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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL

Mining’s influence

How much longer will the Range’s political process kowtow to industry?

Posted 6/17/20

What has long been an unspoken rule about how taconite funds are allocated on the Iron Range became explicit recently when the legislators on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board blocked …

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EDITORIAL

Mining’s influence

How much longer will the Range’s political process kowtow to industry?

Posted

What has long been an unspoken rule about how taconite funds are allocated on the Iron Range became explicit recently when the legislators on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board blocked a funding request from the Fond du Lac Band for a project to make drinkable water available to residents of two small, rural communities within the reservation boundaries.
Given the direct connection to public health, it was no surprise that the IRRR staff had ranked the project highly and agency staff deserve credit for their efforts to defend the project against the politically motivated criticism from members of the agency’s advisory board.
At issue, as Sen. Tom Bakk made explicit, was that the Fond du Lac Band, in his view, was “anti-mining,” and that was the sole litmus test in his mind for whether the funding could be approved. It was inconsistent, he claimed, for a governmental body to be opposed to mining yet accept tax dollars received from the mining industry.
Sen. Bakk should have thought a bit deeper. For one, while it’s true that taconite production tax dollars come from mining, they are in lieu of property taxes. We suspect most Minnesotans, probably even on the Iron Range, are unaware of the fact that mining companies don’t pay property taxes for the hundreds of thousands of acres of mine land that they own. Instead, the Legislature allows them to pay only a tax on actual ore production, so they don’t incur significant tax obligations during shutdowns or after closure of a mine. If the mining companies paid property taxes like the rest of us, the money would go into the same giant hopper as everyone else’s tax dollars, and Sen. Bakk’s argument would vanish into the ether since there would be no distinguishing between a dollar paid by a mining company versus a cabin owner, a local restaurant, or a wilderness outfitter.
The arrangement has also given the mining industry tremendous political power in the region, which they have wielded willingly through the influence of Iron Range legislators and their longtime tenure on the IRRR board, where they’ve overseen the distribution of tens of millions of those mining tax dollars annually to area communities.
Over the decades that we’ve covered the deliberations of local units of government, we have heard local politicians more than once cite the cudgel of IRRR dollars as reason they have to toe the Iron Range delegation’s line on various issues, but most particularly on the subject of mining and mining pollution. The delegation’s power has diminished in recent years as the board has been limited to an advisory role at the IRRR, but as they demonstrated recently, they can still throw a wrench in the gears when they feel the need.
Without doubt, the board’s action is contrary to the principles of a government that operates fairly and with due process for all of its citizens. It’s a violation of the same overarching principle that has prompted millions of people to march in the streets in recent weeks to protest the lack of fairness or due process for African Americans in this country. That this most recent IRRR board action was targeted against Native Americans, another minority group that has suffered from bias and discrimination in America, only highlights the tone-deaf nature of Iron Range legislators. At a minimum, they have forgotten the very foundation of representative and constitutional government, which is the imperative to serve all the people equally, not just those who are willing to comply with the political views of those in power.
Finally, the actions of the board reveal the degree to which Iron Range politicians are willing to brand anyone who expresses concern about the negative impacts of mining on the environment as “anti-mining.” That’s neither fair nor accurate. Many, if not most, people who oppose sulfide-based copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota are not opposed to taconite mining. But that’s a distinction that Iron Range politicians refuse to acknowledge because it makes it easier to vilify those with concerns of any nature, about any mine. Even those who simply advocate for the clean-up of existing mine pollution or suggest that Minnesota should actually start enforcing its supposedly impressive environmental regulations on the Iron Range, is quickly branded an anti-mining heretic who must be shunned, boycotted, or denied equal access to government funding.
The only question is: How much longer is the Iron Range willing to prostrate its political process before the altar of the mining industry? Really. How much longer?

Comments

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Mark Rogosheske Sr

A very informative Editorial, thank you. I would like to see the property tax be re-instated to level the field and do away with the IRRR.

Wednesday, June 17
Steve Jacobson

The fact of the matter is that "We are a mining area"! You'd have to be pretty ignorant to not understand how much this influences everything up here on the Iron Range. Without mining there most likely would not be any tourism economy as there would not be workers to work the minimum wage jobs for four months of the year.

Yes, the editor of this story is an anti mining advocate. Whether they like it or not this particular fund is based on mining taxes and has, in my opinion every right to decide who the money goes to. It is not difficult to see that the DFL is loosing it's foothold on the Iron Range and that the once great and powerful Tom Bakk has now been booted out of his leadership status. This is his attempt to try gain back ground that has been lost because of his strong liberal beliefs. For the Fond du lac tribe to expect money from an area that they are not even close to and take a stance against everything the mining represents is pure greed. Low or minimal taxes isn't enough to support them?

I'll be the first to agree that I have not always been supportive of how the IRRRB has spent money including the constant financing of Giants Ridge but they certainly have the right to not give money to those who oppose how they receive their funding in the first place.

Thursday, June 18
Deplorable

Spot on Steve! Agree with everything you wrote, nothing to add.

Thursday, June 18
Elizabeth Sivertson

I agree with this editorial whole heartedly, thank you! I do appreciate miners, and iron ore mining, and what iron ore has done creating jobs for many people in Minnesota. BUT, I think some mining proponents have forgotten or maybe never knew that the main purpose of IRRB existence is to mitigate and remedy residual damages done to places, water, and people in order to conduct mining operations. IRRB is MANDATED by the state to distribute it's funds in lieu of property taxes. To expect that the same people affected most adversely by our state's mining industries to "shut up and put up" in order to receive funding to- to what... improve water? The commenter should be ashamed for calling the "stance" taken by the Fond du Lac band "pure greed". In the very least, clean water is owed to those on the St Louis river. Those who think IRRRB is there for "passing out favors", should not be on the IRRRB board.

Thursday, June 18
Reid Carron

Thank you, Ms. Sivertson. You did an excellent job of answering portions of a comment that is so divorced from realistic analysis and any sense of fairness as to be nearly unanswerable. For the commenter to dismiss the editorial because, he alleges, the writer is “an anti-mining advocate” is hilarious in light of the indisputable mission of Tom Bakk: that is, to shill for foreign mining companies and the building trades. Is this “a mining area,” as the commenter claims? Well, yes, to a small degree. It’s a much smaller degree than it used to be, and not as small as it will be in the future as automation continues to reduce mining employment. This area is far more a retirement, tourism, wilderness travel, recreation, hunting, fishing, retail, health care, government employment, small-batch manufacturing, brewing, agricultural, lumbering, and telecommuting area. Mining is a fraction of the area’s economic activity compared to the totality of those other endeavors. But before this area was anything else, it was the home of native peoples. For the IRRRB to deny a grant from taconite tax money to help provide clean drinking water for descendants of those people because the Fond du Lac Band thinks the mining industry should not be allowed to pollute water is mean, stupid, and illegal. As a state agency, the IRRRB is clearly violating the First Amendment rights of the Band. The editorial writer made clear what the commenter and mining proponents generally refuse to acknowledge; that is, that wanting the mining industry to be prevented from polluting water does not mean that one is anti-mining. According to the Duluth News Tribune, this is what Rita Aspinwall of the Band had to say: “The Band is not anti-mining but we are anti-pollution. 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. This is fact, backed up by data and science. The Band will protect what still remains, now and for future generations.” Mindless mining boosterism by citizens and officials has held Northeastern Minnesota back for decades and continues to hold it back. If a tiny fraction of the time and money that has been spent bailing out and shoring up and pushing mining had been spent on broadband and education, Northeastern Minnesota would be the envy of the whole state.

Friday, June 19
Daniel Bliss

The IRRRB has committed the cardinal sin of retaliation, in this case punishing a routine, need-based technical request for infrastructure funding from an eligible local government, purely for reasons of that local government's opposition to an issue supported by the Board. This is a violation of the democratic process and of separation of powers. If we are now to the point where we have to take certain political stances in order to be eligible for services from the government, we're in a very dark place indeed.

Monday, June 22
Steve Jacobson

Opposition to the issue? This is most clearly biting the hand that feeds you. I can't believe we are actually having this conversation. Like I said earlier, I would like the friends of the boundary waters to give me money to put up pro mining signs. Why on earth will they not give me any money?

Tuesday, June 23
Scott Atwater

Irony: demanding money from someone while attempting to put them out of business at every opportunity.

Tuesday, June 23
Reid Carron

Stupidity and meanness: Being unwilling to spend public money to provide clean drinking water for members of the public who need it.

Tuesday, June 23
Steve Jacobson

Stupidity and arrogance: Moving up to God's country and expecting the $10/hr minions to wait on you!

Wednesday, June 24
Reid Carron

Desperately trying to think of a clever retort: Conflating Bakk and Tomassoni with God, and disrespecting the citizens ("minions") who keep Ely running by providing food, gas, beer, haircuts, clean teeth, paintbrushes, new bathrooms, and everything else that a community needs.

Wednesday, June 24
Steve Jacobson

Had to read your response twice, so you agree with me. End of conversation!

Wednesday, June 24
jtormoen

Deflection ... or defeatism.

(note the lack of a question mark)

Wednesday, June 24