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Losing wetlands: The sinking of Minnesota’s protections

marsh photo
While the governor appears to be in favor of protecting our wetlands, he has allowed BWSR and its stakeholders to help author policy changes to be set before the state Legislature that are the direct opposite of his Executive Directive.

This commentary contains a correction.

CHISHOLM, Minn. — Wetlands are valued for maintaining and improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, reducing run-off while retaining floodwaters, reducing stream sedimentation, conserving surface waters and subsurface moisture, helping moderate climate change, and enhancing the natural beauty of the landscape. Most of Minnesota has given up its pre-settlement wetlands in exchange for urban development and agriculture. According to existing records, the northeast corner of Minnesota has retained 80 percent or more of its pre-settlement wetlands, although many wetlands were destroyed by logging and mining before being documented.

Minnesota Statutes, section 103A.201, subdivision 2(b) states that it is in the public interest to achieve no net loss in the quantity, quality and biological diversity of Minnesota’s wetlands. In a political move to appease conservationists after he signed legislation streamlining environmental permitting, Gov. Mark Dayton issued Executive Order 12-04.

In it, he ordered the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lands and Minerals Division, Department of Transportation, Pollution Control Agency, Department of Agriculture, and invited stakeholders, to develop recommendations to improve current wetland protection, restoration and mitigation.

BWSR is chaired by Brian Napstad, Aitkin County commissioner. Napstad is also a member of the Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board (NCLUCB), consisting of commissioner representatives from eight counties:  Aitkin, Cook, Koochiching, Lake, Lake-of-the-Woods, Pennington, Roseau, and St. Louis. NCLUCB views wetlands as an impediment to development.

More loss coming

Continued expansion of the operating taconite mines in St. Louis County results in the continued loss of wetlands. Early on, mining operations were not required to compensate for wetland loss. Taconite mining’s open pits, waste rock piles and tailings basins sit on large tracts of what once were wetlands, streams and even small lakes. Some of this loss has been “mitigated” by preserving wetlands or restoring ditched wetlands in Aitkin, Koochiching, and Lake of the Woods counties. These counties lose their tax base when land is taken out of farming or otherwise preserved.

More wetland replacement will be needed for the start-up of the Essar Steel nugget plant projected for this fall, and for Mesabi Nugget’s proposed open-pit mine. The loss of wetlands for the proposed PolyMet mine (1,400 affected acres) would be the largest single loss in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, and expansion of United Taconite ‘s tailings basin would destroy another 1,100 acres.

Because mining is eating up so much of the wetlands in the Lake Superior watershed, legislation was passed in 2012 that allows such wetland mitigation to take place in the Rainy River watershed at a 1:1 ratio. Previously, mitigating outside of the affected watershed required a 1: 1.5 replacement ratio. The change made it easier and less expensive for mining companies to compensate for the destruction of wetlands.

If implemented, new recommendations will further erode the no-net-loss of wetlands policy that Dayton says he wants to preserve. Minnesota House File 1637 includes the following changes: 1) under a permit to mine, the Great Lakes, Rainy River, and the Red River of the North shall be considered as a single watershed and 2) an in-lieu fee wetland replacement program would allow for a monetary payment in place of a wetland banking program; this program would be administered by BWSR.

Impacts of in-lieu fee arrangement

An in-lieu fee would give mining companies credit in advance, clear them of responsibility for wetland replacement, and remove any incentive to avoid wetland destruction. Mining companies will be able to continue destroying high quality functioning wetlands in Minnesota’s Arrowhead if BWSR makes in-lieu arrangements to mitigate wetlands in the Red River watershed. This policy will result in a net loss of functioning wetlands and a repetition of the cycle by which wetlands are destroyed and then attempted to be reconstructed.

H.F. 1637 also marginalizes citizen input by relying on stakeholder policymaking. Stakeholders include mining and/or logging industry representatives. A token environmental group may be included. Even so, some environmental groups favor wetland replacement mitigation that creates habitat for ducks and migrating birds, while neglecting to consider the scope of wetland loss in the ecologically fragile environment of Superior National Forest within the Lake Superior watershed, and the Boundary Waters. For example, high-quality wetlands are critical for survival of the declining moose population in the area. During the summer months, moose feed on aquatic vegetation and depend on the cooling effects of water. Wetlands impound and retain water, buffering the impacts of drought and climate change.

While the governor appears to be in favor of protecting our wetlands, he has allowed BWSR and its stakeholders to help author policy changes to be set before the state Legislature that are the direct opposite of his Executive Directive. With both House and Senate under DFL control, northeast Minnesota legislators who favor mining expansion hold chairmanship position of key committees. HF 1637 is currently sitting in the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee under the chairmanship of Rep. David Dill.

HF 1785, St. Louis County state land exchange, has also been referred to Rep. Dill’s committee. Its companion bill, SF 1605, is in the Environment and Energy Committee, chaired by Sen. John Marty. This bill provides a wetland mitigation exchange for projects, including PolyMet’s proposed copper sulfide open pit. The proposed mine site would affect 1,400 acres of Superior National Forest wetlands, the largest single loss in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers. This exchange is a remake of the original PolyMet Wetlands Mitigation Plan, which was opposed by local residents who objected to functional wetlands being used for restorative mitigation by filling in remaining ditches, destroying existing habitat, and impacting adjoining farm land. The plan was ultimately denied in court. This history isn’t preventing legislators from slipping what looks like an innocuous land exchange through the Legislature.

Policy changes under the radar

Northeast legislators have already added language to HF 976 that expands the definition of scram mining in statute. According to this new language, more than 80 acres of land not previously affected by mining can also be mined if the operator can demonstrate that impacts would be substantially the same as other scram operations. This pertains to land not previously impacted by mining, and would now include the mining of taconite ores. Passage of this bill would statutorily eliminate environmental review for previously unmined areas. This acreage could include wetlands. Wetland policy thus gets modified under the radar, allowing the landscape of northeast Minnesota to change dramatically, altering flora, fauna and the integrity of watersheds. Meanwhile, Dayton is held free of accountability.

At a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce meeting on March 13, the governor, in responding to a question regarding the length of time it is taking the proposed PolyMet mine to get permitted, stated that he would like to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (MPR, March 21, 2013, “Dayton defends his criticism of EPA at Duluth town hall”). At an April 9 panel discussion sponsored by the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Ethics and Public Policy, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said that Dayton was concerned about the pace with which the EPA is proceeding on mining permits. Landwehr and MPCA Commissioner John Stine met recently with EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman about how state and federal permitting can be more efficient.

Defend or dismantle

Dayton’s tactics are leading to an erosion of regulations that were put in place to protect our environment. The governor cannot have it both ways. Either he defends the rights of workers and the public to clean water and air in a quality environment, or he continues to dismantle legislation designed to protect those rights. His choice will determine his legacy.

To express concerns about the wetlands and quality of Minnesota’s environment, contact the governor at 1-800-657-3717.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary said that DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr answered a question at a panel discussion in part by saying that Gov. Mark Dayton had met with EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman to advocate for PolyMet. It was Landwehr and MPCA Commissioner John Stine who met with Hedman, and the subject was permitting in general, not permitting of PolyMet. The governor was not present at the meeting.


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/29/2013 - 10:03 am.

    The state is not the only group with authority

    The Corps has jurisdiction over some of the waters through the 404 permitting processes and possibly section 10. EPA has section 401 jurisdiction over Tribal Lands and things that impact trust assets unless they have delegated that authority to the tribe.

    Does this just look like something is being done for business while the Federal Government takes the heat for denying a permit. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    PCA and DNR are in general the two of the most inept agencies on the planet. Not in total they do have some pockets of excellence but they are very wishy washy.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/29/2013 - 11:26 am.

    Some perspective

    The demand for conservation land from mining operations is trivial compared to the demand from agriculture.
    The high price of corn and soybeans, resulting from legislative mandates for biofuels, is causing more and more land to go under cultivation. The US currently has more than 40 million prime crop acres producing corn solely to make moonshine to put in our gas tanks. That provides perhaps
    6-7% of our gasoline demand with no net energy saving. I suggest that policy is madness.

  3. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/29/2013 - 01:49 pm.

    Our natual resource heritage

    It is depressing to see the things that make Minnesota “Minnesota” erode away by commercial intests to a point that our grandchildren will not know about the breathtaking beauty that was once present in our state. I know, its about “jobs” but what will remain of the beauty?

  4. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 04/29/2013 - 06:08 pm.

    A Very Poor Comparison…

    especially since changing ethanol policy will have no affect on the loss of wetlands and habitat in Northeastern Minnesota. The real problem will still be sulfide tailings and the likelihood that the mine will pollute. When all is said and done the public will be left tailings pond that is full of battery acid which will be left behind for the public to manage for centuries. It’s a temporary boom (for a foreign company) that will in all likelihood destroy a permanent and locally lucrative recreation area.

  5. Submitted by Kate Paul on 04/29/2013 - 08:41 pm.

    More perspective

    The additional replacement for Essar Steel that you refer to is not needed under the State’s Wetland Conservation Act, but it is being required by the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is because those additional acres of wetlands are not natural wetlands; they are wet areas that have formed into wetlands over just the last few decades on top of the old Butler tailings basin, on previously disturbed ground. And the proposed PolyMet project that you state will affect 1400 acres is looking at the direct impact of 800 acres (with 600 acres of possible indirect impacts). This sounds big, and yes, it is big, but also understand it is for the life of the mine, which if approved, will span over 20 years.

    The legislation that was passed in 2012 to allow a 1:1 replacement ratio between the Lake Superior and Rainy River Basins was already in-place at the federal level with the Corps of Engineers, and this was done at the State level under the WCA (Wetland Conservation Act) with the intent to help move mitigation into a larger area, since there are very limited opportunities for wetland mitigation close to the impacts. Remember, the northeast part of the state still retains over 80% of its original wetlands. It is difficult to find decent sites for mitigation when there is already so much ground covered in wetland. The addition of the Red River Basin would further increase opportunities to find sites to make the highest quality mitigation, and it would also have benefits beyond any that have been utilized to date. These include environmental, public, and infrastructure benefits such as flood control and pollution control from mitigation done adjacent to watercourses; and it would provide wildlife habitat and recreation too. What was once one of the richest prairie wetland areas in the world, the Red River area has lost over 85% of its original wetlands to drainage for agriculture. Eight of the 10 all-time record flood crests have occurred there over the last 30 years. Just look at what is currently happening there. Expanding opportunities for large-scale wetland replacement to this part of the state is an innovative and insightful idea that is well overdue.

    The idea of an in-lieu fee program for wetland replacement has been knocked around for several years, but the question has been who will manage this program and how. Let me set you straight on the three main points in your first sentence about this topic… None are correct. First, an in-lieu fee program would not “give” the companies credit, they would have to pay a pretty penny for every credit (current market price for one wetland credit is about $15,000). And credit “in advance” is what is required by the Corps of Engineers. Ideally, wetland replacement is done up front, in advance of any impacts, to assure that there is good, quality replacement. Second, an in-lieu fee program would not “clear” mining companies of their responsibility for wetland replacement. And third, an in-lieu fee program would not remove incentive to avoid wetland destruction. The number one priority of the State’s Wetland Conservation Act and the US Army Corps of Engineers 404 Policy (Federal Clean Water Act) is wetland impact avoidance and minimization. Just because an in-lieu fee program might come into play, does not exempt the mining companies from doing their due diligence to avoid and minimize wetland impacts, and it most certainly would not clear the mining companies of the responsibility for wetland replacement.

    Counties like Aitkin and Lake-of-the-Woods that already have over 80% of their original natural wetlands and who rely on farming for their tax base don’t want more wetlands created there. Their biggest qualm lies not in wetland impacts from mining operations, but from replacement in their counties that then takes money out of the tax base. Their biggest concern is their own finances. And yes, the mining companies are concerned about their finances. I am concerned about my finances. We are all concerned about our finances.

    If there is to be mining, there will be wetland impacts. In order to avoid further wetland impacts, mining would have to stop, and that would affect a lot of people’s finances, including yours. The entire Iron Range would be affected. And I can tell you this, farming and tourism will not support our economy here, lest we all be poor farmers like me or work at minimum wage service jobs. We better really love our jobs (and grow our own food).

    I have been lucky to work in a state agency with a large group of brilliant, hard-working, environmentally minded individuals who make dang sure that things are done according to state rule, and they work hard to look at all of the alternatives that are possible in any situation, and they also work hard on making improvements for everyone and everything involved, most notably the environment. There are no hidden agendas.

    After 5 years of service, I’m leaving my agency job to pursue something I’m passionate about: my farm. It is good to have things we are passionate about. I commend you for your passion. I commend you for being concerned about important environmental matters. Many people are not concerned enough. But if you want to make a difference, please at least speak from a well-informed, honest point of view. Get your facts straight. And passion aside, please don’t knock hard on something that you most obviously know very little about. The picture is always bigger.

    • Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 05/01/2013 - 01:47 am.

      “The picture is always bigger.”

      The bigger picture in this case would have been full disclosure by Kate Paul that she worked for DNR Land and Minerals. The main reason for the existence of Land and Minerals is promotion of the mining industry, which includes significant loss of wetlands in northeastern Minnesota. Why choose the words “state agency” instead of Land and Minerals? Was it recognition of a substantial conflict of interest? Not exactly speaking from “an honest point of view.” Which makes one question the statement, “There are no hidden agendas.”

      • Submitted by Kate Paul on 05/01/2013 - 12:13 pm.

        Yes, it is always bigger

        The bigger picture yet is the fact that I worked in a regulatory position to make sure that the mining companies comply with State Rules. There are most definitely no hidden agendas in making sure that companies are complying with rules. I have worked with people in multiple state and federal agencies dealing with wetland issues and I can tell you this, no one likes to see wetland loss or associated replacement that is not absolutely the best replacement possible for the environment and for the people around it, that is why innovative ideas for wetland replacement come to the table. Bad mouthing and turning away a creative idea for wetland replacement will not make wetland loss stop; and just because outlets exist to create quality replacement sites does not give mining companies or anyone else permission to make more impacts.
        I did not mention my workplace by name, because I don’t speak for them or anyone else… I speak for myself based on my experience with wetland issues. I wonder if anyone would think different of my statement had I added that I am a CSA farmer, a wildlife biologist, a poet, and an energy healing practitioner with a deep care for the Earth. I am all these things, including a soon-to-be former regulator. But these are all labels. When an article is released for public viewing and the facts are not correct, someone needs to speak up.

  6. Submitted by Rod Loper on 05/01/2013 - 07:57 am.

    Protecting habitat is not a prioity when mining is involved

    The game and fish bill was amended to remove protection of the watersheds of designated
    trout streams in the fracking sand area of S.E. Minnesota. They did it with the DNR commissioner sitting at the table no less. The DFL defers to the iron range delegation at every
    turn. The MCPA pulled out of the EPA research project on mercury in the St Louis River
    watershed for the same reason. ” Our strong standards will protect our precious resources ”
    is a blatant lie.

  7. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 05/08/2013 - 10:13 am.

    “Strong standards” is a sound bite, nothing more…

    Since 2004 alone all operating taconite mines in Minnesota have been in violation of standards numerous times. Variances given to pollute do not count as meeting standards/state rules.

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