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‘State standards don’t work here’: Why former DNR boss Tom Landwehr is now fighting copper-nickel mining near the BWCA

The decision by Landwehr, who led the Department of Natural Resources under former Gov. Mark Dayton for eight years, to join the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters was a controversial one.

Tom Landwehr
Tom Landwehr on Twin Metals: "I’m very, very familiar with that spot. I was appalled to think that there could be that kind of an industrial project, potential degradation in that location."
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Under President Donald Trump, plans for a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area have made steady progress toward reality. The Twin Metals project is on track to renew its mineral leases in Superior National Forest near Ely, a significant step that had been blocked by Barack Obama’s administration.

Before any mining happens, however, Twin Metals must still clear a gantlet of state and federal regulatory hurdles.

Tom Landwehr hopes to ensure it never does.

Landwehr, who led Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources under former Gov. Mark Dayton, has intimate knowledge of the web of regulations ahead for Twin Metals, and was recently named executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which opposes the mining project. Landwehr had sought to remain at DNR under new Gov. Tim Walz, but the governor picked Sarah Strommen, who was a DNR assistant commissioner during the Dayton administration, for the job instead.

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Landwehr’s decision to join the Boundary Waters campaign was a controversial one. In November, as DNR commissioner, Landwehr granted a crucial mining permit for PolyMet, a separate copper-nickel project in northern Minnesota. Most environmental groups fighting Twin Metals have also opposed PolyMet, which hopes to build its mine near Hoyt Lakes. But the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has been silent on the latter project.

The projects are different in several ways. For one, Twin Metals sits in a watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters, while PolyMet is in the watershed of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. But they are both copper-nickel mines, which carry greater environmental risks than traditional iron mining because the process can create acid that leaches heavy metals into water.

Many who support the PolyMet and Twin Metals projects, whose owners have promised will bring hundreds of high-wage jobs to northern Minnesota, have also been outraged at Landwehr’s new gig, saying it reveals he was biased against mining while in an office that  was supposed to act as a neutral arbiter.

In his short time at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, Landwehr said he has worked on outreach with federal lawmakers and focused on opposing the Trump administration’s efforts to grant Twin Metals renewals to its mineral leases.

MinnPost caught up with Landwehr to ask about his time at DNR, Minnesota’s mining regulations and more. Though the former DNR commissioner was hesitant to talk in-depth about PolyMet, citing ongoing lawsuits against the company’s permits, he only declined to answer one question on the record: whether he thought the state should remove the DNR’s legal duty to promote mining and give those responsibilities to another state agency in order to avoid accusations of conflict of interest. Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, introduced a bill to do so earlier this year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:

MinnPost: Were you surprised when you weren’t picked by Gov. Walz to continue your job? You had wanted to stay.

Tom Landwehr: I was a little surprised. I thought I was a good fit for it. But upon reflection, I realize every governor wants to come in with their own team. And while I was disappointed, Sarah is a great pick for the state. She worked for me for four years and really is an outstanding commissioner, so I felt relieved by that. And she subsequently appointed the deputy commissioner Barb Naramore, who was my assistant commissioner, and some other people who are all top candidates. So I’m really delighted with the team she’s creating.

MP: You say you know the mining permitting process inside and out. What should the general public know about the mining permitting process that they might not already know?

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TL: I think the biggest thing people should know is it is very prescriptive. It is like instructions. So the DNR is not a policy making entity, right; DNR is a regulatory entity. And so just like the state trooper or the city code inspector, they have a guide book they follow. So [at] DNR, an application comes in, and DNR follows that process and it doesn’t give the commissioner latitude to say, “Well, I like this so we’re going to derail it” or “I don’t like this so we’re going to move it forward faster.”

MP: I have heard the sentiment from a lot of people who support copper-nickel mining projects in Minnesota that we have some of the strongest environmental laws around. On Nov. 1, after permitting PolyMet, you said, “We’ve got extraordinarily rigorous environmental laws in the state of Minnesota.” Do you still believe that?

TL: Well, I think the permitting process is rigorous. I think the standards are higher in Minnesota than they are elsewhere. That does not mean “no degradation.” And that’s the important distinction I want to make as we’re talking about the Boundary Waters. The state standards actually anticipate some degradation. So for instance, a (wild rice) sulfate standard of 10 parts per million, it’s not zero parts per million. It’s 10 parts per million. So if you’re putting it into an environment that’s ambient at zero, you are agreeing to degradation. But that’s what the state law permits. And so yes, I believe, relative to others states, Minnesota has got some of the most rigorous and comprehensive, environmental laws. That doesn’t mean that the project has no impact.

And the other thing I’d point out is that the state permitting process … relates to environmental impact. So it doesn’t look at economic, it doesn’t look at cultural, it doesn’t look at quality of life. It’s a very narrow prescriptive. It doesn’t look at health. You know, there was a lot of debate about “should we do a health impact analysis in this project?” That’s not what the law provides for; it provides just for an environmental review. And so I would assert that’s not the full range of issues that ought to be considered when you’re looking at something that’s so existentially different from what you’ve got in the environment up in the Boundary Waters.

MP: When you were at DNR, did you ever advocate for that on either a potential Twin Metals project or any other project?

TL: We proposed minor tweaks to some of the mining permitting processes, but didn’t really push anything to the Legislature. There’s sometimes you realize that, you pick the battles you think you’re going to win and not battles you’re not.

MP: When you permitted PolyMet, you said Minnesota has really high standards, and you procured financial assurances for environmental mitigation. Why can’t the same game plan be followed for mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters?

TL: Well you go back to what I was just talking about. You’re permitting a project to the existing state standards. You’re permitting a project that I don’t think, frankly, ought to even get to the level of state permitting. And I’ll tell you why. First off, the location of Twin Metals is not just on the periphery of the Boundary Waters, it’s also in a watershed of the Boundary Waters. So things that happen on that project, that water will flow into the Boundary Waters. This is a wilderness. A wilderness designation is the highest designation we as a country give to any pristine environment. It is reserved for so few places. And of course the Boundary Waters is extraordinarily special. It’s the most heavily used wilderness in the United States. …  I think one of the scenarios that I don’t think people have thought through is — if you have an oil spill on the Mississippi River, what do you do? You call the trucks, you get the boat, you go and you put the booms out and you corral as much as you can, you pump it out. There’s still loss, there’s still some impact there, but you can recover some of that stuff. The Boundary Waters is a wilderness. There is no access. There’s no use of motors or electrical equipment inside of there. It is largely inaccessible. …

So again, the state standards are not intended to facilitate “pristine.” They only account for sort of the environmental things. We know there’s been a recent study that was done by Professor (James) Stock of Harvard that shows that instead of being additive to the local economy because the prospect of an industrial mining facility would degrade that wilderness/amenity-based culture, that you actually have a reduction in overall economic activity.

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MP: There’s been a lot of work with Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters to sue the government over Twin Metals. Do you intend to push at the Legislature for any of the changes that you’ve just described? Is there anything that the Legislature can and should do?

TL: I think the interesting thing about this campaign is that we’ve done polling over the years. Two years ago, the polling showed 59 percent of Minnesotans are on our side of this issue: We shouldn’t do copper-nickel mining on the border of the Boundary Waters. Last year it was 70 percent. Support for that concept has grown dramatically. I do think if I was a politician, I would pay attention to what 70 percent of Minnesotans are saying. So I do believe there could be some legislative action that could do some sort of additional protection of the Boundary Waters. We are not proposing anything at this point in time. We’re certainly out educating and informing legislators about our concerns. But I don’t see any short-term legislation happening.

MP: Why not pursue any legislation at the moment? What other route can you really take if you think the DNR doesn’t have enough latitude as is to stop a project like Twin Metals?

TL: Well this is just sort of a pragmatic issue right now. I just came on; they just passed first (committee) deadline. There’s not an opportunity to get legislation in this year. So if we want to do something next year, you know, we’re kind of laying the groundwork for that right now. Let’s let people understand the issues, let them hear our concerns. We’re building a grassroots support base so that we can let legislators know that how their constituents feel.

MP: The campaign’s website says pollution has never been avoided with sulfide mining. If that’s true, is it acceptable to pollute in some places, but not other places? You granted a permit for PolyMet, for instance.

TL: Again, the regulation goes to state standards. State standards are applied everywhere. What we’re saying is the state standards don’t work here in this spot. In this spot, this location, state standards simply don’t work. They were never developed to anticipate being on the edge or the watershed of a wilderness area.

MP: Do you think that they work for other areas of the state?

TL: It’s irrelevant what I think. The Legislature said they work.

MP: Do you think taking this job makes life difficult for your former colleagues at DNR? You’re out here talking about issues that they’re now working on.

TL: I know it has made it a little more difficult for them right now simply because now there’s this narrative out there that, well, “You can’t trust the DNR commissioner because they come in with their own biases.” Which is fundamentally untrue. But at the same time, I’d also say, I never heard this discussion when a former commissioner of PCA went to PolyMet. You never hear this discussion when they go to the other side; it’s only when all of a sudden now they want to be protective that suddenly there’s an issue. So it’s a little paradoxical to me that why do I get this question and other commissioners don’t?

MP: Do you think it’s OK for a commissioner to go from the PCA to PolyMet?

TL: I think people are free to do whatever they want. There is a one-year moratorium on commissioners actually engaging in proceedings related to the department. So I can’t go over and testify, for instance, on a matter of facing the department. But there is no statutory restriction on what people do after a commissioner job.

MP: I did want to ask about that. That’s a common complaint about government officials both in the state level and the national level, people jumping from and industry group to an agency or the other way around.

TL: People have to work, right? And people work in the field they know. I mean the reality around environmental conservation world, is [it’s] a very small field in Minnesota, a very small community, I should say. We have a lot of opportunity because there’s a lot of different organizations, but it’s inevitable that if you are trained as a wildlife biologist or a conservationist of some sort that you’re going to pop up in different places.

MP: What brought you to Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in particular? There’s a multitude of environmental organizations out there.

TL: Well, part of it was just the pragmatic thing, I needed a job, right? But there were several opportunities that I was investigating. This was the one that appealed most to me. And it’s because I very much believe in the mission. Frankly, when I first learned of the Twin Metals project, it is directly adjacent to my preferred entry point into the wilderness. And so I’m very, very familiar with that spot. I was appalled to think that there could be that kind of an industrial project, potential degradation in that location. And so it had a very personal impact on me as well.

MP: Remind me what that BWCA entry spot is, and about your traditions in the Boundary Waters?

TL: So there’s two entry locations right near the proposed mine. One is, I think it’s called South Kawishiwi River, the other is Little Gabbro Lake. Little Gabbro Lake is the one that I have been going in for a dozen years. I brought my kids in there, go in there every year with my pals.

And it is, just as a crow flies, I don’t think it’s 5 miles away. So it is very, very close to it. But as you’re driving to go to this spot, you drive down Highway 1 and then you get off on Spruce Road, a road that takes you up towards the back entry point as well as to the Voyageur, Outward Bound School. So it’s very much a wilderness setting. And as I’m driving by there, I’m just envisioning piles of rock and industrial equipment and smoke and dust and thinking: This is not the place for a mine.