with the first impact statement from PolyMet, the mining companies will try to save as much money as possible, and are willing to cut some corners to do so. It is our job, and our politicians’ and regulators’ job, to make sure that they do the mining safely. We already know that in places where the companies don’t get significant push back, they are more than willing to cut corners in ways that harm people and the environment. After all, the executives and managers and their families don’t live in the Eastern Congo, in rural Chile, in Indonesia, or in Northeastern Minnesota, so if we don’t care they certainly don’t either.

      As far as sulfates and rice, that issue will be settled either by coming to an agreement with the Native Bands or by adjudication in the federal courts. The shortest course is to reach an agreement with the Bands, because if it goes to the courts there will be delay of years at best and a court order to not do the mining at worst. The state does not have sovereignty over treaty issues, as has been proven repeatedly in expensive court losses by the state in the past.

  19. The EPA has made it clear they will enforce the federal clean water act, regardless of what MN passes. The state paid the U a million $ to research this last year. Why do we need another study. The 10 MG level has been peer reviewed by a group of scientist from around the world. Sulfate is converted by soil microbes into sulfides which robs oxygen from lakes and rivers, as well as killing wild rice. The U study found that iron in the soil can negate sulfates. This may help, but has not been enough the over power all the sulfates released by mining.

  20. MPCA demanded more studies and time after Polymet argued the iron up here nullified the effects of sulfide in the water. Nobody who was anti-mining said a word, now that another group of Eco scientists want a study that will challenge the 10MG levels, the Go Green Gang claim foul. I have no idea what the standards should be but am open minded to hear both sides. The EPA science has been wrong in the past, so more debate won’t hurt anything.

  21. Let me point out once again, the players holding the trump card on the wild rice – sulfate issue are the Indigenous Bands. Their status as sovereign governments party to a treaty with the US federal government that specifically addresses this issue, combined with their ability to marshal resources including scientists, lawyers, and money will make them the final stopping point. The treaty specifies their rights regarding wild rice protection and harvest in the region in question, and only by reaching an agreement with them will the mining companies be able to proceed expeditiously. If that agreement is not reached, this will be tied up for years in the federal courts, and could well end in a loss by the mining companies and a victory for the Bands, who have a very successful record in the courts on treaty rights issues. Minnesota can affect this issue only by supporting the Bands, and the EPA is in the same position, because if they oppose the Bands they will simply end up in court.

    I will add that given the current price of copper and nickel, the mining companies may well be completely willing to have this drag out for several years, since if the mines were operating right now they would most likely be closed due to the low commodity prices currently affecting almost all minerals. Because the potential costs entailed in meeting the existing sulfate requirements — which by the way have existed for more than 40 years, were promulgated following research not connected with the non-ferrous mining issue, and have been verified by recent repeated research — may be high enough to cut into profits significantly, the companies may be willing to accept a delay rather than comply, on the chance that they might win, especially since the delay occurs at a time when non-ferrous mining in this region may not be financially viable due to low world metal prices, as was noted in the article about Antofagasta that Aaron published earlier.

    At best, the research conducted recently would just be another exhibit in the litigation, weighing against the heavy preponderance of research that contradicts it. At worst it would be another entry in the long history of debunked “Tobacco Institute research” that vested interests create by custom ordering results. If the mining companies, the DNR, or even the EPA press this issue, it will just lead to drawn out litigation. The only path to a quick decision is through agreement with the Native Bands.

  22. Another study will not hurt anyone. As far as cost goes, maybe take a few million from the nearly 400M budget for MPCA, hell, it is all our tax money in the first place.

  23. Compliments for the reporter for keeping a light on the potential to decrease the health of the residents of the range even more. Particularily in light of the new reports on range miners and Mesothelioma. Maybe it is time for the Range for a wholesale recall of it’s representatives. Not a one of them seems to give damn about citizens health. Nor do them seem to want to deal with the the economics of calculating social costs to the meachanics of doing business through mining. Mining has not been held to the grind stone for the cost of environmental damage of anykind since day one wether it be water, air, land or the human spirit. They will always no matter what the name of the company “take the money and run.” And now your good DFL representaives are getting in bed with ALEC. If mining is given the land they will destroy it. Remember where mining is in the scale of job production for the range.

  24. I agree on finding out about mesothelioma and miners. So far the reports don’t come to any concrete conclusions. Can you give any examples of where mining has caused environmental damage on the Range? What do you consider destroying the land? I believe that mining can be done safely for both miners and environment.

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