COMMUNITY VOICES | Only compromise will stop Minnesota's mining range war


Like the range wars once fought over water and grazing rights in the western U.S. in the 1800’s, Minnesotan environmentalists and mining supporters are waging a modern-day range war.

The Minnesota Range War

Environmental and tribal organizations warn that expanded mining in northern Minnesota will harm wild rice and exacerbate mercury pollution in lakes and rivers.

  • They point to evidence of dwindling wild rice and to DNR listings of dozens of endangered lakes where residents are advised not to eat the fish because of high levels of mercury contamination. Environmentalists suspect the state will not enforce strict environmental mining controls if Polymet Mining and Duluth Twin Metals mines are permitted to start operations in the Mesabi Range and fear that a wilderness area of the state will be ruined for future generations.

On the other side of this battle are 70% of the residents in northern Minnesota, who support mining the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold located within the Mesabi Range as their future, if not their birthright.

  • The Polymet proposal is to mine copper, nickel and precious metals for 20 years, although there are proven reserves to continue mining the Northmet project for another 20 years or longer. Duluth/Twin Metals proposes an underground mine that would directly employee over 1000 employees for more than a century and result in 3,000+ related jobs, new housing and schools.

Range residents are increasingly writing to local news to voice discontent with DFL lawmakers from other parts of the state making decisions for them.

  • U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan said in a recent telephone interview, “Enough is enough.” Nolan reminded Minnesotans that a deal was made that when 1.1 million acres for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area were taken out of multiple-use, “the remaining federal lands were supposed to be used for mining and forestry. It’s a matter of law and public policy.” [Link]

Many environmental groups imply that shutting down Minnesota’s mining industry is the best course of action. But that would be a big step in the wrong direction. There is another solution to this dilemma.

Identifying major sources of poluution

It may come as a surprise to many Minnesotans that the US Environmental Protection Agency website on mercury lists mining activities are the least of the major sources of pollution contaminating our lakes and rivers.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury deposition by a wide margin. According to EPA’s 2008 National Emissions Inventory, coal-fired electric power plants account for 48% of total human-made U.S. mercury emissions.

  • Coal-fired electric power plants (48%)

  • Industrial boilers (7%)

  • Burning waste from the manufacture of Portland cement (7%)

  • Electric arc furnaces used in steelmaking (8%)

  • Gold Mining (3%)

Ferrous (iron) and non-ferrous (copper) mining account for less than 3% of emissions and are listed under Other Sources, along with dozens of other industries.  Burning municipal waste and medical waste was once a larger source of emissions. Today, in response to EPA and state regulations and reductions in mercury use, emissions from these sources have declined over 95 percent. [Link]

Sulfate and Wild Rice

Environmental and tribal groups have been vocal about concerns that high levels of sulfate in lakes and rivers are adversely affecting the health of wild rice. During the public comment period for the Polymet SDEIS, these groups and local media focused on sulfate originating from mine tailing ponds and groundwater seepage. In an April 18, 2014 commentary published by MinnPost, I wrote about the MPCA Wild Rice Study and focused on the mining's impact on wild rice in the iron-rich waters of the proposed copper-nickel mining area.

But is the mining industry the largest source of sulfate? Again, the answer is no.

Mining v Environment - Is there a compromise?

In my June 20, 2014 Duluth News Tribune commentary “Compromise needed to solve Minnesota’s EPA, mining dilemmas” I advocate that the most effective direction Minnesota can take to significantly reduce sulfate and mercury pollution in our wilderness areas is not to shut down mining, but to upgrade our coal-fired power plants with carbon-capture technology or replace coal with natural gas-fired plants and other alternative sources. Unlike coal-fired plants, the emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds from burning natural gas are negligible. [Link]

I wrote that it’s going to be very expensive to upgrade or convert electric power in Minnesota and used the 2012 Minnesota Mining Tax Guide [Link] to illustrate how a redistribution of certain mining taxes can pay a significant portion of the costs of upgrading from coal-fired electricity.

 2011 Taconite Tax Distribution

Taconite production, ad valorem and property taxes are distributed to regional cities and townships, school districts, counties, Indian Affairs Council, and regional funds and associations. The Occupational Tax is distributed statewide with 40% to elementary and secondary education and 10% to the University of Minnesota. Since these distributions support an economically depressed region of the state, I recommended that distribution of these taxes  be left untouched.

However, the remaining 50% of the Occupational Tax and all other taconite mining taxes are currently being distributed into the state general fund. These taxes could be re-allocated, along with ALL future copper-nickel mining taxes, to help replace or upgrade state coal-fired power plants required to achieve new EPA power plant emissions regulations by 2030. This would also eliminate what the EPA identifies as the largest source of mercury and other harmful pollutants contaminating our wilderness areas.


        Supporting this strategically important industry will produce a tax windfall for Minnesota

Production year 2011 tax obligations from Minnesota mining companies was nearly $128 million, even with the recent downturn in worldwide iron ore demand.  Everyone knows we produce taconite. What is less commonly known is that along a long, narrow geological formation within the Mesabi Range, Minnesota also hosts the world’s largest undeveloped body of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold ores, with an estimated valued of $3-$4 trillion.

Three of these minerals – nickel, platinum and palladium - are currently facing worldwide shortages due to politically unstable situations in other countries. Mining in our own nation gives us a strategic advantage when a country like Indonesia cuts off the majority of the world’s nickel supply, and when sanctions are imposed against Russia, which produces 40% of the world’s palladium. Mining the narrow Mesabi Range would not only be of strategic importance for the United States, it would be a windfall for Minnesota, generating billion in taxes that can be put to use within our state.


Minnesota Governor and Legislators have a choice

Minnesota’s mineral mining taxes are presently being audited by the 12-member Legislative Audit Commission.  It’s time our governor and lawmakers put an end to the debate over a mining industry that contributes less than 3% of the pollution affecting Minnesota wilderness areas. By permitting responsible mining in the area that has long been designated for mining and forestry, and by re-allocating taconite and future copper-nickel-PGM mining taxes to help power companies upgrade coal-fired power plants, we can eliminate nearly half of the mercury depositions and other harmful pollutants contaminating our lakes and rivers.

The U.S. senators and representatives elected to represent us in Washington can help by getting grants from Congress and EPA for gas-fired conversions or carbon-capture technology for our coal-power plants. This will supplement mining taxes and eliminate the need to burden small businesses and homeowners with higher taxes and utilities bills.

Compromise is the solution.

Many fear that a continuing war between environmentalists and mining advocates in Minnesota will split Minnesota’s DFL party, not unlike how Tea Party activists have fractured the GOP. That would be a tragedy, but many are so entrenched in their positions that it has become a very real possibility. Many appear to have forgotten what it means to compromise.  This area was promised for mining and forestry.

I encourage Minnesota’s governor and lawmakers to show the willpower to set aside special interests and demonstrate the courage to do the right thing.  We can mine our rich resources, eliminate half the mercury pollution annually deposited into our wilderness areas, and can meet tough new EPA regulations by 2030.

We can also put an end to this range war.

About the author

Harlan Christensen is an independent writer, business executive, ordained minister and investor who seeks, supports and invests in new technologies, job training and job opportunities that enable families living in poverty to build a better life. Harlan is a Polymet shareholder, with investments in other science, medicine and technology companies. He spent many years of his life in Finland, MN, near the Superior National Forest, worked in Duluth, MN and is an avid fisherman and hunter. He now resides with his family in a suburb of the Twin Cities.


POINT(114.177987 22.321702)

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.

Harlan Christensen's picture
Harlan Christensen


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Major errors

None of the proposed polymetallic sulfide mines would be on the Mesabi Iron Range. The mines would all be on Superior National Forest lands in the Duluth Complex, which underlies Minnesota's lake country of the Arrowhead. Located outside the Mesabi Iron Range and outside the Biwabik Iron Formation, these lands have never been mined. There is literally a billion years of difference separating the Biwabik Iron Formation and the Duluth Complex – the Mid-continent Rift.

We would be trading our lake country for a copper-nickel range, with the accompanying health impacts and costs. It is not a birthright. And the only ones that have such a claim to the land would be the Native Americans.

These lands are not set aside for mining and forestry at the expense of our waters and our health.

Since Christensen brought up his MinnPost piece he really should have also brought up the fact that he had major scientific errors in it, including of omission: iron-reducing bacteria and mercury methylation. No one in Minnesota is researching it.


Wow, there is so much mis-information in this article that it's hard to know where to begin.

For starters, the copper-nickel sulfide deposits of northeast Minnesota are not in a narrow geologic band.  This highly disseminated, less than 1% mineralization is found within the Duluth Complex, which underlies what is now Superior National Forest, between lake Vermilion, the BWCAW, and Lake Superior.

The taconite iron formation, which is an entirely different geological formation, lies in a band.  However, due to the low grade character of taconite (25-30% iron), the amount of waste rock and tailings means that this band isn't quite as narrow as it appears on a map.  Consider that sulfide mining would result in 99% waste rock.

Also note that the environmental groups are not advocating for the shutting down of the taconite industry--but rather for cleaning up the pollution that is a result of the mining, and requiring the taconite industry to meet state standards.

I am sorry to say that the EPA graph does not address the mercury that is being released from taconite mining operations, as separate from the mercury being released from the coal fired energy that powers operations.  Because the taconite plant stacks are fairly low in height, the mercury emitted from those stacks tends to stay more local.  We cannot ignore this local source of mercury pollution, or claim that all of our mercury is blown into Wisconsin, which would make us a rather nasty neighbor indeed.  We also cannot ignore the amount of sulfates leaching from the taconite tailings.  There is also direct evidence that wild rice crops are being weakened or destroyed in waters downstream from taconite operations.  And there is direct evidence that our fish are contaminated with mercury.  The latest political tactics are to clain this has nothing to do with mining--denying the proof being displayed within our own environment.

The amount of dollar figures claimed, including school aid, is meaningless when mining pollution is destroying the environment for future generations, while impacting the health of the current generation.  How does one compromise on loss of clean water, sustainability, and human brain cells?

Until we can figure out how to clean up the mess being left behind by taconite mining, the state of Minnesota should not even consider the permitting of a copper-nickel sulfide mine, especially knowing that PolyMet's own SDEIS stated (though hidden among 1200 pages) that pollution would require clean-up for 300-500 years.

In the meantime, the state and the political structure should be supporting jobs that will engineer the clean-up of our air and water, the restoration of our ecosystems, and ways to maintain our society without being so dependent on low-grade metals, whose extraction requires tremendous amounts of electricity, fuel, and water. 

Yes, let's put an end to this range war, and focus on solving our pollution problems, rather than creating more.