Aaron J. Brown is an author and radio producer who teaches at Hibbing Community College. Years of writing about Iron Range news, history, culture and politics have culminated in his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He lives on the western Mesabi Iron Range in Itasca County with his family.

Canadian mine disaster raises tough questions about Minnesota nonferrous mines

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: August 7, 2014 - 1:04 PM

Sometime in the middle of the night on Monday, Aug. 4, the dam holding together a tailings basin at a British Columbian copper and gold mine gave way, sending 1.3 billion gallons of tainted, sludgy water into local streams and lakes.

Officials tell residents in the closest town, Likely, B.C., not to use the water from several lakes and rivers near the Mount Polley Mine, including a precautionary ban stretching all the way to the well-known Fraser River. (And no, "Likely" is not a made-up name from a ham-handed eco-novel. It's a real town named for an old mining boss named John A. Likely). Mount Polley is operated by Imperial Metals of Vancouver.

The CBC reports that Canadian and provincial officials now assess the full extent of the damage and how something like this even happened. Global News is reporting that Mount Polley Mine employees are saying that tailings pond breaches have happened before, just never to this extent. Meantime, the breach compromises the town's drinking water and sidelines its tourism economy, which had co-existed with mining, for an indeterminate amount of time. Possibly a very long time.

Already, copper mining critics cite this disaster as Exhibit A that these mines threaten local ecosystems. Many here in Minnesota wonder: if this tailings pond breach can happen at an active mine in Canada, where regulations are similarly stringent to U.S. law, how on earth can we be confident in a tailings pond at a proposed nonferrous mine in northern Minnesota? After all, those tailings basins are supposed to last 500 years, according to PolyMet's own Environmental Impact Statement estimates.

That was the very question I posed to LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet spokesperson, yesterday. How would PolyMet prevent what happened at Mount Polley from happing at a nonferrous mine in the Lake Superior watershed?

Though the specific details of what happened at Mount Polley aren't yet known, Gietzen pointed out several differences between what's known about the Mount Polley mine and PolyMet's proposal in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.

"We have a high level of confidence that our tailings impoundment is and will remain safe based on the size, design, location, construction and general nature of the structure," said Gietzen.

Among the observable differences between Mount Polley and PolyMet, Gietzen said the Mount Polley Mine taps into a porphyry deposit in a much hillier location -- two factors that influence the toxicity and water pressure in the pond.

"Porphyry deposits often contain higher sulfide levels and clay," said Gietzen. "The clay tends to keep material in suspension and hamper drainage in tailings. PolyMet plans to mine a low sulfide deposit that does not have appreciable amounts of clay minerals. Therefore the geochemistry of our tailings will be different and the water in our tailings basin will be in the pH neutral range."

The high clay and silt content of the Mount Polley breach would account for the sludgy nature of the spill. Gietzen adds that PolyMet proposes using the outline of LTV Steel's old iron ore tailings pond, one that has been time-tested.

"We already maintain an existing structure that has been there more than 40 years and, to our knowledge, never had a breach," said Gietzen. "The design of that structure is proven and tested and we’ll be applying a similar design to an adjacent tailings structure, but employing some modern techniques.

Among those techniques, PolyMet aims to use existing fill materials from other areas on site in addition to the flotation tailings themselves, buttressing the exterior face of the dam with rock to add stability.

Gietzen adds that underground cutoff walls around more than half of the structure will help manage the overall water management and drainage system. She also says that the lack of seismic activity in Northern Minnesota, along with a very gradual slope and regular DNR inspections will all combine to make the PolyMet tailings basin more secure.

Assurances aside, however, the vocal mining opposition group Mining Truth issued a statement pointing out that the same engineering firm that build the failed dam in British Columbia advised PolyMet and the Minnesota DNR during the ongoing permitting process for PolyMet's NorthMet nonferrous mine project near Hoyt Lakes.

“Minnesotans are being asked to put a lot of faith in these companies that their projects won’t endanger the mine’s workers or the surrounding environment,” said Paul Danicic, Executive Director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. “It’s deeply disturbing that the same firm that designed the collapsed tailings dam was hired by PolyMet and the Minnesota DNR. We’re being asked to trust these companies with Minnesota’s water.”

It's true: engineers are fallible, and it would be wise for every mining operation in the world to take another look at the design of their tailings basins based on this terrible disaster. Responsible companies will learn from this and react appropriately. PolyMet says it will be seeking third-party engineering consultants to confirm the safety of their plans once they are permitted.

Mining the minerals we use in everyday products is inherently risky and, to some degree, inherently necessary. The question for Northern Minnesota is whether the need for and benefit from new nonferrous mining is greater than the risks and costs. Incidentally, this is what mining companies talk about behind boardroom doors. Communities and states should do the same, and lay out the considerations plainly in public view.

What happened in British Columbia simply must not be allowed to happen in Minnesota; the effects would be culturally and economically devastating. But we should also acknowledge that there is an acceptable amount of risk to take when it comes to mining necessary minerals. The challenge is finding the tipping point.

When you break this debate out of the emotional, culturally-motivated battle between developers and environmentalists you see that we have a question that can probably be answered, if we're willing to use math honestly to determine what the future of Northern Minnesota could and should look like.

MN-8 'toss-up' shows region at the crossroads

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: August 5, 2014 - 3:02 PM

Last week, the non-partisan Cook Political Report moved the race for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Rick Nolan and Republican Stewart Mills from "Lean Democratic" to "Toss-Up." This news has already attracted attention from most of the state's political writers, so I'm not here to rehash the day-to-day politics. Roll Call still says Nolan is slightly favored, but in any event I had already written that the MN-8 race was looking like a toss-up before Cook adjusted their ratings. Instead I'll offer these thoughts about the shifting sands of MN-8.

The 8th District is usually considered in terms of its historical identity instead of its modern reality. Even today, after two consecutive elections in which the incumbent was defeated, people refer to the 8th District in relation to the Iron Range, labor politics and mining. That's because for most of the 20th Century, Northeastern Minnesota's Congressional seat was dominated by mining and logging interests, and the Duluth-based industrial powers that shipped and processed these products.

From the late 1800s through the onset of the Great Depression, this district (not always numbered "8"), much like the state as a whole, was reliably Republican. Northeastern Minnesota was growing and prosperous. Republican business interests dominated the politics of the region. Since most of the labor came from unskilled immigrants, most of whom couldn't vote and/or feared for their livelihood, Republicans consistently held off Democrats in the early years of Northeastern Minnesota settlement. (Though, the strong performance here of "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt and the socialist Eugene Debs in 1912 shows that the region was more Bob LaFollette than Bob Taft in its Republicanism -- back before political parties demanded strict homogeny).

As immigrants gained the franchise, things changed. Through the Depression this Congressional seat bounced back and forth between the Farmer-Labor Party and Republicans. The Democrats were not much of a factor here yet. In fact, the strength of the Farmer-Labor Party among miners and loggers of the time was part of the reason Democrats forged their alliance with the Farmer-Laborites, giving us today's DFL -- the party label that continues to confound national politicos.

Only after WWII did the district settle in as a DFL stronghold, one that held until 2010. Now, in 2014, people want to know: what changed?

  • The Iron Range and Duluth lost population.
  • Mines and mills became more automated, requiring far fewer union laborers and slightly more higher-educated, higher-income engineers and technicians.
  • After the 1980s, rural parts of the district began to skew much older.
  • The size of the district grew as Minnesota's metro area surged in population. Each new redistricting added more conservative central Minnesota precincts, to the point now that the Minneapolis/St. Paul media market covers as much of the district as Duluth's.

The result is a district that is more politically balanced between conservatives and liberals. We have a city of Duluth that behaves very much like a liberal metropolis (even if it's still on the hunt for 100,000 residents). Duluth's new attitude no longer requires harmony with resource-based, socially-conservative Iron Range leaders, so the northern part of the district will have difficulty uniting behind one candidate. We have an Iron Range where tradition and culture still produces a DFL-leaning electorate, but where fewer people mean fewer raw votes. We have a Brainerd Lakes, central Minnesota and North Metro section of the district where political affiliation follows demographic indexes utterly unrelated to these previously listed factors.

In short, we have a MN-8 district that behaves like a small Midwestern swing state -- full of factions, regions and different opinions.

A particularly talented and dynamic politician might be able to hold the district through its natural swing; most candidates, however, including most of the characters we see these days, will be changed like spark plugs at the speedway.

Northern Minnesota really is a swing district. It's not just swinging between Democrats and Republicans; it's swinging between generations, economic systems and attitudes about the future. Nolan could well survive this election, but I doubt he'll be around much longer than that. If Mills wins he'll immediately become a vulnerable 2016 incumbent. This district might change hands half a dozen times before it establishes a more permanent political identity. Each new member of Congress will represent a lagging indicator of the real change happening below the surface of clumsy political labels and idle punditry.

Is this place a temporary resource colony, retirement home and tourist haven?

Or is this place a site of a future renaissance of technology, education and nature?

That is the real question. The answer could well be built on a mountain of ex-Congresspersons and failed candidates who firmly believed that their dogmatic partisan politics would endure.

Only the people will endure. Just like Ma Joad said. Whether the people are Democrats or Republicans is less important than their willingness to work hard, take risks, plan better communities, welcome new neighbors, and educate themselves and their children. If we're not willing to do these things, it really doesn't matter who wins the elections.

The creeping hyperbole of Iron Range mining politics

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: July 29, 2014 - 1:09 PM

Last week I was called into town to do another "Iron Range political pundit" interview with Northland's NewsCenter's Nick Minock. The story was about something presumptive Minnesota GOP U.S. Senate nominee Mike McFadden had said about nonferrous mining projects in Northern Minnesota. McFadden had suggested that projects like PolyMet and Twin Metals, which have been mired in environmental review, have the potential to have the same economic impact the Bakken oil fields had on western North Dakota. I was asked, is that true?

In short, no. In long form, hell no. The sheer amount of money and people working to extract oil in the Dakotas will not come close to being matched by Northern Minnesota's PolyMet or Twin Metals, even if these projects are permitted, financed and open to rousing success -- none of which is assured for reasons outside the control of a solitary U.S. Senator. It was a piece of political hyperbole, one which McFadden all but copped to later.

I've written before that the controversial "mining issue" will flare up throughout Election 2014, with particular flourish in the MN-8 Congressional race, the U.S. Senate race and governor's race. Each of these races have indeed featured the same dynamic: Republicans who support new mining arguing that Democrats who support new mining don't support new mining enough. I'll call this the Mesabi Daily News Rule, which states: Any deference to the concerns of project opponents, even if patronizing and entirely rhetorical, is equivalent to outright opposition.

The MDN rule essentially allows this GOP gambit, which is based on the notion that Iron Range voters who support mining and distrust the Twin Cities in a general sort of way will flock to Republican candidates. I've written a general argument that it won't work this way; not quite. Nevertheless, it's an easy position for the GOP to take because the party has no environmental wing whatsoever. Besides, the GOP will see a general benefit if the DFL looks like it's off its game or defending its home turf, which is perhaps the real motivation behind all this.

But that's not the end of the Election 2014 Iron Range hyperbole.

This week Eric Black of MinnPost posted more of his recent interview with McFadden, in which the candidate focused heavily on economic issues. Again, McFadden argued the "MDN Rule," that he would expedite more mining jobs on the Iron Range. Black, upon citing several positive Minnesota economic numbers in recent years, quoted him:

Do you know what the unemployment rate is in the Iron Range, Eric? It just came out, too. It’s close to 10 percent. Do you know what it is in Bemidji? It’s close to 11 percent. Do you know what the labor participation rate is in Minnesota? The lowest it’s been in 30 years. Do you know what the wage growth has been over the last six years? The average weekly wage has gone up $8…

That’s why the vast, vast majority of Minnesotans don’t feel like we’re going in the right direction.

So, fact check. I went to DEED's website to see the most recent raw unemployment numbers from June. The Virginia area posted 7.1 percent in June with 7.2 in Hibbing and 8.2 in Grand Rapids. Taken together, this suggests about a 7.5 percent unemployment average for the Iron Range region. Still, the county unemployment rates in Itasca and St. Louis are even lower, so 7.5 percent might be on the high end. That's above the state average, but not as bad as 10 percent.

Further, the suggestion here is that the higher unemployment rate is because there are people qualified to work in the mines who can't, because environmental review is holding up their livelihoods. That's simply not true at all. As I've said before, if you can pass a drug test and have two years of technical training in some aspect of the mining industry, you have a very good chance at a mining job right now. And sure, new mining would open more jobs -- probably bringing in new residents to work the nonferrous mines more than anything else.

That's good, actually, but if we're really concerned about those 7.5 percent who are here now and not employed, we should be figured out a way to get them the two years of college they currently can't afford or aren't prepared to take. We should be concerned about their wages for full time work, so that people with families don't have to work 70 hours to pay for basic needs. Is this what McFadden was talking about? I wonder. Sen. Al Franken has talked about these issues, but he is the one McFadden blames for the discrepancy.

The reason northern Minnesota's unemployment is higher than that of Duluth or the Twin Cities is because our economy is less diverse, less responsive to the economic activity that fuels the larger recovery. Thus, doubling down on the single natural resource based industry isn't a long term solution to that problem. It doesn't hurt. But it's not economic diversification.

Only diversification will bring the Iron Range's economy in line with the state's unemployment averages, which -- it bears mentioning -- are well below the national average. Minneapolis has the lowest unemployment rate among all metro areas in the United States.

For McFadden and other Republicans challenging DFL incumbents, this sort of Iron Range mining and unemployment hyperbole makes for a nice talking point. And these points are rooted in real issues deserving of our attention, but they are exaggerations made for effect, not outcome. Exaggeration makes jokes funnier and fish bigger. But the real story is often more complex and requires solutions not rooted in the staccato party doctrine soundbites of a modern campaign.

Rick Nolan's greatest challenge in MN-8

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: July 23, 2014 - 11:23 AM

Forgive residents of Northern Minnesota's 8th Congressional District some sense of disorientation. Since 2010, the district elected as many new congressmen as it had in the previous six decades. After former Rep. Chip Cravaack scored the region's biggest Republican upset in three generations, defeating longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar, Cravaack lost by 9 points to current Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) in the 2012 race. Now Nolan, the "comeback Congressman," faces another tough race against Brainerd area businessman Stewart Mills, who one national publication has dubbed "the Republican Brad Pitt." Should Mills win, the district would rightly be considered a political metronome.

Congressional campaigns here in the North Woods were once sleepy affairs involving stately billboards along highways that Oberstar had built, and sacrificial Republicans hoping in vain to maybe, just maybe, break 40 percent. Now, Northern Minnesotans live in a swing district. Or at least we might. It's hard to say because the district is in the midst of a great deal of change.

Quite simply, Nolan, Mills and Cravaack at one time, all hail from a part of the state that only entered the 8th district later in the career of Jim Oberstar. The district became vast, and diversified greatly from the time it was known as "the Duluth and Iron Range" seat. Such is the result of demographic and population shifts that not only changed the size of the district, but its political composition as well. This, coupled with the erratic turnout patterns of liberals in midterm elections, was the main reason for Oberstar's shock defeat in 2010 and the district's continuing unpredictability.

As 2014 began, Nolan was considered safer than your average Democratic incumbent. He still is, on paper, though recent press and a rush of Mills ads suggest that Nolan might be watching his theoretical lead erode. That's certainly the feeling evident in this recent Roll Call piece by Colin Diersing (I'm quoted therein explaining Nolan's aversion to the amount of fundraising expected of current members of Congress, which has grown exponentially since he first served in Congress from 1975-80).

To his credit, Nolan has managed to more or less keep pace with Mills in fundraising, but just barely. It's clear that not only will Mills and Nolan raise and spend a million bucks each, outside groups will be pouring in a greater amount of money as the campaign wears on.

One advantage Nolan has is the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, both Democratic incumbents, seem to be faring pretty well right now. If they manage to stay ahead in their races, or even expand their leads, Nolan might be carried along with them. But since the DFL base is gelling around the Twin Cities, both Franken and Dayton could win without the votes Nolan needs to prevail in his race. This is Nolan's special challenge, and it has vexed him and his staff for more than a year.

Case in point: mining. Because the Eighth District is still perceived as the "Duluth and Iron Range" seat, even though that's now only half true, there is a continued misperception that this race will turn on whether or not Iron Rangers who seem to overwhelmingly support controversial new copper/nickel mining projects view Mills or Nolan as the better champion of their cause. I say misperception because, as I've stated before, mining might move a couple thousand votes on the Range, but many, many more Democratic votes rest in Duluth, where these mining projects are much less popular. And more votes still lie in the southern part of the district, where mining is viewed with relative ambivalence, except as an issue that some Republicans hope to exploit.

But the drumbeat on mining forced Nolan to make the "safe" political vote in supporting a Republican pro-mining provision on a bill that passed the House but died in the Senate last year. In the process, he angered some of his staunchest DFL environmental allies, and now walks a tightrope in explaining his precise position.

In considering Mills, one must admire the fact that he appears to have made a race out of a situation that could have gotten away from him. Everyone and their pontificating brother refers to Mills as a "non tradition Republican candidate," but that's mostly a reference to his long hair. Besides that fact he's an ideal Republican candidate for a district like this: he's from a business family, is outspoken about guns, and has no voting record on issues like Social Security, health care or education to defend.

Unlike Cravaack in 2012, Mills doesn't have to worry about his ties to the district, as he clearly lives here and has for a long time. Cravaack's family's move to New Hampshire before the 2012 race, coupled with his conservative votes on a number of issues close to the heart of socially conservative, fiscally liberal independents was what undid the district's first GOP congressmen since WWII. Mills will try to avoid those traps.

Mills is using Cravaack's 2010 playbook to a tee, and the question is whether it will work when it's no longer a surprise. After a summer of intense Mills ad buys, most of which are focused on soft, friendly name recognition, it will be interesting to see how Nolan responds.

Truly, the outcome of the 2014 MN-8 race depends a great deal on Nolan's moves here in the late summer and early fall. What kind of ads does he run? What kind of pressure can he pour onto Mills? How will the debates go? Most congressional ratings still show the race as leaning toward Nolan, but that hasn't stopped national Democrats and Republicans from moving MN-8 to their respective top spending lists. It's up to Nolan to keep his lead, or take it back.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range author and community college instructor. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts a traveling live broadcast variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org) and other public stations.

Northern Minnesota finally has stake in Emmys fight

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Society Updated: July 11, 2014 - 10:50 AM

Not since Kevin McHale was snubbed for his groundbreaking guest role on "Cheers" have Northern Minnesotans had this much interest in the outcome of the Emmys. 

The Northern Minnesota-based FX drama "Fargo," inspired by the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, earned 18 Emmy nominations in the mini-series category yesterday, including nods for the four actors who portrayed the main roles. I filed episode-by-episode reviews of "Fargo" from my unique perch here in the real Northern Minnesota.

I started watching the show with a healthy dose of skepticism but quickly came around when the dramatic craftsmanship of Noah Hawley and his team became apparent. What began as an opportunity to make jokes about regional continuity errors quickly became a well-read feature of my blog, as fans gathered to talk about the latest episodes and as questions about Bemidji, Duluth and other places depicted in "Fargo."

"Fargo" was not a traditional style TV drama. It was designed as a "one off," a 10-episode run that would end definitively after a single season. That's how they got so many relatively big stars to do roles both big and small. But Hawley said that he would be open to doing another, similar season, albeit with all new characters and probably in an all new venue. He's described his vision as being a "true crime of the Midwest" series that would stay fresh by leaping through time and location. ("True Crime" being part of the irony here; despite the disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, "Fargo" is entirely fictional).

So there's no guarantee that the next show would be based in Northern Minnesota, but it would probably be fairly nearby if it weren't.  Though it's not official yet, sources are saying a new second season of "Fargo" is likely. But some of the first season's stars seem resigned to the fact that they won't be a part of the new one.

Turning back to the Emmy's for a moment, the 18 nominations for "Fargo" all come in the "Best Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special" category. This was a strategic move by FX, as the show would also have been eligible to be entered in the Best Drama category (where HBO's similarly-formatted "True Detective" ended up). But the move did allow all of the show's deserving people to be nominated and may set it up for a historic sweep if Emmy voters like the show as much as critics did.

Billy Bob Thornton (Lorne Malvo) and Martin Freeman (Lester Nygaard) were both nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special." In a move that I question, Allison Tolman (Molly Soverson) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the miniseries category. I had long considered her a leading actress, the protagonist that counterbalanced the evil of Thornton and Freeman's characters. So it goes. Colin Hanks (Gus Grimely) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this category, meaning all four of the "main" characters were nominated.

I would have liked to see some of the out standing guest actors get nominated for this series -- Russell Harvard, Adam Goldberg, Bob Odenkirk -- but none of them got the call.

Noah Hawley was nominated for writing, where he is very deserving, and two directors were nominated for different episodes: Adam Bernstein for "The Crocodile's Dilemma" and Colin Bucksey for "Buridan's Ass." My personal feeling is that "Buridan's Ass" is the best episode in the whole series, its only fault being that it was so much better than the others that the finale had a hard time catching up to the expectations. So that's my favorite.

So we'll see what happens on Monday, Aug. 25 when the Emmy's awards ceremony is held in Los Angeles. Then we will find out if "Fargo" is coming back, and "where" it will happen. My vote is for the Iron Range. Noah! Call me!

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