Mineral-leasing, wild-rice decisions were controversial but solid.
Ron Brodigan and his son Steve Brodigan posed on a dock in Sand Lake, which is full of wild rice. They are among those who have raised concerns about copper mining in northern Minnesota because of its threat to private property rights and its potential environmental impacts, including on wild rice.
The long-simmering controversy over copper mining in northeast Minnesota has flared again with two recent high-profile decisions on mineral-rights leasing and enforcement of the state's "wild rice rule," which protects the state's official grain from pollution often linked to mining.
The decision on mineral-rights leases, which will lead to mining exploration on private land, left mining opponents outraged. The court ruling upholding the wild-rice rule was a definite setback for mining proponents, who have argued that the rule has rarely been enforced and that mining firms are being held to a different standard than are other entities -- such as wastewater treatment plants -- that also may discharge sulfate into the water.
While both sides are disappointed, there's a clear theme to the decisions. In two very different situations, Minnesota's longstanding laws and policies have been respected, and neither side has been given special exemptions. That's a cause for confidence in the system that will eventually yield a decision on whether this new type of mining can be done safely in one of the most treasured parts of the state.
Northeastern Minnesota's world-class deposits of copper, nickel and other metals have generated considerable interest from prospecting companies, which is what led to the state Executive Council's controversial decision on mineral-rights exploration. The council consists of the governor and high-ranking state officers.
Although it's spelled out on deeds, many people are not aware that they may only own the surface rights to their property. The rights to the minerals below may be owned by private interests or the state. Minnesota generates revenue, and potential royalties from developments of ore found there, by leasing the mineral rights. Generally it involves short-term drilling of a small hole for sampling. Only about one in 4,000 such borings yield findings indicating that a mine is possible. And if it is, both state and federal agencies require lengthy permitting processes before a mine is green-lighted.
In the past year, some Minnesotans who own the surface rights to their land but not the mineral rights have objected to state leasing. Gov. Mark Dayton and the Executive Council bent over backwards to ensure that the landowners were treated fairly. The council delayed the lease approval -- an unusual move -- and gave the property owners a chance to change the law during the last legislative session. Dayton also pushed state officials to improve the notification process for affected landowners.
The landowners did not succeed at the Legislature. State officials improved the notification process, and late last month, the Executive Council listened again to landowners' concerns. Then it did the right thing and approved the leases. The council's mission is to ensure that the lease process follows the law, which it did. The council also did not grant landowners special treatment: They wanted their property exempted from the leased-out land. That would have set a troubling precedent, and would have had everyone with severed mineral rights asking for the same limits on an important class of property rights.
The wild-rice lawsuit, in contrast, challenged a decades-old state law protecting against mining pollution. The suit was filed by the state Chamber of Commerce. In a strong, well-written ruling, Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan upheld the wild-rice discharge standard. The 19-page decision could be summed up this way: A rule's a rule. If the mining companies want to operate here, they need to respect existing law.
Neither mining opponents nor proponents are completely satisfied with the two decisions. Nevertheless, the mutual setbacks and gains give reassurance that the process is unfolding as it should and will yield fair decisions on this new but risky industry's future here.
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