Sled-dog trek highlights fight in DFL over Iron Range projects

Activists are on the verge of completing a 350-mile sled dog trek from Grand Marais to call for a moratorium on mineral mining.

For decades, the resource-rich acres of northeastern Minnesota have been a battleground over jobs versus the environment. The fight shows no signs of letting up as two companies proceed with plans to extract minerals such as copper, palladium and gold from mines on the Iron Range and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

On Thursday, environmental activist Frank Moe, a former DFL state representative from the Iron Range, will finish a 350-mile sled dog trek from Grand Marais on the steps of the state Capitol. He will bear petitions with thousands of signatures calling for a moratorium on mineral mining.

“We are against sulfide mining pollution,” said Moe, interviewed just before he set off from Duluth. “The issue is the threat to our clean water and all of the jobs dependent on this – recreation and tourism jobs, at least 30,000. We don’t want to lose those jobs chasing a few hundred jobs.”

Inside the Capitol, David Dill, Moe’s former colleague and now his DFL state representative from Hovland, is prepared to counter his arguments point by point.

“One job is precious,” said Dill.  He cites the loss of 20,000 people in northeast Minnesota Senate districts. They moved elsewhere, he said, to find the jobs that technology took away in the timber and taconite business.

“If we can find a way to get one family back to work, that’s the key element to put northeast Minnesota back to work,” Dill said. 

Support from officials

The Iron Range delegation — along with labor unions and most local government officials from the area — support the most advanced of the projects: proposals from PolyMet Mining Corp. and Twin Metals. PolyMet, based in Vancouver, has an environmental impact statement for the project under review by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dill wants the review to proceed. “To say the PolyMet project will harm the tourist industry is completely premature,” he said.

He accuses Moe and other environmental activists of fear mongering. There are rules and regulations in place to govern these projects, he said. “Their claims are based on projects in states that don’t have the environmental regulations that Minnesota has.”

Moe says he doesn’t need to wait for EPA approval.  The “Sled Dog to St. Paul” coalition maintains the pollution potential is real and the environmental and safety records of the mining companies are troubling.

“The track record shows that this cannot be done safely,” he said. “Water and air when exposed to sulfur creates sulfuric acid that kills everything.”

Disagree over terms

Moe and Dill can’t even agree on what to call the mining ventures. Moe calls it “sulfide mining,” referring to the process that extracts precious metals, widely used in manufacturing electronics, from rocks that contain sulfides.

“There is no such thing as sulfide mining,” Dill responds. “The Range delegation takes great offense at people who call it that. It just so happens there are sulfides in those formations.”

The back and forth is part of a larger debate within the DFL Party about the priority of environmental concerns over job-creation in a soft economy. For the moment, the environment has taken a back seat. In one of the first executive orders of his administration, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton moved to streamline the state’s environmental permitting process. 

Moe fires back: “I’m glad that the Minnesota Legislature and the governor care about jobs. The people whose jobs I want to protect are those that depend on the environment.”

For Dill, who invokes the DFL caucus platform of jobs, education and health care, mineral mining with its promise of employment and benefits “hits the DFL target straight in the eye.”    

He worries about political clashes. “When you have the fringes working against something, that’s not helpful,” he said.

The disagreements have time to simmer. The coalitions, for and against, have time to grow stronger. The Environmental Protection Agency has asked for more rigorous testing of environmental consequences, testing that PolyMet says is underway. The latest educated guess pushes approval or disapproval of an EIS into fall and construction, if at all, to 2014.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 03/06/2012 - 12:35 pm.


    There is plenty of evidence from other similar mining sites for us to know how destructive this kind of mining is.
    It is more important to save the wilderness and its adjoining areas than to provide jobs that will not last very long. The tourist industry draws thousands and thousands of people every year, all of whom spend money in Ely and Grand Marais and nearby towns and sites.
    Even if these jobs were good and paid well, we still need to protect one of the few wilderness areas left.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/06/2012 - 05:05 pm.

    Except that it really isn’t destructive

    The commenter has submitted no evidence. The project can and will be done safely, creaating thousands of jobs and millions in tax and royalty revenue.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/06/2012 - 07:54 pm.

    who’s politics ?

    I find it very difficult to take Cyndy Brucato seriously considering her politics.
    In terseting editing here in terms of placement in the article :

    For Dill, who invokes the DFL caucus platform of jobs, education and health care, mineral mining with its promise of employment and benefits “hits the DFL target straight in the eye.”

    He worries about political clashes. “When you have the fringes working against something, that’s not helpful,” he said.

    I get no backgorund for these quotes. And there is more that could be pointed out.

    However it is good to see both the Palcich and Shelby pieces linked to this presentation.

    We are talking potentially a great deal of possibly environmental degradation that could be connected to innocent human error. The irony about Fail Safe is that there is no Fail Safe. We are a pretty fantastic species but we have some errors hubris just cannot overcome.

    I am off to read the Timberjay. Check the reporting out on there people.

  4. Submitted by John Clark on 03/06/2012 - 11:08 pm.

    Private property rights issue is also at stake here.

    Besides the complicated environmental impact questions that the issue of copper/nickel mining brings up, there is also a private property rights issue here that stares us in the face. As the Minnesota non-ferrous mineral rights statue 93.05 presently stands, a mining company, even a foreign owned company, could use the “eminent domain” provision of this law to condemn and seize private property for exploration or drilling purposes. And private property owners would have absolutely no recourse. There are many home and cabin owners, resort owners etc. who are quite concerned about this.

    Statue 93.05 was drawn up in the horse and buggy days of the 1800s. By today’s standards, this law, strongly influenced by the mining industry of the time, is very out-dated. With all of the resorts, family cabins, and tourist based businesses that are now present in the Ely and Arrowhead region, there is little similarity between how these lands are currently used, and how they were used more than a century ago.

    In the Minnesota House, HF2477 has been drawn up that would remove “eminent domain” from the current mining statue. This new proposal is similar to a Minnesota law passed in 2006 that prevented eminent domain from being used to condemn property for economic uses. It’s also interesting to note that in 2011, the Republican Governor of Nevada and the state legislature there passed a similar law removing eminent domain from their mineral rights laws.

    I think it is fair to say that private property rights is something we should all try to protect, regardless of our party affiliations. Yes, property owners were aware of the existing law when they bought their properties, but this does not mean that this very outdated law is not in need of change. Contacting our state reps and urging them to support HF2477 would, I believe, help preserve these private property rights.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/08/2012 - 08:06 am.

    If the democrats had any principles

    instead of just pandering to various groups and special interests, disputes like this within the party wouldn’t happen because you’d all share the same values.

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