A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Minnesota Land Swap for Sulfide Mining Pollution

Minnesota Land Swap for Sulfide Mining PollutionMany words have been exchanged regarding the exchange of Minnesota trust fund lands that remain within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Politicians are lamenting the fact that these lands have not been able to generate money for the school trust fund through mining, logging, or leasing, and that this is an insult to all of the school children of the state.

As a matter of clarification, the state Constitution specifies that the Permanent School Fund must be managed for “maximum return,” not that the land itself must produce income. If anyone makes money on school trust lands, the money must then be used to benefit the fund. To draw from this interpretation, the Permanent School Fund (PSF) should have received a percentage of U.S. Forest Service BWCA permit fees.  Such a recreational fee was suggested in the 1990s, but rejected by Iron Range legislators, who instead wanted a land exchange in order to more aggressively log what is now Superior National Forest.

Also as a matter of clarification, the majority of school trust lands were sold by the early 1900s for agriculture and development. The PSF is now worth $750 million. Interest from the fund generates $26 per student, out of approximately $9000 allocated (state general fund, property taxes, Federal dollars) per student per year. The PSF contributes less than .3% per student.

In northeast Minnesota, much of the school trust lands are wetlands, forest, or designated Swamp Lands, which were never meant to generate money for the trust fund. While logging, leasing, land sales and iron mining have added to the fund over the years, a new type of mining dominates political discourse. Multinational mining companies are exploring the entire Superior National Forest, between Lake Vermilion and the North Shore, for previously unmarketable low grade copper-nickel sulfide mineralization. Despite the fact that mining of these sulfide ores would leave behind a trail of acid mine drainage, heavy metal pollution, and 99 percent waste rock, politicians grasp onto mining company projections of the financial benefits to the state while ignoring the long-term consequences and costs of perpetual water treatment and extensive and persistent pollution.

Jumping on the land-exchange bandwagon

If state land within the BWCA can be exchanged for federal land in Superior National Forest, that land loses many of its federal protections — including the Weeks Act, which prohibits open  pit strip mining; the Endangered Species Act; and other laws. This would facilitate the opening of a sulfide mine district within what is now Superior National Forest.

In 2012, the Minnesota Legislature passed SF 1750, which includes language enabling the federal government to proceed with a land exchange. Eighth District Rep. Chip Cravaack then introduced H.R. 5544, the Minnesota Education Investment and Employment Act. This bill authorizes a complete land exchange of the state lands held within the BWCA. It also incorporates language from SF 1750 giving priority to land that provides the most opportunity for revenue generation from mining.

H.R. 5544 bypasses and ignores Native American tribal rights and is contrary to laws, policies, and executive orders requiring government-to-government consultation on concerns related to federal actions. The land exchange details are being developed without public participation. The bill specifically nullifies the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regarding the transfer of public lands, which includes environmental review, public input, and the right to legal challenges. It gives no voice to local concerns regarding mineral exploration on private lands, the concerns of those seeking to protect their jobs and property values that depend upon recreational use and scenic quality of Superior National Forest, and those seeking to protect the watersheds of Lake Superior and the BWCA.

Severed mineral rights

Cravaack’s bill also ignores the fact that many of the federal lands have severed mineral rights owned by private mining interests, and therefore will not generate money for the school trust if exchanged. Nor does the bill solve the problem of the state’s severed mineral rights that would remain within the BWCA; these mineral rights could generate further exchanges and the further dismantling of Superior National Forest.

The sole intent of the proposed land exchange is to facilitate the opening of a sulfide mining district on lands bordering the BWCA and extending through what is now Superior National Forest to Lake Superior.  Without the stated motive of generating revenue for the trust, there would be no need for a land exchange.

During the late 1990s, the entire Minnesota federal delegation supported a complete land sale of state trust lands within the BWCA to the federal government, with money available from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This would have generated money for the PSF without dismantling Superior National Forest. This proposal fell apart due to opposition from Iron Range legislators who wanted to create jobs through more aggressive logging; the result was neither jobs nor money for the school trust. The same legislators are now willing to trade off both logging and recreational jobs for some speculative number of potential mining jobs in ores of marginal marketability.

H.R. 5544 leads the way for other land exchanges. Such is the case with PolyMet, whose proposed copper-nickel open pits, though not on school trust land, would lie upon what is now Superior National Forest. According to U.S. Forest Service comments in PolyMet’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, “It is the position of the United States that the mineral rights reserved … do not include the right to open pit mine the National Forest lands.” PolyMet would thus need special legislation removing current environmental protections in order to open a strip mine on public land.

H.R. 5544 must have a companion bill in the Senate in order to pass both houses of Congress. It remains to be seen whether Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar will ignore public sentiment and go along with the give-away of Superior National Forest to multinational mining corporations, who will in turn outsource our metals on the global marketplace.

When all is said and done, politicians secretly negotiating land exchange deals will be out of office by the time the true impacts of their legacy becomes apparent. The loss of our public heritage and the burden of toxic pollution and perpetual treatment will rest upon tomorrow’s schoolchildren.

For more information go to www.sosbluewaters.org.

This article was first published in MinnPost   08/16/12

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.


Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>