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Environmentalists are getting suspicious of Klobuchar, Franken on protecting Boundary Waters

Thousands of people attended three fraught hearings over whether to allow sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. Earlier this month, the mining company got the land it needed. Klobuchar was quietly supportive. Franken said nothing.

Thousands of people attended three fraught hearings over whether to allow sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. Earlier this month, the mining company got the land it needed. Klobuchar was quietly supportive. Franken said nothing. Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

In the eternal clash on the Iron Range between creating mining jobs and preserving the Boundary Waters, environmentalists think Minnesota’s progressive senators are mighty squeamish about taking a side.

PolyMet, a Canadian mining company, wants to open a new type of mine near the Boundary Waters. There’s a lot of valuable copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, and palladium in that area, and the promise of high-paying jobs.

The problem is that waste from copper-nickel mining, unlike ore mining, creates sulfuric acid when mixed with water. Leakage would be devastating to some of the nation’s most pristine wilderness.

But PolyMet won a big battle earlier this month when the U.S. Forest Service agreed to give it 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest land in return for 6,690 acres of private land. Now the mining company owns the surface rights and mineral rights for the deposits it’s trying to get at.

Environmentalists are not happy.

They’re not happy that the U.S. Forest Service gave in to the land swap. And they’re not happy that Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken – who sit on committees overseeing the U.S. Forest Service – haven’t spoken out strongly about what they think of sulfide mining that close to the Boundary Waters.

Laura Gauger, owner of Deer Tail Press, a one-woman news operation in Duluth, sent both Klobuchar and Franken a petition with more than 350 signatures gathered by Duluth-area businesses, asking them to push for congressional hearings on the land swap.

Klobuchar didn’t respond, but Franken did – to say he didn’t think any hearing would be successful because Republicans that control the Senate probably wouldn’t allow it. And even if they did, it would be stacked with testimony from pro-mining associations.

Klobuchar’s office told City Pages the same on Wednesday, that the senator has little power over scheduling in a Republican-controlled Congress.

“I don’t think that means we roll over and play dead,” Gauger says. “I think the topic still needs to be out there for the public to see. Even if the hearings were controlled by the Republicans, nevertheless the topic would have come up. It’s not just a Minnesota issue. It’s a national forest. I still think there’s some time left, and a push should come from our own senators.”

The U.S. Forest Service’s decision came January 9. Congress has 30 days from that date to hold hearings.

But even if Minnesota senators don’t push back, PolyMet still has a long way to go before realizing an actual mine. It still has to go through an environmental review and get 20 state and federal permits. So far, the company doesn’t even have cash flow projections, which would reveal how much money it has to build with, and what kind of damage deposit it could cover. Spokesman Bruce Richardson recently told the Timberjay, an Ely newspaper, that PolyMet won’t provide that information until after it gets permits.

Aaron Klemz, advocacy director of Friends of the Boundary Waters, says he would love to see Klobuchar and Franken come out strong against the land swap. But he isn’t holding his breath.

“Because Senator Klobuchar sponsored a bill in 2008 to circumvent this land exchange process and simply sell this Superior National Forest land to PolyMet, we’re not optimistic that she’d work to stop this exchange now.”

At a minimum, Klemz says he’d still like to see both senators push PolyMet to provide an accurate, updated financial feasibility study. The last was from nine years ago.

Gauger would like them to think outside the box and bring some different jobs to the Iron Range.

“A few years ago I helped man a booth at the Upper Peninsula of Michigan State Fair,” she says. “A guy came up to me, probably in his 30s, and he just looked kinda down. He said, ‘You know, I’m a miner. I don’t like seeing what I see at my job, but I have three kids to feed.’ It’s haunted me ever since.”

“The real leadership I’d like Sen. Klobuchar and Franken take is to bring some good-paying jobs that don’t entail scraping away the natural resources.”