Divisive politics over mining issues in northern Minnesota has entangled an Indian band’s request for money to build a water treatment system.
Members of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), an advisory group for the Eveleth-based economic development agency, argued this week against giving money generated by taconite revenue to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which has legally challenged mining operations.
Minnesota Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who sits on the board, called the band’s actions “anti-mining” and said he couldn’t support a $250,000 grant for it. “I’m pretty uncomfortable with this request,” he said during a Wednesday board meeting.
Earlier this year, Bakk moved a large annual DFL fundraising golf tournament from the Wilderness at Fortune Bay, which is owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, to Giants Ridge in Biwabik. It was part of a backlash against the band, which wrote a letter in January supporting U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s proposal to ban copper mining on 234,000 acres of federally owned wilderness near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
On Wednesday, Bakk reminded the board of the Fond du Lac band’s challenge to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permit issued to U.S. Steel’s Minntac Mountain Iron operation for a basin that holds mining waste. The legal challenge, he said, puts Minntac’s operation “at risk.”
The band, in its legal challenge, argued that contaminants were harming natural resources.
Board member and state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said he wants to do what he can to support Indian communities. But like Bakk and fellow board member state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, he said can’t support giving taconite money to a group that he says has opposed mining.
“This is at cross-purposes,” he said. The board has turned other down requests that don’t make sense and this one doesn’t, he said.
Bakk and others also questioned the band’s eligibility for the money because its tribal office in Carlton County is outside the taconite relief area. The band has tribal lands in and outside the relief area.
Board staff member Chris Ismil assured members that the tribe’s project met the criteria for the grant and in fact scored above other projects in the competition.
The water for the two communities, which are in the taconite relief areas, is not drinkable, Ismil said during the meeting. It’s contaminated and people could get sick, he told board members. The grant would help finance a $1.3 million project — the first phase in building a new water system that will be owned and operated by the tribe.
A day after the board unanimously tabled the proposal, Bakk said he and others on the board don’t oppose the project but merely want to give the money directly to communities that would be served by the water treatment system or to St. Louis County.
In a written statement, the band said it is not anti-mining. “We are anti-pollution,” the statement said. “Mining, the way it currently operates and is regulated in Minnesota, has destroyed wild rice, worsened the mercury in fish problem, and fundamentally destroyed and degraded thousands of acres of important natural and cultural resources in the 1854 Ceded Territory over the past century.”
Although she said she doesn’t speak for the tribe, Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, a Minnesota nonprofit focused on water quality, called the IRRRB’s actions political posturing.
“The project is necessary for drinkable water,” she said. “You can’t bully people who seek to exercise their First Amendment rights. Using the courts is part of democracy.”
“Just because you’re asking people to do a better job doesn’t mean you want to shut them down,” Maccabee said.
Noting that the board’s decision is merely advisory, Maccabee said she hopes that Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, who works for the governor, will approve the grant.
“I hope they stand up and say … Minnesota serves all communities,” Maccabee said. “The government in Minnesota puts clean water above politics.”