In Ely, Smith sides with mining foes

Senator says feds should resume two-year study sought by antis

by Tom Coombe
During a visit to Ely Tuesday that included meetings with those both for and against the Twin Metals Minnesota project, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D) sided with opponents on a key issue.
Smith criticized the Trump Administration’s decision to halt a two-year study that could have led to a 20-year ban on mining on more than 235,000 acres of national forest land in northeastern Minnesota.
It was a decision that delighted mining advocates and angered those opposed to the proposed copper-nickel mining venture near Ely, and Smith pulled no punches during an afternoon press briefing at Vermilion Community College.
“I think the Trump Administration made a mistake when they stopped that study,” said Smith.
Smith did not directly address a question about her position on another pivotal Trump Administration decision: one that reversed an Obama Administration edict and reinstated federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals.
Earlier in the day, Smith met with Twin Metals representatives, elected officials including area legislators and labor leaders at Twin Metals’ headquarters.
Smith described the meeting as “ very cordial,” adding “we had a good conversation.”
“My main goal at that meeting was just to learn as much as I could,” said Smith.
Smith also went to Voyageur Outward Bound School, where she met with about a half-dozen opponents of the Twin Metals project, including local outfitters who she did not identify.
Both publicly, and in her meeting at Twin Metals, according to a source who attended the session, Smith has come down on the side of mining opponents who want the federal government to tap the brakes on the Twin Metals project and proceed with a comprehensive two-year study to look at both the economic and environmental impacts of copper-nickel mining.
“It’s a two-year study to look at the plusses and minuses, and the costs and benefits, both economical and environmental, of mining in this particular area,” said Smith.
The study was initiated by the Obama Administration in late-2016, at the same time it rejected the renewal of mining leases that are critical to the development of Twin Metals’ proposed mining operation.
The moves prompted legal action by Twin Metals, and were later reversed by the Trump Administration in what has become a bitter tug-of-war between competing interests in the hot-button mining issue.
Opponents have found an ally in Smith, who said this week that “I think that study should be finished. One way or another people will want to know what’s in that study, and what the data showed. I think data should lead us here. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.”
It’s a position that, Smith conceded Tuesday, puts her at odds with Twin Metals.
It’s also at odds with the position taken by many Iron Range Democrats, including State Rep. Dave Lislegard (D-Aurora).
In an opinion piece that appeared in the Star Tribune on the same day Smith appeared in Ely, Lislegard took aim at those who are calling for the study to be reinstated.
Lislegard noted that “the study area is fully outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its buffer zone, and covers land long designated for multiple uses, including mining”
“The two-year study was unnecessary, as they well knew, because any proposed mine would already be subject to an extremely rigorous, multiyear environmental review and permitting process required under federal and state laws,” wrote Lislegard.
Lislegard added that “the process is based on well-defined plans submitted by mine owners, not on abstract notions of theoretical impact from “mining.” Simply put, the regulatory process to determine whether a new mine can earn operating permits is thorough, science-based and specific.”
While Smith called herself a supporter of taconite mining, she’s more skeptical of copper-nickel projects, and questioned directly about her position, she said. “what you can write about where I stand is I think the data and science should lead us about these mines and where they should be located and that’s what I am pushing for here... I’m of the mind that people in my position should spend more time listening than talking and I spent a lot of time listening today. Very helpful.”