FREE SPEECH ZONE | St. Louis County Commissioners vote to support children paying for their School Trust Fund with their health

On December 18, 2012, a majority of the crowd at the Morse Town Hall in Ely was against the resolution, but that did not stop the St. Louis County commissioners from voting, 5-1, “to support a land exchange with the state and federal government.” State Representative Tom Rukavina, David Oliver of Duluth Metals, and State Representative David Dill of the infamous quote “We should mine, log and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the change” were also in attendance.

The purpose of a land exchange was to trade approximately 93,000 acres of School Trust Lands (originally estimated at 93, 260 acres but since determined to be 86,295 acres) in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) for 93,000 acres of Superior National Forest land outside the BWCAW, now within what is referred to as the Mesabi Purchase.

According to State Representative Rukavina, the Mesabi Purchase area “includes (perhaps a sign from above) 93,000 acres of federal land. That is interspersed with 93,000 acres of private land and about another 26,000 acres of state-owned land, much of which is already school trust land.” Rukavina continued, “We need to point out here that of that 93,000 acres of private land, U.S. Steel owns approximately 23,000 acres at its Mountain Iron mine, and Arcelor Mittal owns about 4,000 acres at its Virginia mine, both of which are located in the Superior National Forest. The private timber industry owns another 10,000 acres… homesteaders own about 50,000 acres.” (Star Tribune)

The unspoken purpose of the Mesabi Purchase exchange is to facilitate mining on Superior National Forest lands. When it is nearly a three to one ratio of mining to logging on the private land in this interspersed area, it is not realistic to think that this exchange is going to be primarily for logging, as Rukavina and others suggest—unless you consider that they log it before they mine it. Earning income for the Permanent School Fund by exchanging School Trust Lands is a convenient ruse.

We have no way of knowing just what lands will ultimately be designated as part of such an exchange. As reported in the Timberjay, “In addition, the area specifically identified as the highest priority for exchange includes federal lands running from near Aurora to Birch Lake. These lands include most of the known copper-nickel deposits in the region, including PolyMet’s NorthMet deposit. If passed through Congress, this land exchange would instantly exempt these potential mining operations from many federal environment laws, such as the Weeks Act, and would eliminate the need for PolyMet to undertake a land exchange of its own with the Forest Service.“ It was also reported that because the state does not own the mineral rights to much of the land with high mineral content, the revenue generated for the Permanent School Fund could be negligible.

According to the Hometown Source, the Permanent School Fund of approximately 800 million generates “about three-tenths of 1 percent of Minnesota’s public schools’ annual budget of $8.5 billion.” It would be far more effective to fund education properly in the first place, and then use the Permanent School Fund as a source of grants for our schools rather than as a source of operating revenue.

Rukavina refuses to consider a full buy-out of School Trust Lands in the BWCAW, claiming that it would be a bad deal for the school children of Minnesota. As reported by MPR, “State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said the school trust will make a lot more money that way [100-percent swap].” Rukavina also opposed a buy-out in 1997 when the entire federal Minnesota congressional delegation supported one.

Today, the School Trust Lands’ catchphrase is “the highest maximum return.” The Minnesota State Legislature has essentially rid itself of the pesky part of the law, the part that read, “consistent with sound natural resource conservation.” The Legislature changed our state statute so that conservation no longer has equal billing with revenue. Just to be sure there could be no doubt about their intent, legislators added, “When the commissioner finds an irresolvable conflict between maximizing the long-term economic return and protecting natural resources and recreational values on school trust lands, the commissioner shall give precedence to the long-term economic return in managing school trust lands.” Our legislators basically changed the law so that anything goes on School Trust Lands, and goes to the highest bidder.

In an ironic political twist, Rukavina needs to crunch the numbers on the Mesabi Purchase, because a full buy-out of the School Trust Lands in the BWCAW is the scenario that will generate “the highest maximum return” for the Permanent School Fund, not the exchange. And a buy-out would require no legislative action.

If this is truly about the children, a buy-out is the only choice. An exchange would make our children the losers, in more ways than one.

Industry does not have the right to injure our children

As a teacher, I always believed it was the responsibility of adults to defend and protect our children, so I am doing so now. This land exchange is not what is best for children. It is about what is best for the mining industry. Adults are using children to promote an industry.

Why would most of the St. Louis County commissioners sign a resolution to support an industry that is damaging our children every day by not meeting our air and water quality standards?

Instead of a resolution supporting a land exchange to expand mining operations, why not a resolution supporting laws demanding that the mining industry, and the power plants that run it, meet air and water quality standards—without variances, and without legislation weakening those standards. If corporations do not, shut them down, requiring them to maintain their payrolls until they prove they can meet our air and water quality standards.

There is a tremendous difference between supporting an industry that meets standards and an industry that does not, an industry that claims it is not “economically feasible” to meet our air and water quality standards. An industry that claims, as did Cliffs Natural Resources, “new monitoring systems are ‘burdensome’ and the emissions limits too strict.” (Star Tribune) Just how much does the industry and our agencies consider your child’s health to be worth?

In 2007, Minnesota had the distinction of being the state with the highest rate of autism spectrum disorders in the nation. It was determined with a simple mathematical calculation: the number of cases of autism service provided by state public schools divided by the number of children enrolled. Then, in 2009, a University of Northern Iowa researcher decided to take Minnesota school district autism prevalence rates and superfund sites in Minnesota, put them on a map, and see if there was a correlation. There was.

The researcher, M. Catherine DeSoto, was looking at the possibility of developmental neurotoxins contributing to autism. The prevalence map is worth taking a look at, and wondering why the Ely school district has one of the higher prevalence rates of autism. It’s worth wondering why St. Louis County has a higher rate than Lake County. It’s worth Minnesota doing research of its own.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been doing ongoing monitoring studies of autism by state. Minnesota has never been part of the CDC studies. But Utah, the state that was held up as the example in Minnesota for how to use and manage our School Trust Lands, was part of the CDC studies. In Utah, the latest CDC study was focused on just one county of the state, but that county is within the area impacted by the Bingham Canyon copper mine. The CDC study results, released in 2012, gave Utah the distinction of being the state with the highest rate of autism, the highest ever recorded by the CDC, 1 out of 47 children.

In 2011, University of Utah researcher Judith Pinsborough-Zimmerman found that “children [in Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah county] with autism spectrum disorders and other intellectual disabilities are more likely to have been born near industries that emit toxic chemicals or heavy metals,” and suggested that further research be done.

In 2011, a group of physicians in Utah joined in a lawsuit against Rio Tinto because they saw firsthand the health results of the corporation’s continued lack of adherence to air quality standards at its Bingham Canyon mine. “Dr. Brian Moench, from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment says Utah Department of Air data shows Rio Tinto, Kennecott is responsible for 30-percent of dangerous particulate air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley.” (ABC News) It is worth noting that Jon Cherry, PolyMet’s new president, enjoyed a long history with Rio Tinto, including 12 years at their Bingham Canyon mine.

In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) could apply to the CDC to participate in its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, and request funding for autism spectrum disorder surveillance in St. Louis County—in the middle of the Iron Range.

The health of our children depends on whether Minnesota legislators choose to protect them

Minnesota is moving full steam ahead to replace the lake country of the Arrowhead with mining, expanding the iron range while simultaneously proposing a copper-nickel range to abut it. Moving ahead to significantly increase the documented health issues from an industry that refuses to clean up and meet standards, that uses variances, consent decrees, and other avoidance tactics generously supplied by our agencies. Moving ahead to enable an industry whose supporters tell us the Mesabi Purchase exchange is a windfall for the school children of Minnesota when it is not. Moving irresponsibly ahead to enable an industry whose spokespeople tell us they will “do it right” if we allow sulfide mining in areas never before mined—our lake country—when history shows us they have failed to do it right worldwide.

We are to take their word and put our children at risk with no proof—except what we already know.

We already know that we have water wells near taconite mining sites with toxic levels of manganese, a neurotoxin. We already know that taconite and power plant emissions not only contain manganese, but also chromium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminum, and mercury, all neurotoxins. We already know that approximately one-third of haze pollution in Minnesota comes from inside the state, and half of those emissions come from northeastern Minnesota. We already know that air emissions from taconite plants are the largest source of mercury in Minnesota’s Lake Superior watershed, and that stricter Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have been postponed three times. We already know that without the sulfates from taconite mining, we would not have the high levels of methylmercury in our fish. And we already know that 10 percent of newborns tested in the Lake Superior Basin have toxic levels of mercury in their blood.

“For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb [from the consumption of fish]… can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.” (EPA)

Neurotoxins can cross the blood-brain barrier and the placenta. In a 2012 CNN report, “Protecting Babies from Neurotoxins,” it was stated, “One study estimates that for each part per million of mercury found in a mother’s hair—a common way of testing for mercury exposure—her child loses approximately 0.18 IQ points.”

A report in 2000 from the National Academies of Science “estimated that each year 60,000 children may be born in the United States with neurological problems as a result of exposure to methylmercury in the womb.” These neurological problems “could lead to poor school performance.” What are the numbers in Minnesota twelve years later? The results of the 2012 MDH study of newborns in the Lake Superior Basin, finding that 10 percent of Minnesota newborns tested had elevated blood mercury levels, gave us a toxic clue.

If that is not enough, we also have the other information released by the MDH in 2012, and reported in the Hometown Focus. According to the MDH, compared to all rural regions of the state, northeastern Minnesota has the highest rate for “asthma hospitalization and emergency department visits, the highest Alzheimer’s rate over age 65, the highest mortality rates for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; and the highest overall mortality rate.”

We still do not have the results of the University of Minnesota study concerning mesothelioma and silicosis. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” has a flip side: deaths, deaths, deaths.

Who will put our children first if we do not?

In 2007, the mayor of Hoyt Lakes reportedly testified at a hearing, “We’re used to mercury here.” Really? Acceptance of whatever a corporation does to our children, just the cost of doing business? If so, the price is too high.

Demand our agencies enforce the law. Demand our legislators pass and uphold laws that protect us all. Clean up the mining industry we already have in Minnesota. Prove we can. “Not economically feasible” is not an excuse anymore. Think of the jobs involved in clean-up and in plant improvements. Think of the money saved in health care. The almost 10 million dollars in rebates the IRRRB just gave the taconite plants would be a start, although very little of it appears to be going to improve air and water quality or for clean-up of existing contamination.

Rukavina was either deceptive or delusional when he said, “And the truth is, we are currently mining in the Superior National Forest, and we haven’t harmed it, have we? Minntac, Arcelor Mittal, North Shore Mining, and Mesabi Nugget are all currently operating in the Superior National Forest and it’s their taconite taxes that keep all our communities, including Duluth, alive.” Alive? When Rukavina refers to the Superior National Forest, does he exclude the people? It appears Rukavina’s definition of “harm” does not include harm to those of us who live here. How much is a child’s health and intellect, or a life, worth to the mining industry?

Since 2004, all modern taconite mines in Minnesota have records of air and water quality violations and fines. We do not need a land exchange. A buy-out of School Trust Lands is the “maximum return” choice for our children. A buy-out will put money in their Permanent School Fund without forcing them to pay for it with their health.

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This article was originally published in the Duluth Reader, and is republished with the permission of the Duluth Reader.