The heated debate over the role of mining in northern Minnesota has become full of political landmines for Democratic politicians, not only in local races like the one in the 8th Congressional District, but also in statewide contests.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the special election for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Tina Smith. The former lieutenant governor and longtime DFL operative, appointed to fill the seat vacated by Al Franken, has been endorsed by the party and is, technically, an incumbent senator.
At the same time, Smith has not yet been elected to this seat, and she has worked since taking office in January to build a legislative record she can run on in November. That now includes some definitive action on mining: last week, she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced an amendment to the annual federal defense spending bill to expedite an exchange of Minnesota land between the federal government and the mining company PolyMet.
The land exchange is a prerequisite for PolyMet to build a copper-nickel mine — the first mine of its kind in Minnesota — near Hoyt Lakes, on northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range. Smith and other supporters of the land swap, which has already been approved by most of Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation, say that it is not an explicit endorsement of any mine, nor does it hinder any existing review process. Beyond that, they say the swap has benefits to the region regardless of mining.
Environmental advocates and other critics, however, have argued the amendment would remove an obstacle to the operation of a mine they believe will have disastrous effects on the environment in the name of temporary and limited economic gain. Richard W. Painter, the one-time ethics lawyer for George W. Bush who is now challenging Smith for the DFL nomination, has relentlessly hammered Smith over mining issues, and is accusing her of advancing corporate interests at the expense of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Smith’s would-be general election opponent, GOP state Sen. Karin Housley, says Smith is pandering, and doesn’t truly have miners’ interests at heart.
Finalizing the exchange
Smith’s amendment, which was introduced on to the defense appropriations bill last week, seeks to finally clear the land exchange, which has been in the works for years.
The U.S. Forest Service, which administers Superior National Forest lands in question, has already approved the transaction, in which they will receive 6,690 acres of PolyMet’s land in exchange for 6,650 acres of federal land.
PolyMet needs ownership of that government land, which sits above the copper-nickel deposit it already owns, in order to move forward with the mine. In its statement supporting the exchange, the Forest Service outlined a few benefits for the government: it will pick up over 500 acres of wetlands to use for research and conservation aims, including 94 acres with water frontage for public recreational use. It also said the new lands would be easier and cheaper to administer than the ones it would give to PolyMet.
Congress is being brought into the mix because several lawsuits have been filed over the Forest Service’s decision, which was made in the final days of the Barack Obama administration. Plaintiffs, which include environmental groups like the Sierra Club, allege that the government undervalued its land in the exchange, and that it did not consider certain environmental impacts.
In November 2017, several Minnesota members of Congress sponsored legislation to force the land exchange to take place within 90 days. That bill passed, with only two members of the Minnesota delegation — DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison — voting against it.
Smith and Klobuchar’s amendment would complete the legislative process in the Senate, expedite the land transfer and shut down existing legal challenges.
In the Senate, Smith became a champion for the land swap: in April, she met with Iron Range civic and business leaders and told them she’d work to advance the necessary legislation. “I really believe we can be pro-good jobs on Minnesota’s Iron Range and also pro-environment and pro-water quality,” Smith told attendees, according to the Ely Echo.
She also said she’d be fully supportive of the project if and when it passes a separate environmental review process. PolyMet says the project would directly employ 360 workers, indirectly support another 600 jobs, and lead to a half-billion dollars in economic impact each year, per a University of Minnesota Duluth study.
A spokesperson for Smith said the senator’s amendment codifies the Barack Obama administration’s position on the land exchange. “Her amendment does not override the rigorous environmental process for PolyMet — there has been over a decade of environmental review, and that should be continued with integrity in Minnesota,” the spokesperson said.
John Rebrovich, who works for the United Steelworkers union in Eveleth, credited Smith and Klobuchar for their amendment. “We’re just glad that the senators listened to us in this part of the state,” he said. “It’s our backbone, mining.”
Rebrovich said Smith, as lieutenant governor and as senator, spent a lot of time in the region understanding his union’s issues. “She understands what mining means to us and she understands also that the steelworkers that represent these mines, we’re not going to let these companies pollute the place, because we’ve gotta live here.”
“For her to understand it and to understand us,” he said, “it means a great deal to all of us, I’m sure.”
An ‘environmental disaster’
Environmental advocates in the region, and in the Twin Cities, strongly believe that a copper-nickel mine like PolyMet would be unacceptably risky to northeastern Minnesota’s water and land.
The technique for extracting metals like copper and nickel, sometimes called sulfide mining, is different than the way iron is extracted, and carries with it different risks. It has not been done yet in Minnesota, and environmental advocates believe it will be a long time before these metals can be extracted safely — if ever. (A 2015 mine waste spill in Colorado, which produced memorable images of miles of rust-covered rivers, is commonly cited by environmentalists.)
The state of Minnesota has mandated that in order for the PolyMet project to move forward, the company would have to furnish a $1 billion fund that would be used to counter any environmental damage.
Additionally, critics believe that the land exchange, though both PolyMet and the feds say it is fair, is so skewed to benefit the mining company that it amounts to a “bargain-basement subsidization” of the project, according to Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, an environmental advocacy group in northern Minnesota.
“It’s really a special break for a foreign company that is coming in here to exploit resources,” Knopf said.
It’s the dual concerns of environmental degradation and corporate favoritism that have created an opening for Richard Painter to attack Smith on the mining issue. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, has gained national notoriety as one of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken critics on cable news and social media.
The former Republican is now running against Smith in the DFL primary with a heavy focus on Trump — he is a loud advocate for impeaching the president — and on mining and environment issues. On his prolific Twitter feed, Painter rails against the possible environmental consequences of copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota and argues the projects would benefit international corporations, not the local economy.
Although PolyMet is a publicly traded company based in St. Paul, 30 percent of its shares are owned by Glencore, a Swiss mining conglomerate that is the 10th largest corporation in the world. In his tweets, Painter frames Glencore as a corrupt company with little regard for the wellbeing of workers or the environment. (The company’s chair is Tony Hayward, who was ousted from BP in 2010 over the company’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.)
In a statement, Painter said that Smith’s amendment was “nothing more than corporate welfare. It’s a giveaway to foreign sulfide mining conglomerate Glencore at the expense of hard-working Minnesotans.”
“The ‘Smith Amendment’ could be the worst environmental catastrophe in Minnesota history,” Painter tweeted on June 8. “This corrupt, back-room deal will allow foreign billionaire sulfide mine owners to pollute our waterways.” He later tweeted that Glencore’s “anti-union billionaires” would “rule the Range” if the PolyMet project moves forward.
Looking to August — and November
Painter is still considered a longshot in the August 14 DFL primary, but some political observers have been surprised at the traction he has picked up in the party base. Though Smith easily earned the party’s endorsement at its June 2 convention on the first ballot, Painter picked up 17 percent of delegate support — not an insignificant share for a lifelong Republican who once worked for George W. Bush.
If Smith advances on to the general election, the mining issue will not go away: the GOP candidate, Housley, is already criticizing her, but from a different angle. In a statement, Housley accused Smith of pandering and claimed that she has come around to PolyMet now that she is running statewide and needs to secure votes on the Iron Range.
“From the beginning, I have unequivocally supported the PolyMet proposal – and the hundreds of jobs that would come with it,” Housley said.
Though the bases of both parties are fired up about the issue, Smith’s move on PolyMet could prove to be a shrewd one, says Tim Lindberg, who teaches politics at the University of Minnesota Morris.
He brought up the other senator who introduced the amendment — Klobuchar — who is expected to coast to a third term this fall, in part due to her success in cultivating an image as a compromise-oriented politician.
Smith could be operating from a similar playbook, Lindberg said. “This is a really easy way in which you can show you’re compromising, reaching across the aisle, and not beholden to special interests,” he said, adding that Smith may want to take care to show independent-minded voters she will take moderate stances at times and not toe the progressive DFL line. “Smith is taking, I think, that tack of leaning toward the middle to make sure she doesn’t align herself too closely with the progressive wing [of the DFL].”
Lindberg also pointed out that in endorsing the land swap, Smith is not necessarily endorsing the PolyMet mine — and she has left the door open to oppose the project, if need be.
“I think this is her way of just scoring an easy victory, and earning some credibility in the long term. There’s no real long-term harm specifically within this land swap. It provides her that credibility without requiring her to take any particular stance.”
The Senate is expected to vote on final passage of the defense spending bill, and the Smith-Klobuchar amendment, this week.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the extent of Glencore’s ownership of PolyMet. It is a 30 percent shareholder in the company.