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Year in Review: Five big Greater Minnesota stories (that you may have forgot actually happened in 2020)

Five things that may have escaped your memory during a 2020 full of big things.

It was a memorable year in Minnesota, one that many might prefer to forget. Given the speed and frequency with which major news came and went, some might actually have forgotten quite a bit of 2020.

With that in mind, here are five stories from Greater Minnesota that, amidst it all, you may have forgotten happened this year. Keep in mind, this is not intended to be a list of the most important events, but rather big things that may have escaped your memory during a 2020 full of big things.

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The Walz administration goes on trial over PolyMet project

Minnesota environmental regulators have faced a host of lawsuits over controversial natural resource projects over the years, but one legal tussle way back in January was particularly notable.

It started when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a key water pollution permit for PolyMet Mining to build a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes in December of 2018. Mine opponents alleged the agency had suppressed concerns from the federal government about the strength of the permit and destroyed records to cover its tracks. The state’s appellate court then sent the issue to a trial-like proceeding in district court.

PolyMet spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
PolyMet spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen holding up tailings from the site of an abandoned LTV Steel taconite processing site where the company hopes to renovate and mine for copper and nickel.
Over a January week in a cramped courtroom — the stuff of pandemic nightmares — a truckload of attorneys for the state, the mining company, environmental advocacy groups and tribal governments pored over documents and interrogated witnesses.

In the end, Judge John H. Guthmann found the MPCA tried to shield federal critiques of the water permit to avoid bad press, but was not engaged in an overarching conspiracy to keep negative information from the official administrative record.

The PolyMet project is still in legal limbo over other issues, however.

Early pandemic disruptions leads farmers to kill hogs — without processing them for meat

As the state economy slowed down during the early stages of the pandemic and outbreaks spread among workers in meatpacking plants, an unexpected casualty emerged: pigs.

A backup at slaughterhouses meant farmers couldn’t move the animals, forcing them to kill hogs since they were running out of space. It was one of many pandemic disruptions of the ag industry, which led to farmers throwing away milk, plowing under crops and giving away potatoes across the country. 

REUTERS/Daniel Acker
A backup at slaughterhouses meant farmers couldn’t move the animals, forcing them to kill hogs since they were running out of space.
Yes, the hogs were headed to the slaughterhouse anyway. But animals killed without being used as food was a waste of life and hurt farmers financially. The state even scrambled to find wood chips, corn stalks, sawdust and straw to help farmers compost any pigs they killed.

Trump visits Bemidji — the night RBG’s death was announced

President Donald Trump made the rounds around Greater Minnesota during the 2020 campaign, but his stop in Bemidji signaled just how intent he was on plowing time and resources into juicing his rural support in an ultimately failed bid to win the state.

No sitting president had ever visited Bemidji, according to the city’s mayor, Rita Albrecht, who was running for state Senate as a Democrat. Huge crowds of supporters descended on the town, as did national media.

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Trump bashed refugees, made a remark about “good genes” in northern Minnesota that drew condemnation as racist, and touted his support for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project. 

Supporters attending a campaign rally by President Donald Trump at Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18.
REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Supporters attending a campaign rally by President Donald Trump at Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18.
A later Trump visit to Duluth became infamous when the president tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after his rally. And Trump’s stop in Rochester also made news when the mayor forced the president to stick to a smaller rally size that adhered to gathering limits.

But the Bemidji rally has its own place in history. As Trump spoke, news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Apparently unaware, the president didn’t mention the justice.

A rodeo defies COVID restrictions 

Before numerous bars and restaurants began defying Gov. Tim Walz’s shutdown orders this winter, Trump drew large gatherings to outstate Minnesota and the Sturgis motorcycle rally spread cases nationwide, a small rodeo in Itasca County caused a stir across the state.

The North Star Stampede held its July rodeo in Effie in protest of limits on event size. Thousands of people attended — including at least two with COVID-19. It was perhaps a sign of greater resistance to public health regulations to come. 

Attorney General Keith Ellison sued the event’s organizers for breaking the COVID-19 rules. The legal battle is still ongoing. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has hit Greater Minnesota far harder than the Twin Cities this fall and winter.

The Legislature passes a rather big bonding bill

Trades unions and local governments around the state pushed the Legislature for much of 2020 to pass a bonding bill, which is a package of publicly financed construction projects such as upgrades to wastewater treatment systems.

Approval of bonding bills can sometimes be an easy and bipartisan affair, but this one got tied up in other debates, such as whether Gov. Tim Walz should continue his emergency powers, and stalled for months.

In mid-October, lawmakers did pass a massive $1.9 billion bonding bill to pay for things like college buildings, bus rapid transit, affordable housing and roads and bridges. It took five special sessions to get there and was greeted with fanfare by legislators. But the news came in the final stretches of a busy and rancorous 2020 campaign and did not seem to be a key issue with voters.