VIRGINIA — Keith Nelson was “more than a little ticked off.”

A St. Louis County commissioner, Nelson, of Fayal Township, spent Tuesday criticizing three of his counterparts from Duluth for sending a letter to Minnesota’s U.S. senators and the federal nominees for the Secretary of Agriculture and Interior stating their opposition of copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.

The problem, he said during the latest county meeting, was that the majority of the seven-member board had long backed PolyMet and Twin Metals and just passed a resolution 4-3 expressing their support for such projects. “Letters intended to deceive should not be sent by elected officials on this board or any board or city council,” he said. “And that is clearly what this letter is--is an attempt to deceive.”

Nelson alleged that commissioners Frank Jewell, Patrick Boyle and Ashley Grimm made an “illegal” move when sending their statement earlier this month with a government letterhead, and he mentioned following up on the matter with elected officials and the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General. He did not expand on his statements. (The Mesabi Tribune sent a follow-up inquiry to the county, but did not receive an answer as of press time.)

In response, Jewell, who has voted against county resolutions supporting the aforementioned projects, noted that the letter was “similar” to an opinion piece he wrote for the Duluth News Tribune last year.

“I have not opposed copper-nickel mining, but I know the facts and in fact the letter that you see before you actually state those, about the law and the science.” He continued, “I’m glad that it’s out there. You guys have regularly voted — even when requested not to do it — again on copper-nickel mining. I think I have the right just like the four of you to say what I think.”

The resolution

The commissioners have been firing off jabs at one another over a host of economic and social issues in a region of Minnesota, where Democrats, Republicans and Independents express varying definitions of how one lives during the Trump and now Biden administrations.

In that politicized vein, commissioners have grown apart as a group, despite calls among themselves to work together.

Back in January, Hermantown-based Commissioner Keith Musolf decided to back off from his expected run as chair and supported re-electing Chair Mike Jugovich of Chisholm. Three commissioners from the Iron Range and their ally in Musolf celebrated the win which made Jugovich only the second in 100 years to serve as chair for two consecutive years. They also celebrated when they placed Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, into the position of vice chair. But three commissioners from Duluth expressed disappointed in the precedence setting moves and voices concerns over the deepening of the divide.

Earlier this month, the majority won an argument over whether the county board would pen a resolution in support of copper-nickel mining.

The county battle went on as legislators from the Iron Range and surrounding areas sent a letter to federal Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland and Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack “to ask that you work closely with out delegation in the coming months and years on any decisions regarding mining and exploration in northeast Minnesota, including the Superior National Forest,” according to the Duluth News Tribune. Meantime, Eighth District Congressman Pete Stauber, a former county commissioner in support of the Twin Metals and PolyMet projects, was calling the Biden administration to reject nominating Haaland. And state Sen. Jen McEwan, D-Duluth, had been critical of Stauber not speaking with tribes in his district when trying to stop the nomination of the first American Indian to the president cabinet.

The Duluth letter

The day after the county’s resolution passed last month, three Duluth commissioners sent their letter to the federal nominees, in addition to U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. “Sulfide-ore copper mining has a record of pollution and environmental degradation in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” the commissioners, Jewell, Boyle and Grimm, wrote in the letter. “Allowing this type of mining at the edge of the Boundary Waters and upstream of Voyageurs, a unique and fragile ecosystem, would be a recipe for disaster.”

While elected officials on the Iron Range openly support copper-nickel mining in the region, Jewell’s opinion on the matter aligns with a major statewide poll last year by the Star Tribune/MPR News that showed 60% of Minnesota voters oppose new mining near the Boundary Waters while 22% support it. Supporters of the mines often point to polling paid for by industry advocates that show more widespread favor.

“Thanks for letting everybody know what I think about Twin Metals and the possible pollution of Birch Lake, the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs,” Jewell said during Tuesday’s meeting. “And I think we will get support for that, even if four members of this board, a majority, thinks something different.”

The board chair, Jugovich, said that he “fully respects” the opinions of the three Duluth commissioners but questioned why they did not clarify that their letter was written by a minority vote of the board. “In the future, maybe include this was not the stance of the St. Louis County Board,” he said.

Continuing his arguments, Nelson told Jewell he “has a right to his opinion” yet he should have stated being on the minority side of the board. “I understand all of the workings that go on at the federal level — or as much as I can — but here, the opinion of this board is the opinion that is the official opinion of this board and you all violated that because you didn’t state it properly,” he said. “...I will let the people I serve be the judge of what your letter was intended to do. But clear to me it was intended to deceive.”

Regionally known for his choice of words, Nelson then added, “I would like nothing better than to work on projects and not have to react to this bull crap.”

After saying there was no intention to deceive, Grimm called Nelson’s comments into question. That meant, the chair had to take a vote to end the debate and move forward with the county’s business. But after St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin and Jewell could not agree on how to officially vote on calling into question, Grimm rescinded her vote. Jewell asked the thoughts of his other commissioners and reiterated that he “did not try to deceive.” He added, “We really want to be one county.” McDonald sided with the chair’s opinion.

The Range-Hermanton letter

As a Virginia city councilor, Charles Baribeau, who is the new president of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, said he believed “it was unethical” that three commissioners use government letterhead without a board vote to send their letter to federal nominees for the Secretary of Agriculture. Baribeau joined representatives from IUOE Local 49 and IBEW Local 294 in expressing their displeasure during the meeting.

“What do you propose to replace mining with if this continues,” he said when he called into the county board meeting. “...I think they need to relook at their position and start looking at what the citizens and the rest of us here in northern Minnesota want, not just a small minority of individuals.”

The trio’s comments came after three Duluth commissioners penned a letter to nominees for Agriculture and Interior secretaries to use the Federal Land Policy and Management Act “to take all necessary steps to permanently ban sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.”

On Tuesday, Jugovich and the three other pro-copper-nickel mining commissioners announced their own letter to Haaland and Vilsack, the secretary nominee of Agriculture, saying they had been “asked to ignore science and the will of the people who live, work, and enjoy northeastern Minnesota.” They continued, “You were asked to ignore the economic devastation of stopping years of work within the long standing permit application process [sic] ensuring environmental integrity.”

Nelson, McDonald and Musolf signed the letter telling the federal nominees they “represent the people of Minnesota’s critical minerals district and Minnesota’s Iron Range, not St. Louis County elected officials who live over 100 miles from the Boundary Waters or Voyageurs National Park.” They urged the nominees to “allow copper nickel exploration and mining” in the region and to “encourage” the projects. “We have been mining in northeastern Minnesota for over 120 years and we are proud to be home to the cleanest lakes, rivers, and streams in the state,” they wrote.

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