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Mining’s influence: How much longer will the Range’s political process kowtow to industry?

photo of open pit iron mine
The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, is the largest open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. As of 2020, material is still mined from the complex by Hibbing Taconite, or HibTac.

The following is an editorial from The Timberjay of Ely/Tower/Cook, Minnesota.

What has long been an unspoken rule about how taconite funds are allocated on the Iron Range became explicit recently when the legislators on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board blocked a funding request from the Fond du Lac Band for a project to make drinkable water available to residents of two small, rural communities within the reservation boundaries.

Given the direct connection to public health, it was no surprise that the IRRR staff had ranked the project highly and agency staff deserve credit for their efforts to defend the project against the politically motivated criticism from members of the agency’s advisory board.

At issue, as Sen. Tom Bakk made explicit, was that the Fond du Lac Band, in his view, was “anti-mining,” and that was the sole litmus test in his mind for whether the funding could be approved. It was inconsistent, he claimed, for a governmental body to be opposed to mining yet accept tax dollars received from the mining industry.

Sen. Bakk should have thought a bit deeper. For one, while it’s true that taconite production tax dollars come from mining, they are in lieu of property taxes. We suspect most Minnesotans, probably even on the Iron Range, are unaware of the fact that mining companies don’t pay property taxes for the hundreds of thousands of acres of mine land that they own. Instead, the Legislature allows them to pay only a tax on actual ore production, so they don’t incur significant tax obligations during shutdowns or after closure of a mine. If the mining companies paid property taxes like the rest of us, the money would go into the same giant hopper as everyone else’s tax dollars, and Sen. Bakk’s argument would vanish into the ether since there would be no distinguishing between a dollar paid by a mining company versus a cabin owner, a local restaurant, or a wilderness outfitter.

The arrangement has also given the mining industry tremendous political power in the region, which they have wielded willingly through the influence of Iron Range legislators and their longtime tenure on the IRRR board, where they’ve overseen the distribution of tens of millions of those mining tax dollars annually to area communities.

Over the decades that we’ve covered the deliberations of local units of government, we have heard local politicians more than once cite the cudgel of IRRR dollars as reason they have to toe the Iron Range delegation’s line on various issues, but most particularly on the subject of mining and mining pollution. The delegation’s power has diminished in recent years as the board has been limited to an advisory role at the IRRR, but as they demonstrated recently, they can still throw a wrench in the gears when they feel the need.

Without doubt, the board’s action is contrary to the principles of a government that operates fairly and with due process for all of its citizens. It’s a violation of the same overarching principle that has prompted millions of people to march in the streets in recent weeks to protest the lack of fairness or due process for African Americans in this country. That this most recent IRRR board action was targeted against Native Americans, another minority group that has suffered from bias and discrimination in America, only highlights the tone-deaf nature of Iron Range legislators. At a minimum, they have forgotten the very foundation of representative and constitutional government, which is the imperative to serve all the people equally, not just those who are willing to comply with the political views of those in power.

Finally, the actions of the board reveal the degree to which Iron Range politicians are willing to brand anyone who expresses concern about the negative impacts of mining on the environment as “anti-mining.” That’s neither fair nor accurate. Many, if not most, people who oppose sulfide-based copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota are not opposed to taconite mining. But that’s a distinction that Iron Range politicians refuse to acknowledge because it makes it easier to vilify those with concerns of any nature, about any mine. Even those who simply advocate for the clean-up of existing mine pollution or suggest that Minnesota should actually start enforcing its supposedly impressive environmental regulations on the Iron Range, is quickly branded an anti-mining heretic who must be shunned, boycotted, or denied equal access to government funding.

The only question is: How much longer is the Iron Range willing to prostrate its political process before the altar of the mining industry? Really. How much longer?

Republished with permission.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/22/2020 - 05:23 pm.

    Probably forever, because the range is turning red politically.

  2. Submitted by Larry Johnson on 06/22/2020 - 07:08 pm.

    Great article.

    Sen. Bakk has to go. So self centered

    Arrogant bully and does not represent me.

  3. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/22/2020 - 07:13 pm.

    You would think someone who writes for the Timberjay who’s headline is Hull-Rust largest open pit mine, would understand how many acres are actually being mined in Northern Minnesota. The Hull-Rust mine, being the largest, is 3 1/2 miles long and 1 miles across. A square mile is 640 acres, do the math. Mining companies don’t own hundreds of thousands of acres up here (mostly lease) and they certainly are not mining hundreds of thousands of acres.

    That is not important. The IRRRB hasn’t done anything worthwhile up here that I can think of. The money of taxed ore and taconite was supposed to be for economic diversity for the Range, has never happened! My favorite IRRRB wasteful spending was call center in Eveleth, MN, that ended up being a DFL fund raising call center. Over a half million was given from IRRRB Democratic controlled board to Meyer Associates, a Democratic fund raising arm and the rest was predictable. No payback of funds, call center closed.
    Better water for Native Americans would actually be a good thing…. Don’t hold your breath!

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/22/2020 - 08:32 pm.

    I’d like to see some graphs of mining employment over the last 80 years or so. Some interesting numbers might be total direct mining jobs in terms of raw numbers, as well as in terms of the percentage of full time jobs in MN in general & northeastern MN in particular.

    It would also be interesting to see what is the share of total northeastern MN payroll that comes from mining employment.

  5. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 06/23/2020 - 09:25 pm.

    I thought the initial purpose of the IRRRB was to foster a broader economic bae for the region than simply mining, It’s more than ironic (no pun intended) that the IRRR board should encourage withholding funds from businesses that broaden the economy, as supposedly intended.

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