As Minnesotans, we are all proud of the many economic strengths of our great state. From our diverse mix of industries, to our highly skilled and hard-working workforce, to our extensive natural resources, we have many assets that have sustained our state’s strong position economically. Included in this is the historically prominent iron mining industry that has played a vital role in the state’s prosperity for more than 130 years.
Today five iron mines are up and running on the Iron Range, which is wonderful. But the cyclical nature of global markets is a constant reality of life for families and businesses in the region. They know today’s relative prosperity is fragile, which is why they have worked so hard to diversify their economy.
In recent years, many have focused their hopes on efforts to establish a copper-nickel mining industry as a companion to iron mining. Surveys suggest deposits in the Duluth Complex southeast of Ely are the world’s largest undeveloped source of these strategically vital minerals.
That’s why a decision by two federal agencies on Dec. 15, 2016, were met with great dismay across the region. On that day, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management dealt two sharp blows to regional economic and job creation efforts supported by a broad coalition of labor, industry and community members.
First, the agencies denied renewal of two 50-year-old federal mineral leases required for a vast underground mine to be developed by Twin Metals Minnesota, a move being contested in court.
And second, they proposed a massive, potentially permanent federal withdrawal from all future leasing, exploration and development in a vast, mineral-rich area in the Rainy River watershed. This includes hundreds of thousands of acres of federal, state, county and private lands across northern Minnesota.
We share the dismay over such a sweeping attack on development. This arbitrary action renders irrelevant the rigorous, longstanding public process in place to review environmental and other effects of development proposals under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and equally tough state statutes. Why have such processes if we allow federal officials to pre-emptively decide the outcome before the NEPA review can even begin?
That’s exactly what happened. Twin Metals Minnesota, whose mineral leases were denied, has yet to even put forward a specific mine proposal for review. It has, however, spent some $400 million on preliminary drilling, prefeasibility studies and other work in an apparently mistaken belief in the political and scientific integrity of the established environmental review processes. Any others with ideas for exploring other parts of the withdrawal area got a clear “off limits” signal from the feds’ peremptory action.
Here’s why the federal government’s actions are so hard to accept: While doing better today than in recent years, the Range remains a shadow of its former self. At its modern peak in 1979, the Range provided work for some 16,000 miners. Today that number is much lower and the area’s population is declining. But a new era of copper-nickel mining and other potential projects in the withdrawal area would bring thousands of high-paying, long-term mining jobs, as well as thousands of spinoff and construction jobs, according to estimates from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
NEPA and state laws allow any project to be denied that falls short of established environmental standards. Iron Rangers, who cherish the natural resources that surround them, understand that. But a rejection on that basis would be far easier to swallow than arbitrary, non-scientific rulings from an outgoing administration in Washington.
Fortunately, the proposed federal withdrawal is not yet a done deal. The government is collecting written public comments on the proposal until mid-April and will hold a public hearing on March 16 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. A second hearing will be held on the Iron Range on a date as yet unspecified.
Doug Loon is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Harry Melander is president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.