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Elizabeth Warren comes out against Line 3 and Twin Metals, and Minnesota construction unions are not happy

“We really don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat,” said Mike Syversrud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council. “We want people who will support local union jobs and creating more local jobs for everybody.” 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the third presidential candidate to come out against Line 3, a $2.6 billion project that has received most major permits for construction.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren waded into a pair of controversial environmental debates in Minnesota this week by saying she opposed a copper-nickel mine planned in Superior National Forest and an oil pipeline that would cut through the Mississippi River headwaters.

In a tweet ahead of her rally Monday in St. Paul, Warren said Enbridge’s Line 3 project would threaten water and lands important to several tribes, and pledged in a short video statement to “stop all mining on federal public lands, including the Minnesota Boundary Waters.”

While mining is already banned within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the video was filmed to support an environmental advocacy group that aims to stop Twin Metals Minnesota from building a mine just outside the protected area — and within its watershed.

Warren is the third presidential candidate to come out against Line 3, a $2.6 billion project that has received most major permits for construction. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have also said it should not be built. But Warren is the first Democratic candidate to specifically target Twin Metals and copper mining near the BWCA, and could push the issue further into the national spotlight. President Donald Trump has been an outspoken advocate of the prospective mine.

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The Boundary Waters Action Fund and other environmental groups celebrated Warren’s announcements, but the Massachusetts Democrat also drew the ire of some labor leaders in Minnesota who have traditionally aligned with her party.

Mike Syversrud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council, said it “pisses me off” that Warren would take a stance before Twin Metals submits a mining plan to state and federal regulators and said the senator was abandoning rural workers to align with Twin Cities-area Democrats.

Syversrud’s union on Wednesday is formally signing an agreement with Twin Metals to build the mine, if it’s approved by regulators. “Why would you want to be against something that will create so many jobs, and living [wage] jobs, within an area that desperately needs it?” Syversrud said.

Two projects that have split Democrats

The Line 3 project would stretch 337 miles across northern Minnesota, crossing ceded tribal territory and the Mississippi’s headwaters region before reaching a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. 

Calgary-based Enbridge says the project is needed to replace an existing 1960s-era pipeline that is operating at half capacity because it’s corroding and a spill risk. Line 3 supporters say replacing the old pipeline is safer than moving oil by rail and would bring a windfall of jobs and investment to rural parts of the state. 

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has approved the project, but a judge recently sent it back to the PUC because the regulators hadn’t adequately researched the effect a spill could have in Lake Superior’s watershed.

Line 3 has earned widespread GOP support, but it has split DFLers in the state, and to some extent, tribal governments. In a written statement, Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner emphasized that the company has worked with tribes to route the project and pledged to spend $100 million with indigenous and tribally owned businesses as part of the project. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has also reached a deal with Enbridge to remove the old Line 3 from its land and direct the new one around the reservation.

“Minnesotans consume more than 12.8 million gallons of petroleum products every day and Minnesota relies on imports to meet its energy needs,” Kellner said. “Minnesota’s two refineries produce more than two-thirds of the state’s petroleum products and 80% of these products are refined from Canadian crude oil.”

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Yet environmental groups, several tribes and native-led advocacy organizations have denounced the project as unacceptable long-term fossil fuel infrastructure amid climate change and say a pipeline spill could damage lands that tribes use to hunt, fish and gather wild rice. They have launched a battery of lawsuits against the pipeline project.

Warren, who has worked to patch up her relationship with Native Americans after taking a DNA test to try to prove she has indigenous heritage, emphasized tribal opposition to Line 3 in her tweet.

Twin Metals is further from construction than Line 3. The underground mine near Ely has yet to submit official plans to regulators. But it has also been a lightning rod with political fault lines similar to the Line 3 debate.

Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, promises 700 jobs from the mine and another 1,400 spinoff jobs. The company says the characteristics of its deposit and modern mining technology can help the operation avoid acidic runoff and leaching of heavy metals into water that has plagued similar hard-rock mines around the world.

Environmental organizations, however, warn of grave risk to water and pollution of the Boundary Waters, a pristine wilderness and economic engine for many cities in northern Minnesota. State regulators will begin to evaluate the mine idea after a plan of operation is submitted in coming months.

Warren told thousands at Macalester College on Monday that unions should be invigorated and will “rebuild America.”
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Warren told thousands at Macalester College on Monday that unions should be invigorated and will “rebuild America.”
In a statement, Alex Falconer, director of the Boundary Waters Action Fund, said the group is “thrilled that Sen. Warren is the first candidate to make such a strong and clear statement about protecting the Boundary Waters Wilderness.”

He also hinted that other campaigns may follow Warren’s lead. The Action Fund is a wing of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which is led by activist Becky Rom and former Department of Natural Resources chief Tom Landwehr. “The Boundary Waters Action Fund has been working with campaigns for the last month educating them on the threat to the Wilderness and the importance of establishing strong protections through science-based federal policy,” Falconer said.

Warren did not appear to take a stance on PolyMet, another copper-nickel mine proposed in the region. That $1 billion project does not sit on federal land and is within the watershed of Lake Superior, not the BWCA.

Twin Metals was quick to condemn Warren for making a blanket statement against mining on public lands. Generally, the federal government has long encouraged such mining, particularly in the West. 

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Julie Padilla, the company’s chief regulatory officer, said Warren did not reach out to Twin Metals and said copper, nickel and other metals they plan to mine can help power solar panels, electric cars and wind turbines needed to stave off climate change. “It’s disconnected to say the thousands of families dependent on jobs around mining activities are not relevant to her campaign,” Padilla said.

Sharp words from labor

On Monday — before Warren told thousands at Macalester College that unions should be invigorated and will “rebuild America” — leaders at two prominent construction unions also panned Warren’s announcement on Twin Metals and Line 3.

Kevin Pranis, spokesman for the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America ,said Line 3 has “survived a rigorous permitting process run by public officials who care deeply about clean air, clean water, and respecting the concerns of all stakeholders.” The union expects to work on Line 3 if built.

“We encourage all of the presidential candidates to talk to us and to other stakeholders and to better educate themselves about these issues before rushing to judgment,” Pranis said.

Syversrud, of the Iron Range labor union, said Warren’s positions could hurt her standing with the union, and with Democratic voters in northeast Minnesota. He said many rank-and-file members of his union supported pro-mining Republican Pete Stauber’s run for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District even though the union endorsed DFLer Joe Radinovich. And while the region has a tradition of supporting Democrats, it swung closer to Trump in the 2016 election and the Republican nearly carried the state.

“We really don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat; we want people who will support local union jobs and creating more local jobs for everybody,” Syversrud said.

In the only major poll of likely Democratic primary voters conducted in Minnesota, conducted in June by Change Research, Warren had a narrow lead, but was essentially tied with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.  

Warren’s campaign didn’t respond to the unions, but a campaign spokeswoman sent MinnPost Warren’s “green manufacturing” plan that aims to create more than 1 million jobs. It would be paid for mainly by a tax on corporate profits. The spokeswoman also emailed Warren’s public lands plan, which would only stop new fossil fuel leases on public lands. She did not clarify whether Warren intends to broadly stop hard-rock mining as well.

Warren did not touch on either Line 3 or Twin Metals during her rally on Monday, instead running over the smorgasbord of policies she hopes to enact if elected, such as a wealth tax, universal child care, student-loan debt forgiveness and more.

In front of what her campaign said was 12,000 people, Warren also made the case for “structural change” to fight global warming and said we “have a government that works great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for those of us who see climate change bearing down upon us.”

“You want to understand the climate crisis we’re in today? It’s 25 years of corruption in Washington that brought us to this point,” she said.