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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The sausage grinder

Stauber’s congressional hearing a reminder that lawmaking can be an ugly process


Otto von Bismarck once quipped that: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” That would certainly apply to two recent congressional hearings, one held here in Minnesota, the other in Washington, D.C., meant to make the case for legislation introduced by Rep. Pete Stauber that would rescind the recent mineral withdrawal affecting a portion of the Superior National Forest.
The bill would also reissue, by congressional order, mineral and prospecting leases and permits for the Twin Metals project, and give federal agencies no more than 18 months to complete both environmental and regulatory review, for any and all mine plans submitted within the Superior National Forest.
It would also remove longstanding rights of affected parties to challenge the reissuance of leases or permits in federal court. As such, litigation that had challenged the legality of the reissuance of Twin Metals leases by the Trump administration would no longer be permitted.
The public would, in effect, be shut out of this decision-making process to grease the skids for a foreign mining company.
If that’s not disturbing enough, just watching Congress “deliberate” on such a piece of legislation is, well, depressing. Most of us would probably like to think that such legislation is advanced based on solid information and rational consideration but having watched two recent hearings related to Stauber’s bill, it appears that misconception, misunderstanding, and distortion are the real orders of business.
The lawmakers, at least those on the Republican side of the aisle, seemed most impressed with the vastness of the mineral wealth of the Duluth Complex and can’t understand why the Biden administration would deny access to all of those minerals at a time when they’re desperately needed.
That, of course, is a misconception. The Duluth Complex is certainly vast, spanning about 1.2 million acres, but it is not a mineral withdrawal (which encompasses about 19 percent of the complex) that is preventing exploitation of the vast majority of this deposit— it is basic economics. The Duluth Complex is enormous in size, which accounts for the mind-numbing tonnage of the various metals it theoretically holds, yet no one has any idea how the vast majority of it could be profitably mined, at least with current technology. Even those slightly higher-grade deposits, such as Twin Metals has proposed to mine, are marginally economical, which is likely one reason that the venture has yet to release financial projections for its most recent mine plan.
Other basic misunderstandings of the situation presented themselves constantly in the questions posed by committee members. “If this is so bad, how is it that gold mines in the Rainy River watershed in Canada aren’t causing pollution in the Boundary Waters?” is a common refrain. Becky Rom, who was one of four witnesses who testified at a congressional hearing on the measure last week, had a simple answer: Those mines are located in watersheds that don’t flow into protected areas, such as the Boundary Waters and the Quetico. The Twin Metals mine would flow into those areas.
In a truly head-slapping moment, another member of the committee, pointing to an aerial image depicting the maze of water and forest that makes up the BWCAW, asked: “But, if this mine is located ten miles from the Boundary Waters, how will any canoeist even see it?”
Rom, who must have felt like a Kindergarten teacher at times, then had to explain that the concern is the impact of the proposed mine on downstream water quality and cited peer-reviewed and published studies that have determined the risk of such contamination is high given the abundance and interconnectedness of water in the region.
“But what about the Eagle Mine?” is another popular one, paired with the suggestion that modern mining techniques deployed there are preventing pollution. The Eagle Mine, located in the Upper Peninsula, is a high-grade, underground, copper-nickel deposit that encompasses an ore lode approximately six acres in size. It began operation in 2014 and is expected to close in 2027. It is infinitesimal compared to the scale of the proposed copper-nickel mine operations in northeastern Minnesota and we still don’t know whether the site will generate acid runoff in the long-term since it’s been open less than a decade.
Sadly, none of the answers to these questions will have made any difference in how members of the committee vote in the end. The members had their preconceived notions and were sticking to them. Most just ranted or asked rhetorical questions, at best, to score political points. If this is how the work of lawmaking is typically done, it’s a miracle we’ve survived this long. For anyone with a sensitive stomach, it’s probably best to stick to making sausage.