‘Symptom of a corrupt system, but a public symptom’

Iron Range newsThe following is a guest post sent to me by Paul Ojanen, a longtime reader of the blog and Iron Range environmental scientist for St. Louis County. He’s been involved with local DFL politics off and on for a long time. I’m sharing Paul’s op-ed at his request because it takes a broader point of view on the Sen. David Tomassoni controversy, expanding beyond what I said earlier. This is food for thought, fodder for debate. I’d be particularly interested in reading rebuttals or additional arguments, which I would also share.

Here’s Paul Ojanen:

Tommasoni is a symptom of a corrupt system, but a public symptom:

Sen. David Tommasoni’s new position as lobbyist, although the organization represents public entities, is simply symptomatic of a corrupt system, especially so on the Iron Range.

For decades, politicians here have been the co-opted servants of the mining industry, providing subsidies, acting as frontmen and either arguing for or providing reduced environmental regulation. Despite this and the repeated promises of prosperity, the Iron Range has the look of a post-Soviet abandoned waste dump. Those lucky, corrupt or subservient enough can still make a decent living but the despair remains, the diaspora continues, and the empty generations are truly here now. Despite the feel good proclamations of the Chambers of Commerce, sounding like a mix of huckster Anthony Robbins, Up with People and Snake Oil salesman, the children are few and the majority are poor.

Senator Tommasoni’s position is merely a public acknowledgment of what has been true but very rarely stated for a very long time. The same names, the good ol’ boy system, now mostly early wave baby boomers, have been recycled through different positions for over a generation. A few outsiders have been let in, but the system of interlocking boards, public consortium’s and appointed positions have been a way to distribute power, public funds and favors for decades. This is not new, witness the Roman truism “Cui bono?”; for the Range, the answer has been, for a very long time, a mysteriously similar group of names and companies. The problem is, for a very long time, most of the public hasn’t.

While it existed before, the Taconite tax increased the system of control and patronage servile to mining regardless of cost. For the first decade and a half, the money flowed free and so did the theft. No one complained as there was plenty to go around. Since the eighties, however, the piece of meat hanging from the chain has elevated and become smaller. The dogs leaping for it are merely fewer and more vicious now. So is the social context, now resembling a farce out of the Brezhnev Era Soviet Union, when everyone knew the lie but could not say it out loud and any dissident was deemed mentally ill. The code words are different here, but “environmentalist” or “doesn’t support mining enough” have the same meaning. The barren streets, empty houses and abandoned shops are just all too real, fortunately.

Politician as lobbyist is nothing new, but the Range example is best described by the ten dollar word “avaricious.” Greed does not fully describe the system as it is so openly practiced here. Bribery is not needed, as the rewards are voted on in public meetings. The seeming indignance that anyone would dare question whether or not the Senator’s position might be “unethical” shows just how embedded it is.

This system has long since passed padding pockets. It has, for a very long time, been out and out theft of public resources and funds. It is the Range’s great open secret, and it has as much to do with the empty houses and schools as did relying on a shrinking industry prone to leaving toxic waste, industrial brownfields and giant holes. The Range is not alone in this, of course, witness stadiums for profitable NFL teams and subsidies for such important public structures as privately owned malls. More money has been wasted on useless projects benefiting a few or employing the privileged than would have been by handing the money out by random lottery. The hucksterism has reached absurdity, as local officials now openly campaign for a private industry that has polluted, sucked pension funds dry, abandoned sites and communities with no reclamation and declared bankruptcy in every single case. It would be better if they wore the Corporate logos as uniforms.

While this is a travesty, it is not anything new. The State developed and subsidized the industry and still does. Unfortunately, the public has had to pick up the costs, whether in public resources such as water, the emptied pensions by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, or the countless social costs from the mangled, half empty communities. None of this is ever mentioned, however; it is part of the great “disappeared” from the official memory.

Former State Senator Doug Johnson’s nickname , “Pork” suits these times well. It wasn’t for his love of ham.

This guest post was written by Paul Ojanen.


  1. A Gustaveson says

    Dead on target. The comparisons make me retch because they are so appros.

  2. Zippy Pinhead says

    I understand your points…I think. However, the op/ed is so poorly written that it was a pain to read. Get someone competent to edit before “publishing”.

    • I like the writing. I also appreciate the idea that Aaron is taking this blog into a place for writing, ideas, and discussions. The Range has been losing the idea of writing, or creativity. This is as much about emotions as it is about issues. Hopefully there are more pieces, and more creative essays. That’s the key here.

  3. Shocking that Mr. Ojanen is anti-mining being an environmental scientist. I agree totally on his assessment of the state of politics, money, power and the Range. While the money may be shrinking a bit there is still enough to pollute Range politicians. After decades of the same folks (DFL) running the Range, one may think a change would be in order. Electing the same folks that have let the Range down for years and expecting different results is definitely the definition of insanity.

  4. The idea that this notion even has to be addressed is itself
    the problem. We live in a system where county boards are giving millions of dollars to shell companies owned by “consultants to perform public projects with no oversight (#Eshquagma) and the IRRRB gives millions to lobbyists to research a non-existent energy source. I would give you the keyword to research that for yourselves as well, but, oddly, the laws have now changed and we can no longer ask about that coal gasification plant debacle.

    Another issue of consequence is our seeming inability to accept anything other than our own version of perfect. Perhaps Mr. Ojanen’s writing is a direct reflection of his current disgust of technical writing, having just finished a 100+ page Masters Thesis. I can tell you from experience that it is no small struggle to not be glib and jovial after such a stretch. Those of us with intelligence can read anything, do some fact checking, and come to a reasonable conclusion regarding an op/ed without childishly commenting on a particular style or percieved subtext.

    As for the notion that an environmental scientist equals anti-mining. Perhaps it is not just an obligatory reaction. Perhaps, having dedicated years to the study of the impact that this industry has had on our local environment, one would naturally be inclined to side with a position on mining that might make the industry less profitable. Not that it can’t happen, but why can’t it happen responsibly?

    Much like most people reading this, I have lived here for decades and plan on living here for decades more. How is it outrageous that we ask our elected leaders to be transparent? How is it outrageous that we want jobs without having to clean up a mess when the company leaves?

    Last point, I promise. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have allowed it and we continue to allow it. These systems have evolved into the animalistic nature of their basest parts. Without a total restructure or complete overhaul, they will do the only thing they know how to do; generate money from the public and give vast portions of it to their friends. I will leave you with a few points to ponder…. Will your cat stop licking its ass simply because you tell it that it is not appropriate? Will the dung beetle stop burrowing in and feeding on fecal matter if you explain the virtue of instead dining at McDonald’s? Will a well constructed debate keep the deer from giving you the old wooden-nickel wink as you drive into it on southbound 53? I don’t the answer to those age old puzzles. All i know is this… if we want things to change, we need to be the change. Get active for whatever side you want. Just be active for what you believe.

  5. Maybe an ‘Alaska Dividend ‘ – instead of IRRRB schema – would obviate malfeasance .

  6. Why would anyone want a company to be less profitable? Being good stewards of our land can co-exist with mining/logging. Bringing jobs up here should be priority number 1 for our elected officials.

  7. Also good to know that the IRRRB has considerable incentive to maximize their ore tax income stream by advocating open-pit mining – here, look at Figure 35 (p.53 in the reader, 49 printed ) from a 2011 MN State Revenue publication . (Think copper taxes differently than iron, but) the underground/open rate gap is especially salient given that Duluth Complex copper assay rates go 1-2% concentration(?) , a material reality that exerts big bias in planning for an operating facility . “Underground uneconomic” , verbatim on the page. Plus all that legacy non-compliance oxide stuff hat was being talked about here a couple weeks back .


    • That was lazy , and my understanding’s less than full after reading several times . Take-home : More tons mined = more production $ ?

      • ” The mineralization consists predominantly of disseminated sulfides that collectively constitute over 4.4 billion tons of material averaging 0.66 percent copper and 0.2
        percent nickel (Listerud and Meineke, 1977). http://www.d.umn.edu/~mille066/Teaching/5100_07/Articles/RI_58.8.pdf , Chapter 8, ‘Disseminated sulfide mineralization ‘

        What is that , 300000 tons of copper ? Can a mathy help out here ?

        • A shade over 29 millon tons. That’s about $148 billion at current prices for spot copper, which is at a low point at this moment. Prices are now at a 5 year low point, and about 55% of 5 year highs, so if the mines are closed during low points and opened during high points the profits could be much higher.

          This does not count the nickel, or any of the very small expected yields of gold, silver, and platinum.

  8. It’s one thing to write complaining about politicians, but some of these ideas seem awful critical of normal, non-political people who work hard to simply make a good life for their families. There are still a few thousand people around here who work outside in -40 F or 95 F, in thunderstorms, in blizzards – people who come home tired and turn around and do it again the next day so their kids can have a nice house and the opportunity to go to college. To call these families “lucky, subservient, or corrupt” and call the area we all live a “post-Soviet abandoned waste dump” really diminishes the validity of any point that was trying to be made.

  9. Kristin Larsen says

    I think a healthy system of government needs fresh voices and lots of back and forth interaction between elected leaders and their constituents. Both have been pretty scarce but we’re approaching a time when folks should be considering throwing their hats in the ring for Minnesota State House and Senate and for elected office at all levels. I’d like to see some regional planning thats open and inclusive and comes from non industry based roots, something more than how can we dig more holes and cut down more trees. Something that lends itself to creative ideas and communities coming together. We need to get together and talk about how we see the future of NE Minnesota. I recently visited with one of our elected leaders and he expressed a desire for greater population to come to NE Minnesota, he felt that would give a broader tax base for better schools and other services. I’ve heard that from other elected leaders. I wonder if that desire is shared. My personal preference would be for levels of sustainable population that do not require major industrial endeavors to be undertaken to support that greater population. Folks know where the cities are and how to move there, we don’t need to recreate them here. I’d like high speed broadband be available and I think getting that going should be job number one of the IRRRB – its supposed to diversify our economy and its pretty hard to have folks ideas flourish if they can’t communicate with the rest of the world.

  10. The stateless nature of broadband would un-tether workflow from geography, something mortally inimical to the IRRRB .

  11. Despite the hyperbole, Paul is dead-on. Look around you, Rangers. Trying to recreate the 50’s is foolish. I haven’t lived there in a long time but visit every year. It looks like one of the poorest states in the US–West Viginia–which has been robbed blind by coal mining interests. Wake up, Rangers!

  12. How has anybody been robbed by the mining companies? How has the Range been sold down the river by mining for employing people? My 2 grandfathers came from over seas and thought the mining companies gave them hope by getting a job where they could support their families. My father and his brothers worked in the mines so their children had the opportunity to leave the Range if they wanted. Some left but some stayed as miners, teachers, doctors and business folks. I just don’t get where the mining companies became these evil corporations that screwed the Range by giving good paying jobs with benefits to thousands of people. Amen to Amy”s words.

  13. Paul Ojanen says

    Allowing myself to respond…
    Some of the responses appear to think that any criticism of mining companies, choices made by area political entities or the environmental conditions attack individuals or communities. That is precisely the problem, that any criticism is met with a defense of “not true” followed by an attack. For a time I have left it as a symptom of the ‘myth of the boiling frog” , but I also think some deliberately do it to deflect from reality. I expressed an opinion, fairly well thought out, of the political system that has:

    1: Dispensed millions of dollars of public funds to a corporation that had no plan, no assets, no experience and employed it’s principal, his wife and his brother as lobbyists. It has no way of collecting the money that has been spent and the public cannot know about it because a local official authored a bill to make the records of such dealings secret, exempt from the Minnesota Data Practices act. In other words, they gave away public funds to a questionable project, the money was used only for “lobbying” by family members and the reaction was to make it a secret. If this occurred in Putin’s Russia an entire documentary about the corruption would have been broadcast here.

    2: Again without public input, invested public funds into a private corporation without any public process or disclosure of personal, relative or business interest while sitting as legislators with a possible interest in modifying environmental or other laws.

    3: Continues, despite public opposition, to subsidize and push a project backed by one of the most unethical and rapacious companies in the world, Glencore. And does that without any disclosure of how many officials have purchased stock in the company and how they or others they know might benefit.

    4: Regardless if mining stopped now, there would be impacts to water, water quality and the landscape for a millennium. Entire watersheds have been altered ,aquifers affected and some of the consequences will not show up for another century. The companies have never ever been forced to compensate the public or the citizens. All the costs and effects have been shoved onto the public and the proposed responses from legislators is to make it easier to do this.

    5: Mining corporations are not paying people out of the kindness of their hearts. They are doing it because they have to, and all the government subsidies and assistance are merely part of wage subsidy. BUT, I will remind you, not a single closed taconite company has reclaimed the site and paid it’s pensions. In every single case they have walked away leaving a social and environmental mess. The only response has been to organize and subsidize a way into the sites being used again. There has never been a successful or responsible shutdown.

    In other words, everything has been borrowed from future generations. For example, you and I will soon pay tax money for a bridge due to decisions made 50 plus years ago, and no one who made or is making a profit will feel the slightest pinch.

    I don’t understand what communities people see. Some of them are nothing but senior citizen enclaves with abandoned houses. There isn’t a single functioning downtown and the income divide is at pre-depression levels. Addiction is rampant, whether alcohol or other drugs. The better off are isolated in their Petionville’s, whether on the lakes, the few small developments or out in the country.

    The only plans are repeatedly more of the same. And, mysteriously, it is often the same people or their descendants who propose them.

  14. I know I am much older than most on this site but I’m shocked by the feelings folks have towards the mining companies. I remember sitting at a picnic table talking to my grandparents about life here in northern Minn. They were so appreciative for the opportunity to work after all they had gone thru leaving their home countries, landing at Ellis Island, making their way to Upper Peninsula and coming here when the Range started mining iron ore. My uncles worked in the mines along with my dad and they all said it was good pay for a tough job. Between my mom and dad’s families there were 12 brothers and sisters that all lived within 25-30 miles from each other, I have over 50 cousins. Well over half of my cousins have college degrees, while many moved from the Range, many came back and many stayed to work up here straight outta High school. If the mining companies were robbing the Range blind and screwing us so badly how could 1 family have doctors, lawyers, miners, business people , politicians and successful citizens coming from 4 grandparents that didn’t speak english when they arrived in the USA. It is not that bad up here people, can and should get better…. but not that bad.

    • What would the mines represent to anyone born after 1980? And, how does anything you just said matter to anyone born after 1980? Do you think your story matches the one people would have even heard from their grandparents (parents) if those grandparents were formerly employed by Reserve Mining? Or if employed by LTV? etc…

      • Trevor, it seems you’re implying that Ken has this over-romanticized view of the Range and the mining companies, and maybe I agree somewhat. But then, when I read the wording of your own response, I think, “Give it another 10 years, young man … give it another 10 years …”

        Somewhere in-between your age and Ken’s age, I realized that the mining companies aren’t “bad” and they’re not “good”. They’re just companies that offer decent wages for hard work – some-times still tougher, more physical labor than what a lot of jobs now-a-days demand – but that’s all. They’re not saviors, and they’re not completely evil.

        Though I was born in the 70s, not the 80s, would I still want my kids to work at a mine? Sure. If my kids are going to work hard, work outside in summer and winter, work in industry – sure. I’d rather have them make mining wages than less. I’d rather them have more free-time than they would at other jobs to make the same amount of money. I’d rather them work where there’s been a hundred years of safety improvements and standards for workers. I’d rather have them stay in the area so I can be near my grandchildren and involved in their lives.

        Guess that’s my Gen-X perspective : )

        • Do you believe miners perform physical labor? Or, more importantly, do you believe miners perform labor which is more physically demanding than almost every person (the majority) employed elsewhere?

          I always enjoy your comments. I honestly do see your points. But here are my thoughts:

          There are 3975 miners. Those 3975 people on the Iron Range probably do not see a Soviet waste land outside the windows of their “nice” houses. What about the other 40,000 plus people? How does that environment appear to them? Most of them will never be employed by the mines. That is the perspective the writer is taking here. He is writing for the over 90% of other folks. What is their perspective?

          The writer does not see a worthwhile trade off between new mining and future employment.

          • Sorry this is going to get too long …

            Yes, I do know many people that still work physically hard jobs in the mines or related industries. I also think that the shift-work of those jobs makes it tough on a person, especially as we get into our 40s and older. Do I think every person in the mines works physically harder than every other person on the Range? No, of course not. Do I think people in the mines get paid much more fairly for their work? Yes, I do. (Should we maybe start everything by getting the 90% you mentioned more fairly compensated for the work they do than arguing about the mines? : )

            Now about that 90% …. think about those 3,975 miners you mentioned. Let’s say that on average, those miners live in families of 3.5 people. That now brings us to 14,000 people affected by those mining jobs. Next, how many people work for Lakehead, CR Meyer, IMS, NBC, Idea Drilling, or the other construction/maintenance companies? Though these people are not technically “miners” many of them work a lot in the mines (sometimes for years at a time on projects). Next, how many people work for Ferguson, Fastenal, Joy Global, Ziegler-Cat or other vendors? Though these people are not technically “miners”, they provide many goods and services to the mines. Next, pretty much ask any bar owner, restaurant owner, realtor, small business owner in the area … would they rather the mines be operating or closed? I think you are underestimating the reach of the industry and its effect on the area.

            Though I didn’t really get the actual meaning of the essay, I totally agree with you that there are many people who don’t live in nice houses or have good lives here, especially children. I just don’t think that’s the fault of people who work in the mines though. (If that was the perspective of the writer, he didn’t seem to give a solution, just a problem?)

            So Trevor, what do you personally think would get more people here into a nice house and a good life? : )

        • Hi Amy. I believe you are assuming some things. We probably agree on all this. Maybe I misled you. Sorry. I was not trying to represent my personal story with my comments. I was reacting to the descriptions made by the writer. My personal story is not relevant to the discussion other than I left there once I became an adult. But it is not relevant to the discussion because I would have left under great economic circumstances.

          • AHHH!! You commented at the same time as me. Now we are out of order.

            Personally, I believe the IRRRB could allocate scarce resources to more areas that actually help the economy there move out of the industrial mindset and into the rest of society. I also believe that people could feel less attachment to mining as an identity. Miners should feel like miners. That’s it. The entire community should not feel as though mining is so relevant. The dollars that mining produces are not relevant to Rangers other than as wages or production fees that are similar to property taxes.

            Once people realize that mining only pays a few thousand local people, and then mainly serves the economic self-interest of foreigners, life will be nice for the majority. Too many people believe they can become employed by mines. That will never be the case. I think that thought is intentional. I think someone wants you to believe mining is more valuable to the community than it really is.

  15. Well stated Ken. Your family story is representative of 10’s of thousands of Rangers….grateful Rangers.

  16. Trevor, I would say to LTV and Reserve Mining thank you for hiring thousands of workers for nearly 50 yrs. If I was a 4th or 5th generation Ranger I would say thank you for hiring my great grandfather right on down to my father. I would say thank you for helping build schools , hospitals and communities up here. If you ever stated a business you understand how hard it is to STAY in business. If you ever had to close a business you would understand how much it hurts to have to let employees go. Those same employees you let go fought for your dream with all their heart and soul…. It hurts to close a business both financially and emotionally. So to some it up if I was born in the 80’s I would say thank you to all those who came before and busted their ass to try to give me a better life.

    • …and you would say time to move. Do the same thing those people did a few generations ago. Right? I think that’s the ultimate point here.

  17. Moving is a hard decision to make. Only the person who’s considering it could make that call. I wish there were jobs for all who wanted to work on the Range. I love our area. That is why I’m so down on IRRRB, they are not bringing jobs up here with millions of dollars at their disposal. I’m all in on Polymet, logging and any other industry that brings jobs. I have found that very few things makes a person feel better about themselves than being well rewarded for their labor. One of the reasons I admire my grandparents so much is they came to a new country with nothing being promised to them. They were much braver than I could ever be.

    • That is exactly the reason I am so down on the IRRRB. I believe everything you say is correct. Amy as well. I think we are all saying the same thing usually. We just all say things differently. There does not have to be a dependency paradigm. My true feelings are more related to issues of freedom rather than economics.

  18. It is obviously incorrect to impute either benign or malign motives to the mining companies or any other company. They have a single motivation: to make money. They have a single responsibility: to make money for their shareholders.

    Opening mines, closing mines, hiring workers both native born and immigrants, firing workers, creating unsightly and/or environmentally harmful impacts or creating cities and businesses that serve their workers are all side effects of their mission to earn money. To paraphrase Lincoln, if making their profits required using only robots and not employing a single person while turning the Range into a toxic waste site, they would do it. If making their profits required paying premium wages to every man, woman, and child on the Range while creating a parkland, they would do it. There is no question of morality or right or wrong here, just money.

    But that is the beauty of capitalism. It motivates its practitioners to create value in order to make a profit, and to fill the needs they find in the population for a product or service. It has, as Ken says, helped make a way of life possible, and that way of life is pretty good for a lot of us.

    The other side is that in the face of the essentially amoral (not immoral) nature of capitalism, if we want to impose moral or ethical or public spirited or even far sighted behavior on capitalism, we have to do it ourselves. If we want safe working conditions, living wages, fair prices, pleasant retirement, clean water, clean air, good schools, good health care, or preservation of the natural environment, we have to impose it on the businesses, since their natural and indeed imperative behavior is to minimize costs to maximize profits. We need unions and we need government to do that, because we need policies, laws, regulators, inspectors, and a judicial system to force that behavior. Adam Smith can tell you all about this, as can every other rational economist or social theorist since him.

    So we need our government to walk a fine line between servile bowing to the desires of business and mindless intransigent opposition to those desires. Some of the information on this blog, on this and other threads, suggests that politicians on the Range have lost sight of that balance sometimes, while other entries suggest that politicians elsewhere may have lost sight in the opposite way.

    As Kristin Larsen says, the solution to this is increased political involvement by ordinary people to hold politicians accountable, despite the tendency of most of us to believe that it is impossible to do that. The alternative is disaster, no matter what your political philosophy.

    Unfortunately, like it or not, this is the best system anyone has been able to figure out. The alternatives, both right and left, have ended in whips, chains, summary executions, gulags, and concentration camps. We have even seen some of that in our own history. You can argue that some other countries do this a little better, but they tend to be much smaller and much less diverse. We just have to be willing to continue slogging ahead, despite the blinding blizzard we have to walk into. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

    PS: Minnesota happens to offer an exceptional way for ordinary people to get involved. About 12 months from now, both major parties will be holding their party caucuses, which are open meetings of your friends and neighbors. You can walk in, get involved, and maybe end up in St. Paul a few years from now, or at least become a close associate of someone who does end up in St. Paul. In most states, all those decisions and other activities occur in offices in tall buildings among people who have a lot of money, or close relationships with people who do. Here it starts in a local school or town hall.

    Go ahead. Do it. The parties are actually begging you to, as well as begging you to get involved in other activities that control political outcomes. It’s like supercharging your vote.

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