The former LTV Steel building

The former LTV Steel building remains as they were when the mine shut down in 2000 waiting for new life with Polymet.

State lawmakers and environmental groups have unveiled a “Prove it First” law for introduction in the Minnesota Legislature that would require scientific proof that copper-nickel mines could safely operate and close before being permitted, sparking backlash from Iron Range mining companies and interest groups.

The legislation faces an uphill battle to gain significant traction in the Republican-led Senate or the Democrat-controlled House, which last session rejected bills aimed at new copper-nickel regulations from reaching their respective floors, and underscores the stark differences in priorities among lawmakers in the nation’s only divided state government.

DFL Duluth Sen. Jen McEwen is the lead author of the bill, which would require proof that a similar mine has operated in the U.S. for at least 10 years, and has been closed for 10 years, without pollution. A similar law was passed in neighboring Wisconsin in 1998. Lawmakers repealed it in 2017.

Despite its long road to becoming law in Minnesota’s current Legislature, the Prove it First effort represents a significant shift in the Senate District 7 seat won last year by McEwen, when she soundly defeated incumbent Sen. Erik Simonson with an environmental-focused campaign that rejected copper-nickel mining in the region, as opposed to Simonson, who positioned himself closer to his pro-mining colleagues in St. Paul.

It also highlights divisions within the DFL party that now has state-level lawmakers from St. Louis County at odds over one of the core issues that ultimately led Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm to split with the party to form an Independent caucus. Their defection strengthened Republican majority in the chamber from one vote to a 34-31-2 margin, making the law’s chances virtually impossible to reach the floor and key committees.

Meanwhile DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Majority Leader Ryan Winkler have kept similar efforts out of the House in recent years, with Winkler telling the Mesabi Tribune last year that “Nobody’s jobs are on the chopping block when it comes to our priorities.”

McEwen said Wednesday she was “proud” to be part of the effort. The law would have clear impacts on the permitting process of at least one proposed copper-nickel project in northeastern Minnesota — Twin Metals Minnesota, which made public last year its plan for an underground mine near Ely, Babbitt and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said the current regulatory process acts as a company proving itself to the available standards. “We will have to prove we can meet the standards in place before earning permits to mine. This is the right process to evaluate projects — we should no more have blanket approvals of projects than blanket denials.”

PolyMet and its copper-nickel surface mine in Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes presents a different challenge for the proposed law.

The NorthMet Mine has been fully permitted but a number of them were suspended by a state court and remain in various processes of litigation. Should Prove it First be signed into law before the court decides their fate — an unlikely scenario with a ruling expected in only a few months — PolyMet could be grandfathered in if the original permits are returned to the company.

That said, the law could be enacted on the project should it require permit modification now or during a future application to expand its mining operations, said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, in a follow up call Wednesday.

PolyMet responded to the proposed law, calling it “ill-advised and completely unnecessary,” adding that it “completed the most comprehensive, science-based environmental review and permitting process in the state’s history” at more than a dozen years in length.

Sixteen legislative sponsors, as well as a number of nonprofit conservation and clean water groups supported the effort Wednesday, which they said will not impact permitting for iron ore and taconite mines, while saying it will protect taxpayers and watersheds in Minnesota.

The legislation is based on a 1997 Wisconsin law under the same name, which essentially created a mining moratorium because it effectively blocked new mining projects and new permits. A Republican-led Legislature in Wisconsin repealed the law effective in July 2018, providing potential companies a path forward with plans to mine metals like copper and gold.

"There has never been a sulfide mine that has not resulted in significant water pollution,” said Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, at Wednesday’s press conference. “With every new sulfide mine proposal, we are promised this time will be different. But hollow promises will not protect our people and our water."

Frank Ongaro, executive director for Mining Minnesota, pointed to the former Wisconsin law and the reclaimed Flambeau Mine that closed in 1997 — and remained closed for the 10-year period leading to the law’s repeal — though it only began operations in 1993, according to the mine’s owner Rio Tinto. Jobs for Minnesotans, a group advocating for copper-nickel mines, also referenced Michigan’s Eagle Mine. “The bill is unnecessary. It does nothing to improve the environment,” Ongaro said in a statement. “Its only purpose is to stop this industry from providing needed domestic sources of critical metals before it gets started. It also chases investment away from Minnesota.”

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