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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Mining politics stall safe drinking water project

IRRR board objects to tribe's stance on mining pollution

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/11/20

REGIONAL— Concerns about public health took a backseat to mining politics on Wednesday as the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board refused to fund a water project on the Fond du Lac …

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Mining politics stall safe drinking water project

IRRR board objects to tribe's stance on mining pollution


REGIONAL— Concerns about public health took a backseat to mining politics on Wednesday as the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board refused to fund a water project on the Fond du Lac reservation, at least for now, because of the tribal government’s opposition to mining pollution.

At issue was a $250,000 funding request from Fond du Lac to help fund the construction of a new water source, tower, and water treatment facility for the communities of Mahnomen and nearby Brookston.

“The water serving these folks is not drinkable. It’s contaminated at a level that could make some ill,” IRRR grant manager Chris Ismil said, noting that the water currently available to the two communities does not meet drinking water standards. According to Ismil, the request had ranked highly under the scoring used by the IRRR, a state agency.

The two rural communities are part of the taconite tax relief area, meaning they qualify for the taconite production tax funding from the IRRR. The production tax is levied on Iron Range taconite mines, on a tonnage basis, in lieu of property taxes.

But mining politics quickly intervened in the discussion about the merits of the proposal.

“I’m pretty uncomfortable with this request,” said Bakk. “I’d like to do something for this part of the taconite relief area because we don’t get many requests, but I can’t remember us ever doing a grant to a local unit of government that is publicly anti-mining.”

Bakk noted that the Fond du Lac band has pushed for implementation of the wild rice standard for sulfate pollution, which he said has posed challenges for the PolyMet copper-nickel project. He also complained that the band is a party to a lawsuit intended to require U.S. Steel to clean up pollution discharges from its Minntac tailings basin north of the Virginia. “They’re putting Minntac’s operations at risk.”

“I can’t ever remember a unit of government opposed to mining that came to us and asked for mining tax dollars. I can’t understand it. I can’t support it,” he said.

Other members of the board, which is comprised of northeastern Minnesota legislators, echoed Bakk’s sentiment.

“I, too, am uncomfortable, for all the reasons that Sen. Bakk brought up,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

The Fond du Lac request was one of ten infrastructure requests before the IRRR board on Wednesday. It was the only one that prompted objections from the board.

Other members of the board appeared to look for other ways to provide the funding. Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL- Aurora, questioned whether the funds could be directed to another local unit of government.

But IRRR staff pushed back, noting that the Fond du Lac had applied for the funds, as is their right under the law and policies in place at the agency. “The Fond du Lac reached out and applied like any other entity in the service area,” said Ismil. “To be honest, it scored above other projects. From the state’s policies and procedures, it met all the criteria and it scored high.”

IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips noted that the agency had made outreach to the four native bands located within the taconite service area as part of an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz for more face-to-face contacts to inform native leaders about funding opportunities from the state. “I totally understand the issue,” said Phillips, “but I don’t know what the legal ramifications are if we are a state agency and we offer a program and they meet the requirements.” Phillips questioned whether the agency could face a legal challenge if they withhold funds over a difference of opinion over mining.

Some board members began suggesting other reasons for withholding the funding. Rep. Julie Sandstede noted that the agency had recently been audited and wondered if there was anything in the Fond du Lac proposal that might raise questions from an auditor.

“If this were to be examined, are there questions in your mind, are there issues that need to be explored?” she asked.

IRRR attorney Al Becicka responded: “The legal answer to that would probably be no,” although he acknowledged that the board could strike the project if it saw fit to do so.

Bakk complained that, too often, communities come to the IRRR first, rather than pursuing other sources of funding, such as the state public facilities authority, or PFA, which often provides water and wastewater infrastructure loans to governmental units. “I don’t know if they’re eligible for PFA,” said Bakk, but he urged IRRR staff to see if the band had applied for those state dollars.

In fact, the information packet provided to board members indicated three other funding sources were included in the $1.347 million project, including $131,450 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, another $131,450 from the Indian Health Service, and $834,243 from the band itself.

Tomassoni said he thought the board needed more information and motioned to table the request. After more discussion, the board voted unanimously to table any approval of the project.

The Timberjay will have more on this story in its June 19 print edition and further updates and comment as it becomes available.


7 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Shaking my head.

    As a miner, I concur with not giving them a dime.

    Friday, June 12, 2020 Report this

  • Lee Peterson

    First, the $250,000 request from the IRRRB is very reasonable, at only 18.5% of the project.

    Second, the IRRR Board's decision to block a grant needed to help fund safe drinking water for residents is glaringly punitive. It amounts to punishing people for exercising free speech, a First Amendment right. I'm amazed at the Board's (local politicians) unanimous vote. It sure puts them all in the same boat.

    Third, let's keep in mind who originally owned the land and the minerals here. That should count for something.

    Sunday, June 14, 2020 Report this

  • Would the Friends of the Boundary Waters give me some money to put up a billboard to promote Twin Metals and Polymet? Freedom of speech?

    Asking for a friend.

    Monday, June 15, 2020 Report this

  • To elaborate on Mr. Peterson's last point--Bakk has it exactly backwards, of course. Who could conceivably have a greater claim on taconite money than people whose land and waters have been devastated by taconite mining and its predecessor? The Fond du Lac Band's response to the stupidity and meanness of Bakk, Lueck, Tomassoni and the rest is elegant. 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.” In other words, "Bakk, this is for you and the horse you rode in on." Bakk needs to take a powder.

    Monday, June 15, 2020 Report this

  • No mining - no money! Sounds fair to me!

    Tuesday, June 16, 2020 Report this

  • pam

    I don't like the fact that when you referenced something Mr. Bakk said, you used the word complained , more than once. Not very creative writting. Your not very open minded and show what side you dislike, with disgruntled writing.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2020 Report this

  • Liz Sivertson

    Talk about systemic racism. It looks like the bullying good ol' boy and gal network hasn't read the headline news - from MPLS and across the whole wide world the last couple weeks. I am so ashamed that my own DFL legislators would land on the wrong side of this- even making it an issue! A unanimous decision to table the grant request from the Fond du Lac Ojibway- living down stream of the biggest industry in the state, (scientifically proven to be polluted by the same industry). Ironically, it is a grant request for getting DRINKABLE water. After even having passed all the grant criteria with flying colors, Bakk reminded good ol boy and gal at the table that the Fond du Lac has before complained about mines (and loss of clean water and wild rice). Bakk truly "doesn't understand". Wasn't giving money to those ill affected by mining operations a big part of what the IRRRB was CREATED to do?

    Thursday, June 18, 2020 Report this