DULUTH — President Trump brought his “America First” brand of politics with him to Duluth, where the iron mining industry found the friend it expected when he was elected into office a year and a half ago.
Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs have faced broad criticism from business groups over global trade war concerns, but on Minnesota’s Iron Range, are widely popular. His decision in December to reinstate mineral leases to Twin Metals Minnesota, which is prospecting an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, drew praise from industry advocates.
Trump held a roundtable with Iron Range community and business leaders, miners and industry advocates on June 20 in Duluth and made a proclamation at the following rally that promised to throw out a federal land withdrawal, which Trump said were minerals placed “under lock and key” by the Obama administration.
“We will soon be taking the first steps to rescind the federal withdrawal in Superior the people of Minnesota — one of the great natural reserves in the world. And we’ll do it carefully. And maybe, if it doesn’t pass muster, we won’t do it at all, but it’s going to happen, I will tell you.”
Before leaving office in January 2017, President Obama ordered more than 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest be removed from potential industry activity, which included exploration, as the government studied potential environmental impacts. The withdrawal also asked for a 20-year ban on industry activity, with a two-year moratorium to conduct the study.
The two-year study is set to expire in January and the Trump administration is expected to release the land back to industry at that point — if the president doesn’t issue an executive order sooner.
Industry advocates said the withdrawal was a government overstep by the Obama administration that set aside the regular order and due process of environmental reviews. An effort led by U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., to rescind the withdrawal through Congress passed the House in November, but to date has not found a Senate companion.
“This week’s statement by the president to rescind the mineral withdrawal proposal validates the existing environmental review process in both its thoroughness and efficacy,” said Jobs for Minnesotans, a business, labor and community group. “This announcement reaffirms that the proper time to evaluate potential impacts of mining projects is after a specific project has been proposed. Rescinding the proposal will correct an injustice by removing uncertainty for potential ferrous and nonferrous mining interests in the region, preserving the future of the responsible mining industry that creates careers for the next generation and invests in our communities.”
At a roundtable discussion before the rally last week, Trump met with local mayors, county commissioners, miners and industry types to hear their concerns and address questions. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., along with Emmer and Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., were also on hand. Trump said iron mining was “booming” in Minnesota with a lot of work moving forward for the state.
Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association, said in a phone interview afterward that the roundtable provided a good opportunity to discuss mining and the economy with Trump. She thanked him for the Section 232 tariffs, to which Trump stated his preference for tariffs over quotas. He added that he spoke with the leader of U.S. Steel, who said they are expanding. The company recently announced it would add 300 jobs to Granite City Works and CEO David Burritt said it planned to add 800 total jobs at the Illinois plant.
“We definitely have seen an increase in overall productivity and in people called back,” Johnson told the president.
Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich and Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich reached out on the topic of copper-nickel mining prospects, which the Eveleth mayor said represented an opportunity for the Range.
PolyMet’s proposed project near Hoyt Lakes took steps forward last week as its land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service cleared the U.S. Senate and will be heading to a conference committee in a major defense bill before landing on the president’s desk.
With the Twin Metals mineral leases reinstated, Zupancich and others said the land withdrawal was among the last hurdles that Trump could single-handedly remove for the project.
Babbitt would stand to benefit from the proposed Twin Metals project in the Superior National Forest, which is also near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The city is also eyeing movements by Teck Resources in withdrawal area.
Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore mining operation runs out of Babbitt to be processed at Silver Bay. Cliffs is spending $75 million to expand operations at Silver Bay to increase its capacity of direct-reduced pellets to 2.5 million tons a year.
Twin Metals hopes to submit a mine proposal by 2019. If the project goes, it’s expected to create 650 full-time jobs for the region and 1,300 spin-off jobs.
“We’re a northern Minnesota small town. Our biggest concern is the proposed land withdrawal,” she said. “Our town has potentially two mines. We have a lot to gain and more to lose if this does not happen.”