If you thought Mark Dayton’s administration and his Department of Natural Resources had credibility issues with the Twin Metals project before, things just got worse. And they’re going to land in the lap of Gov. Tim Walz and his version of the agency.
On Tuesday, the Campaign to Save Boundary Waters named former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr its new executive director, and in accepting the position, Dayton’s former natural resources chief undercut the agency’s work in permitting projects in Minnesota.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Landwehr stressed that PolyMet and Twin Metals were two distinct mining projects, and the approval of PolyMet under his watch happened after the company passed a rigorous decade-plus long environmental review process.
That is factual.
Landwehr was also paraphrased saying a commissioner must follow the laws and regulations when facing a project. In other words, an agency head should be guided by the laws, science and due process afforded to a company, and not by their personal beliefs, politics or unfounded potential outcomes.
Here, the former commissioner set the credibility of his own work at the DNR ablaze.
In comments made to the AP, Landwehr said a mine near — notably not in — the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness should be an automatic no-go.
“This is not a place we should be considering mining,” he said. “By far and away the Boundary Waters is the most special place in Minnesota. By design and authority it's a wilderness, and those pristine values are why it has been declared that, and that's what we have to protect."
Had Landwehr continued in his role as head of the DNR — a job he applied to but was not appointed by Walz — he would have been in charge of the opening years of Twin Metals’ environmental review (this assuming a mine plan is issued this year).
His comments suggest that a review period could have easily been guided by core beliefs rather than a scientific review.
That’s not the job of the DNR, an agency that is supposed to act as an unbiased regulator.
Now, the opposition the Dayton administration posed to Twin Metals should go further under the microscope: Would the project have received a fair shot under Landwehr’s purview? It’s possible — maybe likely considering PolyMet’s approval — that he’s capable of setting aside personal feelings for the job, but joining an organization so dead set against a project speaks volumes otherwise.
Cases like these illustrate how voters become disenfranchised with party politics. Environmental groups will rail against the Trump administration for renewing leases to Twin Metals, citing members of the first family renting a home from the Antofagasta CEO (Twin Metals’ parent company) in Washington. Likewise, mining supporters can now point to Landwehr and question the motives of the Dayton administration toward the project.
Either way the pendulum swings, it looks like a rigged system to those receiving the short side.
As for Walz’s DNR, this couldn’t have come at worse time for the agency’s credibility on the Iron Range.
The DNR under Dayton and Landwehr was already embarrassed on the day Walz took office when Essar Global came out of the shadows of the Nashwauk taconite project. Despite numerous reports about Essar’s involvement, members of the agency hid behind a lease agreement until they weren’t in charge anymore.
About a month later, new DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen moved to ban Essar, who responded by saying it wasn’t going to meet the construction deadline set by Dayton, thus putting the mineral lease decision immediately on the new administration.
Strommen herself faces heavy scrutiny on the Range. Years ago, she was the leader of Friends of the Boundary Waters, which currently stands in opposition to PolyMet and Twin Metals.
“We will look at any regulatory project that comes in front of us,” Strommen said in her introductory press conference in January. “I’m committed to ensuring we have a robust public engagement and then there’s science and data that’s going to drive that.”
Unfortunately for Strommen, the optics of her already-uphill battle on reviewing Twin Metals just became tougher and more intense for the entire agency, through none of her own recent comments or actions as commissioner.
And for the Landwehr, his credibility as a nonpartisan regulator just spilled into the Boundary Waters.