It was outrageous that a few legislators huddled in the dead of night at the end of this year’s legislative session and secretly agreed to slip language into a bill to abolish the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board.

But it’s a mistake to think, as too many do, that the board was done in by big agriculture’s concern that the board had reversed a PCA staff decision and required more environmental study of a planned animal feedlot. It’s another mistake to think that Minnesota business interests were finally successful in salving their decades-long pique that the PCA and its board burden business with “overregulation.”

The PCA board has dealt with many controversial ag and business issues ever since it was created in 1967. Ag got its pound of flesh early on when the Legislature required that one member of the nine-member board be a farmer. Business was able to dilute citizens’ power when then-Gov. Arne Carlson made his MPCA commissioner the board’s chair.

What really happened this year was that Iron Range legislators saw an opportunity to send yet another pointed message to everyone in government that there’s a political price for saying or doing anything that even hints of opposition to long-planned copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, with the environmentally dangerous sulfates that come with ore extraction.

In the early 1970s a brash Grant Merritt courageously — and successfully — challenged Reserve Mining Co.’s dumping of taconite tailings directly into Lake Superior at Silver Bay. Merritt, the first head of the MPCA, was also prominent in a 1970s plan to explore copper-nickel mining in the Arrowhead, and he properly called public attention to ecological devastation from copper smelting in Sudbury, Ontario. Merritt was out as MPCA commissioner before his first term was over.

Rep. Don Fraser irked the Iron Range by supporting wilderness designation for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. When Fraser later ran for the U.S. Senate, Rangers made the BWCA an issue and helped a more pliable Bob Short win a divisive DFL primary against Fraser.

And so this year, a small cadre of Range legislators quietly conspired in the dead of night to dump the board. As a bonus, Rangers somehow deflected blame for their underhandedness to agriculture and business interests.

Leading the stealth attack on the PCA was Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and his co-conspirator on these things, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. Their worry was that the PCA was seeking to regulate sulfides in a way that Rangers thought detrimental to copper-nickel mining. Also, Rangers knew they couldn’t count on the board to rubber-stamp environmental permits. It’s easier to gang up on a single commissioner.

It wasn’t only the PCA that felt the Rangers’ sting. Two years ago DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto cast the lone vote on the state’s Executive Council against mineral leases for copper-nickel mining. In another late-night huddle, Bakk and fellow Rangers quietly agreed to limit Otto’s responsibility to audit local government.

A few years back, the Legislature was considering another mining issue in a way that offended Rangers, and before long the issue vanished. When asked if any legislator ever wins on anything relating to mining, Bakk grinned and said, “Everyone knows that they’re up against some pretty tall timber” when they take on the Range.

The bitter Ranger-fueled 1978 DFL primary against Fraser left a foul aftertaste with voters who handily elected Republican Dave Durenberger as U.S. senator. Other DFLers, including Gov. Rudy Perpich and Sen. Wendell Anderson also took a whipping from voters that year.

But it didn’t matter. The “tall timber” made their point then just as they did a few weeks ago by nixing the PCA board and trimming the state auditor’s area of responsibility.

There’s surely more to come in this saga, because copper-nickel mining has a long regulatory pathway before the first mine can open. Truth is, such mining has proved environmentally harmful, even disastrous, wherever in the world it’s been done. The other truth is Rangers want it. And that’s that.

 

Ron Way, of Edina, was assistant PCA commissioner when the Reserve Mining controversy unfolded.