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What is Amy Klobuchar’s stance on copper-nickel mining?

Minnesota’s senior senator has long been a champion of the iron industry. Her position on copper-nickel mining, however, remains something of a mystery — to those on both sides of the issue.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar declaring her candidacy for president on February 10: “I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner.”
REUTERS/Eric Miller

When Amy Klobuchar launched her presidential campaign on a snowy February day in Minneapolis, she began by telling her family story. The daughter of a teacher and a journalist. The first woman from Minnesota elected to the U.S. Senate.

But to start, Klobuchar said: “I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner.”

Her roots in Minnesota’s Iron Range and longstanding alliance with the iron mining industry have been hallmarks of Klobuchar’s political identity since she first ran for office. They’re also important to her presidential run as a “Heartland” Democrat who can appeal to rural white voters who swung to President Donald Trump in 2016. Yet as the new — and more environmentally risky — copper-nickel mining industry emerges on the Iron Range and promises a jolt to the mining economy, Klobuchar’s views have remained something of a mystery.

After 15 years of public scrutiny, people for and against mining seem pretty sure Klobuchar supports PolyMet, a $1 billion copper-nickel mine planned near Hoyt Lakes. Yet they are far less sure of Klobuchar’s stance on Twin Metals, a large and controversial operation that Chilean mining giant Antofagasta hopes to build just miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

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The uncertainty has left many who follow the high-profile issue frustrated or at least confused, to the point where even some of Klobuchar’s allies on the Range couldn’t speculate where the senior senator lands.

“I have not seen where she’s at on that,” State Rep. Rob Ecklund, a pro-mining DFLer from International Falls who chairs the influential Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said about Twin Metals.

John Rebrovich, co-chairman of the Iron Ore Alliance, a partnership between U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers union, had a similar response: “I don’t know exactly what her stance is.”

A friend in Amy

When Klobuchar ran for Hennepin County Attorney in 1998, her Republican opponent, Sheryl Ramstad, tried to tear her down by calling her “nothing but a street fighter from the Iron Range” in a debate.

Klobuchar smiled and said: “Thank you.”

The Iron Range, and its connection to her family history, has been a part of Klobuchar’s political ethos since she won that first election. Her father, Jim, was born in Ely. Her grandfather too. Her great-grandparents immigrated there from Slovenia.

When Klobuchar eventually ran for U.S. Senate, Rebrovich said she campaigned hard in northeast Minnesota, visiting Ely “all the time,” touting her family history and grandfather’s career as an iron miner. Rebrovich said Klobuchar would check in at “the local union holes” and meet steelworkers on the job at the break of dawn. “She could talk our talk and walk our walk with us up here,” he said.

In her memoir, Klobuchar wrote that the local steelworkers union “up north” was one of the first organizations to endorse her Senate run. “Especially since my grandpa gave his whole life to the mines,” Klobuchar wrote, “that meant a lot to me.”

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Since arriving in Washington, D.C., Klobuchar’s support for iron mining has been public and steadfast, Rebrovich said. Many on the Range point to her help during a crisis late in President Barack Obama’s second term as just one example of Klobuchar going to bat for miners.

At the time, seven of the state’s 11 iron ore operations shut down, putting roughly 2,000 people at the facilities and nearly 5,000 more with ties to the industry out of work. Many unions, industry leaders and politicians blamed “steel dumping,” a term for when countries illegally unload a glut of surplus steel at ultra-low prices and undercut local companies.

Klobuchar urged a sharp response. She brought Dan Hill, a laid-off steelworker from Eveleth, to Obama’s final State of the Union address in 2016. Klobuchar and others from Minnesota’s delegation persuaded Obama to dispatch Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to see problems firsthand. Months later, the federal government slapped 266 percent tariffs on certain Chinese steel and 71 percent on Japanese steel.

“It’s helped,” Rebrovich said. “If it wasn’t for [Klobuchar] back in the earlier days … there would have been a lot more mines that were bankrupt and shut down.”

Klobuchar has boasted of fighting Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to ensure anti-haze regulations didn’t threaten the industry and pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up its permit reviews for iron ore mines.

Trump raised tariffs on foreign steel once in office, too. Yet many on the Range say it was Obama, prodded by Klobuchar and other Minnesotans, who sparked an industry revival. Rebrovich, who was a longtime union negotiator for the United Steelworkers District 11 office before retiring earlier this year, said he would personally vote for Klobuchar over Trump.

“Being that her grandfather was a miner, I think she’s taken that to heart, you know, her roots, and totally has supported us through the years,” Rebrovich said. Klobuchar has done, he said, “just about anything we’ve asked her to do with respect to the iron ore mines.”

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A new kind of mining. And new risks.

Now, Rebrovich and others in the industry want a crack at a new mining boom.

Minnesotans have mined iron ore since the late 1800s, but copper-nickel mining has never been done in the state. And many politicians — wary of its environmental dangers — have been hesitant to support it.

Traditionally, copper mining in the U.S. is more common in drier places. A 2015 report by the United States Geological Survey says Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Nevada were the top producers of copper. The Iron Range, however, sits atop the Duluth Complex, one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in the world. It’s estimated to have more than 4 billion tons of copper, nickel and other precious metals.

Tapping into those reserves could help reverse a decline in mining jobs over the last two decades. State officials say employment in the industry has dropped from about 6,800 to 5,300 in that time thanks to a mix of automation and outsourcing. Twin Metals has promised 650 direct jobs and another 1,300 spinoff jobs from its mine. PolyMet says it will create another 360 direct and 1,000 indirect jobs. Much of that work is high-wage, union labor.

With the new opportunity comes risk. When rock extracted in the mining process is exposed to air and water, it creates sulfuric acid that can leach heavy metals into water. Environmental organizations often refer to copper-nickel mining as sulfide mining.

Earthworks, a clean air and water advocacy organization, reviewed 14 of the country’s 16 copper mines and found 100 percent of them experienced some form of pipeline spill or accidental release.

Twin Metals’ underground mine would sit in the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the BWCA. PolyMet will have sites near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt and will be in a watershed that flows to Lake Superior.

PolyMet Mining
The Iron Range sits atop the Duluth Complex, one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in the world. (Click to enlarge.)
PolyMet and Twin Metals Minnesota, an Antofagasta subsidiary, maintain that new technology, strict oversight and other protective measures can help limit or prevent problems faced by sulfide mines of the past. “Even though copper-nickel mining is new to Minnesota, we must meet strict state and federal environmental standards if we want to do business here,” said PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson. “We have demonstrated through the lengthy and exhaustive environmental review and permitting process that we can meet those standards.”

Tom Landwehr
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Tom Landwehr
Not all believe copper-nickel mining can be done safely, however. Former state Department of Natural Resources chief Tom Landwehr, now executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, says state standards aren’t tough enough to prevent damage to the BWCA from a Twin Metals mine.

In a 2016 memo about Twin Metals, former United States Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell wrote acid mine drainage can require “perpetual water treatment,” and cause “serious and irreplaceable harm” to the BWCA.

“Water from a mine site could potentially enter streams and lakes through wastewater treatment plant discharges, uncollected runoff and leakage, concentrate spills, pipeline spills, truck accidents, and post-closure failures,” Tidwell wrote. “All carry some risk to the environment.”

The Obama administration used those dangers to justify denying key mineral leases for Twin Metals and starting a study on mining in Superior National Forest that could have led to a 20-year moratorium on mining in the BWCA watershed. (Mining is not allowed within the BWCA.)

Trump has reversed both decisions, although Twin Metals is not close to being built. The company expects to submit a formal mine plan later this year, which will start further environmental review by state and federal regulators.

PolyMet, an open-pit mine project owned in part by Switzerland’s Glencore, has all its needed state and federal approval to begin construction. It has faced lawsuits from environmental organizations as well as a new federal investigation into whether the EPA broke clean water laws during the state permitting process.

Not for. Not against.

So where does Klobuchar stand?

She declined to be interviewed for this story. But in response to requests for comment and a list of questions sent in writing to her Senate office asking about her stance on PolyMet, Twin Metals and copper-nickel mining, a spokeswoman sent MinnPost a prepared statement by her state director Ben Hill that says Klobuchar “has consistently and publicly called for the thorough environmental review of these projects.”

“This has always been her position and continues to be her position,” Hill said.

Klobuchar’s office also sent MinnPost a statement from Hill that was distributed to media after a recent Wall Street Journal column that included emails from 2016 in which Klobuchar sharply criticized the USDA under Obama for not renewing important mineral leases owned by Twin Metals.

While Klobuchar claimed not to support or oppose the project itself, she accused the administration of acting with political intent. She also guessed Trump would reverse the decision once in office. “When you guys leave and are out talking about a job message for rural America,” Klobuchar wrote, “I will be left with the mess and dealing with the actual jobs.”

At the time, Twin Metals counted her as an ally. But Hill’s statement says Klobuchar has “serious concerns” about a mine so close to the BWCA and was concerned Obama’s choice would make it easier for Twin Metals to bypass rigorous environmental review.

“As the senator stated in the email, she did not trust the Trump Administration to handle this correctly and rightfully predicted they would overturn the lame duck decision,” Hill said. “And if anything she feared that this strategy would actually politicize the project and decrease the possibility of it getting a good and fair scientific review.”

Klobuchar and Smith recently sent a brief letter to Trump’s USDA asking for the “scientific findings” they used as a reason to cancel Obama’s study of mining in the Rainy River watershed.

Klobuchar’s office also forwarded a 2016 story by the Mesabi Daily News in which the newspaper said she did not issue a public statement when the DNR ruled a PolyMet environmental impact statement was adequate.

But when asked, Klobuchar told the Daily News: “I’ve always said the PolyMet project should move forward if it meets the environmental review, and the DNR approval was a major step forward in the approval process.”

“I am hopeful that this project continues to move forward through the rest of the permit process in a timely manner and meets the applicable state and federal permit requirements,” Klobuchar said in 2016. “It will bring jobs to the Range.”

Notably, Klobuchar has tried to help PolyMet sidestep lawsuits challenging a critical land swap made with Obama’s Forest Service.

Technically, the exchange is complete. But Congress could end the lawsuits by passing legislation to cement the trade. In 2018, Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Tom Emmer each proposed an amendment to an annual bill for military spending to do just that. Klobuchar supported the amendment, though it was eventually removed in negotiations between the House and Senate.

Another bill to protect the exchange was proposed in the House by 8th Congressional District Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, but it’s unlikely to gain traction with Democrats in control of the House.

Richardson, the PolyMet spokesman, said Klobuchar has been “helpful in moving the project forward by being supportive of the process.”

Twin Metals’ underground mine
Twin Metals
Twin Metals’ underground mine would sit in the Rainy River watershed, which drains into the BWCA. (Click to enlarge.)
Still, Klobuchar’s stance, particularly on Twin Metals, stands in stark contrast to some of her peers in Minnesota. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the 4th Congressional District DFLer, has repeatedly sparred with the Trump administration over Twin Metals and PolyMet. Former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton supported PolyMet but fiercely objected to Twin Metals when in office. The same is true of former 3rd District Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen.

Stauber, the 8th District Republican, has tirelessly worked to advance both mines as part of his drive to “unleash the economic engine” of the region. Last week, he introduced legislation to help Twin Metals avoid new federal regulations.

Frustration with Klobuchar’s tightrope walk

Klobuchar has not won over many who warn copper-nickel mining will be an environmental catastrophe.

Don Arnosti, a longtime environmental advocate in Minnesota and former executive director of the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota division, said Klobuchar and Smith’s support for the PolyMet land exchange makes it “extremely clear” they want the mine to be built.

“Regardless of what they say, their actions speak louder than their words,” Arnosti said.

Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club’s North Star branch, also said Klobuchar’s work on the land exchange proves she supports PolyMet. Levin said she appreciates that Klobuchar hasn’t outright endorsed Twin Metals, leaving her open to oppose it after more environmental study, but said the emails published in the recent WSJ story showed an effort to advance the project.

“To date, on the issue of sulfide mining, I do not think that she’s acted in the best interest of protecting our water,” Levin said.

Richard Painter, who challenged Sen. Tina Smith in the DFL primary last year with an anti-mining platform, argued Klobuchar has intentionally been unclear on Twin Metals so she can walk a political middle ground. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was the top ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration, said there isn’t a position in the center.

“Amy Klobuchar has been playing games here,” Painter said. “She’s showing for the mining companies to keep the votes up there, but trying to avoid getting too much flak from the environmentalists. And I just don’t think that’s a very honest approach. Just take a stance.”

He added: “I strongly disagree with the Republicans in the state that are for [Twin Metals], but at least they’re being honest. Come heck or high water, I think it’s a terrible risk to take. The doublespeak from the Democrats will land you in the same place, but it’s worse, because it’s just deceptive.”

Klobuchar has frustrated some supporters of the copper-nickel mines, too.

Gerald Tyler, chairman of the Ely-based nonprofit Up North Jobs, said he doesn’t believe Klobuchar will do anything to stop Twin Metals. He said many who support the mining industry understand the tough politics of copper mining, especially given Klobuchar’s candidacy for president. Still, Tyler said he’s talked to many people through his work who are “very disappointed that she hasn’t come out and supported copper-nickel mining.”

“She is popular, but she was probably more popular before Twin Metals and PolyMet,” Tyler said.

Chuck Novak, the mayor of Ely, said Klobuchar has been far from clear on copper-nickel mining. “We have representatives in the eight congressional districts that are mix and match: ‘Support, don’t support,” Novak said. “Representative McCollum has a firm stance. You look at Representative Stauber and Emmer and they have a firm stance. Right now I don’t know where she stands on the issues. From the inside, there’s a firm stand to be taken: either for or against.”

A legion of industry defenders

If there is grumbling on the Iron Range, however, many prominent figures in the industry haven’t knocked Klobuchar for treading carefully.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, a trade group supporting copper-nickel mining, said he believes Klobuchar has indicated “a general support for PolyMet,” as well as any other projects that can meet environmental standards. “Overall, when asked, Senator Klobuchar has been generally supportive of all things mining,” Ongaro said.

Nancy Norr, chairwoman of Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition of labor and business groups that promotes large mining projects, also praised Klobuchar’s work on PolyMet, saying she and her staff worked “very diligently with the mining allies” to try to pass the land exchange bill. Norr is also the director of regional development for Minnesota Power, which serves iron ore mines.

Norr said it wasn’t surprising that Klobuchar has not openly endorsed Twin Metals since it hasn’t begun the permitting process. “I think that would be true of Jobs for Minnesotans right now,” she said. “We’d say we support Twin Metals’ ability to go through the environmental review process of the United States of America and the state of Minnesota.”

While Norr said Trump’s administration has taken reasonable steps to help Twin Metals, she criticized the president’s exuberant statements of support for politicizing the issue and making the mine more controversial in a way Klobuchar hasn’t. ”I think that tends to make people feel like shortcuts are being taken when they’re not,” Norr said.

Rebrovich and Ecklund also said it made sense for Klobuchar not to land on a ‘“yes” or “no” position before official environmental study.

David Ulrich, a spokesman for Twin Metals Minnesota, said in a written statement that Klobuchar “has expressed her commitment to a fair and consistent environmental review process, that examines the project in a scientific and unbiased manner.”

“This should be something on which we all agree,” Ulrich said. “There is no benefit to anyone to have a process that can shift with the political winds.”

Presidential implications

As a presidential candidate, Klobuchar has promised to win back white voters in the rural Midwest, including union workers who broke ranks with their leadership to pick Trump. Her electoral history in Minnesota may back her up.

Klobuchar won 85 of 87 Minnesota counties in her 2012 Senate race, many of which leaned Republican. And in 2018, she won 51 counties, faring better than Hillary Clinton did two years earlier on the Iron Range.

She has continued to champion steelworkers on the campaign trail. In a plan for her first 100 days in office released Tuesday, Klobuchar said she would “ensure the federal government is aggressively combating illegal Chinese steel dumping.”

On copper-nickel mining, she has not released a plan for how she would act as president. While PolyMet may be built by the time Klobuchar would take office in 2021, she could have power over the future of Twin Metals.

Klobuchar would also oversee controversial mining projects around the country, including, perhaps, the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. Critics of that copper mine say it could threaten priceless salmon runs and other fisheries.

Even if Klobuchar remains in the Senate, her positions on Twin Metals and PolyMet are still important. In an interview, Kelsey Johnson, president of Minnesota’s Iron Mining Association, complimented Klobuchar’s support for the mining industry, but said she wished the DFLer would be more publicly vocal at times on a range of important issues — including copper-nickel mining.

“Any project needs lots of champions,” Johnson said. “And I think when a project doesn’t have those champions it makes it much more difficult to accomplish the project at hand.”

Regardless of her office, Arnosti, the environmentalist, said Klobuchar is “very good at trying to be all things to all people.”

“And I think there are issues like this where people really want a clear answer,” he said.