IRRR must adapt or be smashed to pieces

PHOTO: Up North Memories (Flickr CC)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Amid a global pandemic and watershed moment in social justice it seems mundane to raise a parochial political concern like the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (nee IRRRB).

Over the years the IRRRB has been involved in many important, boring, and sometimes questionable investments in public works and economic development under administrations of both major parties. For decades this board held significant administrative power. But in 2016 an auditor’s report declared those powers to be potentially unconstitutional. Now the board is legally considered an advisory body to a state agency.

That hardly seemed the case at the IRRRB’s June 10 meeting, however. From among several public works projects State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) and others targeted just one for criticism. The Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwa had requested a $250,000 grant to help build a water tower near Brookston in southern St. Louis County. This area lies within the IRRRB service area.

Staff explained that the water in this area is undrinkable and that the citizens who live in this small community needed the project. Most of the project funding comes from other sources. The IRRRB often helps local governments defray the costs of bigger projects with smaller supporting grants like this.

That is, unless politics enter the equation.

“I can’t remember ever having a situation where a local government came to us that was anti-mining and asked for mining tax dollars,” said Bakk.

See, the Fond du Lac band — which does not oppose iron mining — has officially protested the permitting process for proposed copper-nickel mines at Hoyt Lakes and Ely. And even though these mines don’t exist yet and don’t pay any production taxes to the board, opposing them is apparently such a sacrilege as to deserve unfit drinking water.

Other board members, including Reps. David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora) and Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin), joined in. Couldn’t they fund something else instead? They didn’t have anything else to fund, so that didn’t work. Commissioner Mark Phillips — who will make the actual decision — seemed apologetic for the whole thing, essentially saying that his boss the governor had suggested they help the project.

Despite the fact that the project outscored other public works proposals on the list, the water tower grant was pulled from the consent agenda in a motion by Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) and forwarded to the next meeting.

Here are two big rhetorical questions.

Is the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency here to serve the common good of all residents?

Or is it just the arm of an entrenched political establishment that uses funding to suppress dissent, control local governments, and project outsized power for a few politicians?

If the latter, it must be smashed. The board. The agency. The works. There are better, smarter ways to deliver taconite taxes to do public good. Time and again over the past 19 years I have defended the IRRRB’s model of using taconite taxes to strategically support Range communities. But if this board can’t separate its public mission from unrelated policy differences across a diverse population, well, it’s nothing more than a toxic political machine. I worry that perhaps it always was.

If you support President Trump, chances are it’s because he vowed to smash institutions you distrust.

If you support reform after the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, chances are you want to destroy the institutions of injustice, too.

The institutions of our society — government, business, and social — are proving incapable of addressing the mounting challenges of this tumultuous 21st Century. We need empathy, innovation, and real thinking about what comes next.

Why would it be any different at the IRRRB? Why tolerate an institution that seeks political retribution in the face of a reasonable request for a relatively small grant for a much needed water tower?

We shouldn’t, of course. The problem with Iron Range politics has long been what social psychologist Irving L. Janis called groupthink. Unity protected our communities from outside political attack but also kept us from innovating, growing or adapting to change. It was true when the Iron Range elected Republicans in the ‘20s, Democrats for years to follow, and now when we are nearly split on partisan preference.

On one level there’s this fact, one that will likely rule the day. If the IRRRB denies this grant the state will be exposed for a discrimination lawsuit that will cost the agency scads more than the grant request. That’s just stupid and wrong.

But more importantly this region must adapt to a changing world with many different opinions. This world will never provide bumper sticker solutions to our economic problems. So let’s stop the theater and get to work.

We may hope the board will see reason when next they meet. If they don’t, perhaps the people of the Iron Range will. It’s their agency and their money. When institutions fail they should be reformed. When they fail to reform, they should be smashed.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 21, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Will this Op-Ed be on the Pulitzer shortlist? says

    Your article ignores an important point to fit your predetermined narrative. The Fond Du Lac band DOES oppose taconite mining. They have been an active party in lawsuits against Minntac for years. Surely you know that, right? You’ve reported on it before. Why didn’t you mention that here?

    I truly hope Fond Du Lac can get the extra funding for their project, as we should all do our part to assist chronically underfunded indigenous communities, but they should have thought twice about looking for money from the very industry that they oppose. Look elsewhere.

    • So what? Why does that matter? Your point assumes that the funds controlled by the IRRRB are property of the industry and its supporters. The funding comes from mines WHO DO NOT PAY PROPERTY TAXES AT ALL. They belong to the people, via their local governments. The IRRRB is simply the statutory agency that distributes the funds. The political opinions held within one community or another are not the criteria used to determine if those local governments are eligible for IRRRB funding. There are other criteria, which this project not only met but that exceeded other projects that *were* funded.

      Why should Minntac get to run a pit that approaches 2000 ppm in sulfate knowing that this will require mitigation when Minntac closes someday? Even if you think it should, it is possible, just ever so slightly possible that someone, somewhere in the region might disagree. If they do, does that mean their whole community is no longer eligible for funding, especially emergency funding when there is a lack of clean drinking water? I’m sorry, but I find that argument ethically bankrupt.

      • Will this Op-Ed be on the Pulitzer shortlist? says

        Fine, call me morally bankrupt but at least I’m capable of complex thought. Starting to question whether you are too.

        You keep citing the opinions of community members within the Fond Du Lac band as reasons why the IRRRB is reluctant to fund the project. Those opinions just DO NOT matter here. Band members are free to have their own opinions, and I believe they are completely justified in having them. But the Fond Du Lac Band is the party on the lawsuits against Minntac AND the entity requesting taconite funding! How can you not put that together in your mind?

        Joining a lawsuit isn’t simply “expressing one’s political opinion” as you are dismissing it. It is a deliberate act with an intended purpose.

        This isn’t about private citizens having opinions on mining, even though that’s what you said in your article and in your comment. It is about the actions of the body that is both fighting against AND apparently dependent upon the taconite industry. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, or in this case, don’t bite the hand then expect it to feed you afterwards.

        • I’m sorry but you’ve already misrepresented things I’ve said. Can we have a good faith discussion here? I called your argument ethically bankrupt. I don’t know you. Or do I? No, I wasn’t just talking about individual members of the Fond du Lac band. I was talking about the band itself. It has a right to pursue its own interests while availing itself of funding opportunities.

          Once a mine is taxed the money ceases to be an agent of mining interests and becomes an agent of community building. In theory allocations would be given according to need and proportion. Hence, a rare and small request by Fond du Lac for something important.

          I repeat, so what if the band sues for environmental protection? So what? You don’t like it? That’s your right. But raising legal concerns about issues that affect them is their right. Any town or organization can sue for a redress of grievances. If a Range city had a beef with a mine they could sue too. They generally don’t think that way because Range towns have been neutered by the IRRRB funding process.

          For the last three years I’ve been researching Iron Range history. Lawsuits between cities and the mines were frequent in the 1910s. Often they had to do with power. Who controls the direction that a local government takes? Its elected government? Or the mining companies. The local governments won. Know what? They got way more money per capita then than they do now. In other words, the more we have bent over backward for the mining industry the smaller our share of tax revenue. The Range political establishment is acting like a desperate junky, lashing out at any perceived threat to its stash.

          Here I object to the action taken by the board because they are acting not as arbiters of the IRRRB mission, but as enforcers for the industry. I am upset because this board would rather burn $500,000 in a bonfire than give $250,000 to a local government that doesn’t support its entirely unrelated political agenda. Why can’t YOU make that connection?

          Mining, mining, mining. Keep repeating it. Won’t stop automation. Won’t stop the union busting that’s coming. Won’t prevent all our communities from being starved by backwards thinking and aimless planning. The band is not dependent on mining revenue, but it is entitled to fair treatment. The fact that no one on the Range will take a piss without company approval is the real problem.

          • And you know what else sticks in my craw? If legal action against mines made you “anti-mining” there wouldn’t be an IRRRB.

          • Elanne Palcich says

            To the nameless person who is arguing with Aaron: part of the production tax money (1964 Taconite Tax Amendment) was to be distributed by the IRRRB to help diversify the iron range economy–away from mining dependence.
            Don’t forget that the logging and mining industries pushed the indigenous peoples off their own land/territory to begin with. Fond du Lac has participated in legal action against Minntac in an effort to protect wild rice (and fish) as part of their treaty rights. The DNR has never enforced state regulations regarding water seepage from Minntac’s tailings basin.
            Clean water doesn’t seem to be much of a priority with any of our agencies.
            Mining and big Ag interests dominate–as the IRRRB decision demonstrates.

          • Will this Op-Ed be on the Pulitzer shortlist? says

            Fair enough of an argument, Aaron. Wish you would have put as much thought into the article as you did your comment, because then I wouldn’t have commented in the first place.

            We will just have to disagree on the basics of the IRRRB’s power and role. If this was the Bois Forte band that asked for funding, I would be incensed if the IRRRB made this decision. Yes, they were a signatory on that letter about copper-nickel mining a few months back, but whatever. That doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is the active role that Fond du Lac has taken against Minntac. I also am confused as to why exactly Fond du Lac is within the relief area, but that is a different argument for a different day. And before you tell me all about it, Elanne, I know the criteria, I just think it could use an update.

            I still don’t fully understand why you didn’t clearly mention the lawsuit against Minntac in the original article, but now you do a few posts deep in a comment thread. I know you’ve got your biases–I do too–but honesty and openness are pretty cool concepts, especially when you have a reader base that has their mind all made up on the topic. They help us think critically, which I know you can do.

            Yes, Elanne, I know why the IRRRB exists and what its purpose is. And no, Aaron, you don’t know me. But you should know that I piss freely, although I am a little pee-shy.

        • Gerald S says

          I think in order to think clearly about this issue, you need to focus on the fact that the money the IRRRB collects is collected in lieu of property taxes. This is not a charitable contribution or a grant coming from the mining industry. It is money they pay to avoid having to pay property tax on their huge property holdings in the area.

          In that light, in order to think clearly about this controversy, you should go ahead and substitute the phrase “property tax” when you use the phrase “IRRB funding.”

          So the question is, would you support the idea that property tax money on mining property should not be used to supply clean water to a neighborhood where the neighborhood organization opposes some mining projects and some behavior of mining companies? If a neighborhood opposed building a Walmart, should they then be denied access to the property taxes the Walmart pays after it opens?

          It is also useful to realize that the people suffering from not having clean water are not the Band leaders, scientists, and legal staff who are involved in the litigation about mining pollution, but the ordinary citizens of a small, not very prosperous town.

          And, as Aaron says, if the IRRRB continues down this path they are going to end up in a lawsuit over discrimination against the Fond du Lac Band. That lawsuit will be long, expensive, embarrassing to the region, and the IRRRB will undoubtedly lose given the statements that the IRRRB board has already made — ask the city of Duluth how litigation against the Band works out. It would be a lot smarter to stop this nonsense and award the funding to what is, as the non-political staff of the IRRRB has already attested, an excellent and appropriate project that will benefit exactly the people who are supposed to benefit from the money the IRRRB collects in lieu of property tax.

      • Why can’t they use casino money for the project. It’s always hands out begging for money from miners when that money is supposed to support projects in mining areas of minnesota. Brookston sure doesn’t qualify as a mining community.
        Miners, family of miners and supporters need to boycott the casinos in Duluth and the Black Bear. I always stop at Black Bear on my way home but I would rather burn my money than support the anti-mining reservations.

        • Gerald S says

          Having the casinos does not mean the members of the Band should not benefit from their share of tax collections, or from money owed by the government as part of the treaties in which European Americans took possession of most Native land.

          Again, changing the language a bit might help people to think straight.

          Do you believe that if a group of people in a neighborhood are well off that the city they live in should not maintain and plow their street, that they should be required to pay for that out of their private resources because they have money?

          Same song, different verse.

    • Nelson French says

      No, actually I believe they are supporting appropriate oversight and regulation of pollution control permits that all taconite m8n8 g operations are required to follow. In my view that does not constitute opposition, it implies a desire to com0y with the rule of law.

  2. Watching Limmer and Gazelka respond to Hayden, Foung Hawj, and Torres Ray was shocking. Republicans opposing the POCI was expected. The actual language and communication on the senate floor was disturbing.

    Bakk was replaced as Minority Leader just in time, somehow, apparently. How would Bakk have differed from Gazelka or Limmer last week? Seems Tomassoni quietly voted with Republicans at telling moments, for reference.

    Why were Bakk’s votes conveniently abstained? Remote members still voted through their respective leader.

    The facade is fading. The veil is lifting. The world of pointless emails, meaningless meetings, and false joviality continues to erode. The truth is drowning so called decorum.

    The water tower money is a clear opportunity to see inside people. All of these issues reveal something. There are people that cannot see the revelations. That is sad. I pity such people reaching and grabbing, machinating and bloviating for what? Each one of these moments is stripped bare of aberration or decoration.

  3. Joe musich says

    …”… Here are two big rhetorical questions.

    Is the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation agency here to serve the common good of all residents?

    Or is it just the arm of an entrenched political establishment that uses funding to suppress dissent, control local governments, and project outsized power for a few politicians?…”

    I would focus on the third and that would be outright racism. What is the attitude of people toward native people’s up there and for that matter throughout the state by the politically powerful and the general population ? How is it really different then 1940? What if this was a old town of white people who recognized their water had been affected by mining and took a stand to save water ? Would the decision have been the same ? Particularly by the Chisholm guy. From the guy up 53 I expected as much. I do not care how much the topic is skirted. And just for fun to see how racism read Tice’s column in the Strib from Sunday. The guy should be without a job today. Minnesota also has an original sin and it sitting there for all to see. Tice link …

    • It’s supposed to support development in Mining communities in Northern Minnesota and Brookston doesn’t qualify as a mining community. Yelling racist is a way for the new brownshirt facists to silence anyone with an opinion different than theirs. It can be seen in the demonizing and destroying college professors who like conservative media or public figures. People are scared that their lives will be destroyed for speaking their mind because any view differing from yours is racist, sexist or any other ‘ist that can be accused.

      • Joe musich says

        Can you answer the question that I had asked which is what role are race issues playing in the original announcements ? Although at this point it seems moot as if something propelled the IRRRB to make the correct decision. I wonder what that might have been ? This should have been a no brained decision-mining screwed up the water no further discussion.

  4. I’m missing something here. Aaron states that the water there is undrinkable. The project is apparently to build a new water tower. Water towers help cover peak demands and provide a surge capacity for occasions like fires. They do absolutely noting by themselves to improve water quality.

    To improve water quality you need some kind of a water processing plant, which is not mentioned.

    Which is it? Enquiring minds want to know.

    • Gerald S says

      I tried to find an answer to that question, and have been unable to find any explanation.

      I can think of two potential reasons for requiring a new water tower as a necessity. One is if the water tower itself is a source of contamination, either by microorganisms that have colonized it or by chemical pollutants being shed by the old tower — water towers are downstream from treatment plants — and consequently needs to be replaced. The other possibility is that the water contamination is requiring a new well or wells, and that the flow from the new wells is not as strong as from the existing wells, requiring a larger water tower to assure adequate reserves of available water and adequate water pressure.

      A third possibility is that the tower is nearing the end of its useful life and is expensive to maintain and will need replacement soon, so that the replacement as part of the current project is a good idea, rather than coming back in a couple of years for a new tower on the heels of this larger water project. This is semi-optional, but makes the same sort of sense as replacing your old water heater at the same time as replacing your furnace.

      In this day and age, it would not be uncommon for news media to have ignored that question due to lack of reporting resources and space in the paper or on broadcasts. Maybe some enterprising news commentator or citizen should give the Band a call and ask.

      I find it hard to believe that the town would want a new tower just because it was prettier, or that the local politicians are getting kickbacks from water tower builders, so there must be some explanation.

  5. Mike Banovetz says

    Why should the IRRRB be supporting an independent nation?? If they want free money they should negotiate with the USA federal government.

    • Gerald S says

      As I am sure you know, the people involved are tax-paying citizens of the United States, Minnesota, and St. Louis County. They are our neighbors, and, as inhabitants of the IRRRB impact region, are entitled to consideration for use of the funds. Obviously, the professional staff to the IRRRB knows that, and have acted accordingly, It is only the politicians who are ignorant of the facts of the situation, whether in reality or just willfully.

      As I always suggest to anyone who objects to the special “nationhood” status of the Bands, I am certain that if you want to call off the treaty arrangement, the Band would be glad to take its land back.

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