US House bill 5544 is a decision about our children’s health, not about Minnesota’s Permanent School Trust Fund

Carla Arneson


I listened to the amendments and debate leading up to the passage of HR 5544, a bill that sold our children down the river – literally.

The St. Louis River, from the taconite mining regions to Lake Superior, is so polluted by sulfates that we now have10% of our newborns in the Lake Superior Basin with toxic levels of blood mercury. Taconite mining is the largest source of sulfates released to our waters, and sulfates are the trigger in the production of methyl mercury.  Methyl mercury production equates to mercury contamination in our fish, and of our children.
Twin Metals will be selling our children down another river – the Kawishiwi River, flowing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

So, Minnesota is raising the alarm, right? Wrong. Congressman Chip Cravaack instead arrogantly introduced a bill, which a majority of US House Republicans passed, to take 20% of Superior National Forest lands out of Federal protection in order to facilitate copper-nickel (sulfide) mining.

Do not think it ends with the Republicans. Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are also working to introduce their own version in the US Senate to make sure that Minnesota’s Superior National Forest loses approximately 86,000 acres to the mining industry, and logging. They log it before they mine it.

Jobs, jobs, jobs …
toxins, toxins, toxins

In the US House, Cravaack repeated the mantra that HR 5544 was for Minnesota’s children, but acknowledged that it was also for mining. I guess enough people have seen through the, “it’s for the children,” line to make him broaden his tune.

What he did not say is that sulfide-mining operations proposed for Minnesota would make sulfates from taconite mining pale by comparison. PolyMet and Twin Metals projects, located in the sulfide bearing rock of the Duluth Complex, would critically increase the health risk to our children; a risk that includes not only contamination from sulfates but also from nickel, arsenic, manganese, cobalt, mercury, zinc and other toxins.

Of course, according to Cravaack, he was only doing what Minnesota wanted. After all, in April, Governor Mark Dayton did sign Minnesota’s SF 1750, a bill to expedite a land exchange of School Trust lands in the BWCAW for Superior National Forest lands outside the BWCAW. Although one would be hard-pressed to declare that Minnesota voters wanted it, especially Cravaack’s interpretation that “expedite” meant a total exchange with the elimination of all public input or dissent, and loss of protection for our children through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Actually, only a state referendum would tell us what Minnesota wants. And the rest of the 311,800,000 people of the United States, to whom the Superior National Forest also belongs, deserve their say.

It remains to be seen if Klobuchar and Franken sell out our children along with the Superior National Forest. As Klobuchar put it, they want to “do something that will keep us out of court.” That statement tells us what they think about the rights of the people to that court.

Lies of omission

So far, the debate over HR 5544 has been whether the land exchange is primarily for our children’s School Trust Fund or to facilitate the mining industry, using our children as a cover. The debate is over. There is no doubt, when a “goal” of SF 1750 was “reuniting mineral and surface rights” of lands removed from Superior National Forest. As long as the lands were in the Superior National Forest they were protected from surface mining. There is no doubt, when something called the “Mesabi Purchase Unit,” containing lands located in the middle of proposed mining projects, mysteriously appears in the bill as a top priority.

There is also little doubt that campaign donations and Political Action Committees are influencing legislative decisions.

The loss of Superior National Forest land and water to sulfide mining would be an immense environmental and financial loss for property owners, hunters, fisherman, snowmobilers, skiers, boaters, canoeists, all recreational and tourism related businesses; a forfeiture of the legacy of our state and nation.

Cravaack stated that there has been no effort in thirty years to resolve the School Trust land issue. A lie. Again. The first time he veered from the truth was when he claimed there would be no loss of environmental protection in a land exchange, neglecting to mention the loss of protection under the Week’s Act or NEPA, among others.

The truth is, on November 3rd, 1997, the entire ten member Minnesota Federal Congressional Delegation sent a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman. Now that was bipartisan!

The letter read in part, “We write to urge you to move forward with an allocation of at least $10 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), for the acquisition of some state-owned lands within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and to indicate to you how important the LWCF is for Minnesota. … As you know, the LWCF provides funding for land purchases within Federally-managed lands. The BWCAW is a jewel in the crown of America’s wilderness areas, yet, as a result of its unique historical development, the State of Minnesota still holds 93,260 acres [today determined to be 86,329 acres] of School Trust status land within the BWCAW. The intent of State-owned lands with this status is to generate income for school systems, but auditors have long been concerned that School Trust lands have not fulfilled this requirement. … It is our understanding that the Forest Service would give high priority to begin making some of these purchases, and that the Forest Service officials in Minnesota have already requested funding for these purchases.”
“At least $10 million.” In 1997, $10 million would have been quite a nest egg for the school children of Minnesota. If the purchase had been allowed to go forward, Lake, St. Louis, and Cook counties would have received an additional $14 million in federal payments (1998 - 2012) and would continue to receive $1 million per year indefinitely.  In addition, the Permanent School Trust Fund would have received payments 14 years ago, which would have been invested for the benefit of the school children of Minnesota.

Unbelievably, certain northern Minnesota Iron Range politicians were against the buy out, essentially shooting it down. Want to guess why? It had nothing to do with the School Trust Fund or the children of Minnesota. It had everything to do with future mining plans.

Now, in 2012, some of these same politicians are suddenly so concerned with the children of Minnesota that they must have a total land exchange. Why not pass a bill for a total buy out, and do what should have been done fifteen years ago? If the LWCF is low on funds, why not institute a BWCAW user fee to benefit the School Trust Fund until the LWCF has recouped? Sulfide mining is why not.

A sulfide-mining district
does not equal a
healthy school district

With the passage of HR 5544, the stakes have become the highest yet. Now, we are actually putting a price on our children. Putting a price on what their health is worth. A price on how much damage to our children by the mining industry we are willing to accept. Speculating on how many millions sulfide mining will put in the School Trust Fund.  

Instead of passing a bill that would increase the health risk to our children, why not pass a bill requiring taconite mines to clean up their act and meet the state sulfate standard? Why not pass a bill that would attempt to bring our waters back to natural levels of 4mg/L again, bring the mercury levels in our fish down, and correspondingly lower the blood mercury levels of our newborns? At the very least meet the sulfate standard of 10mg/L, instead of weakening the standard as mining corporations and politicians are working to accomplish. Do we care enough about our children to stop them?

During the debate in the US House, Congressman Rob Bishop, R., Utah, pompously said HR 5544 would “help kids instead of harming kids.” Why am I not surprised? This is a legislator who claims School Trust land revenue is a tremendous windfall for education in Utah, when in reality it is far less than 1% of an annual education budget.  When in reality many of the School Trust lands in Utah have been stripped of their resource value or sold and the revenue stream is drying up. And this is the state that Minnesota legislators used as their role model.

Bishop represents northwest Utah, part of an area that could be called Utah’s copper mining district. Impacted by Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon Mine, the deepest copper mine in the world, Utah’s children are in deep trouble from mining industry pollution. In 2011, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Wildearth Guardians, and Utah Moms for Clean Air sued Kennecott for illegal pollution constituting a major health threat.

Dr. Brian Moench, President and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment reportedly said, ‘“He [Bishop] has no understanding of or appreciation for the connection between environmental protection and public health protection.” Moench qualified Bishop as “part of the ringleaders of the Republican Party in Utah that are trying to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and put them under state jurisdiction for the purpose of fossil fuel and mineral extraction.”’ (Open Salon)

Sounds like Minnesota, except unfortunately we have Democrats who are equally willing to take control of Federal public lands, our lands, for use by multinational mining corporations, regardless if it costs generation upon generation their health.

Our children – and their waters – are the future of Minnesota. Not sulfide mining.

The most tragic irony of all

School Trust lands are used for mining, revenue from that mining goes into the School Trust fund for the education of children even as the toxins from that mining poison those children. A greater travesty of the word trust would be hard to find.

In 2012, it was reported that Utah had the highest autism prevalence rate in the nation. The most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study (2008) had found that, “In Utah, one in 47 children had autism, the highest rate among the 14 communities that participated in the study. A similar 2002 CDC study found that about one in 150 U.S. children had autism compared to one in 133 Utah children. This means that, from 2002-2008, autism prevalence increased 78 percent nationally and 157 percent in Utah.” (University of Utah Health Care)

In Utah, these CDC studies were carried out in counties within Bishop’s congressional district and the adjacent district, the location of the Bingham Canyon copper mine.  

Why is Bishop not demanding research in Utah instead of pushing a bill to facilitate sulfide mining in Minnesota? The University of Utah has already raised concerns. “Could Utah’s high autism rates be related to Salt Lake County’s large number of toxic chemical releases? ... University of Utah researchers say the question deserves more study after their preliminary review shows children with autism spectrum disorders and other intellectual disabilities are more likely to have been born near industries that emit toxic chemicals or heavy metals.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

“More research is needed to understand why we are seeing continuing changes in prevalence,” says Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, Ph.D., the study’s Utah principal investigator and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah. “Regardless of the reasons for the changes reported in this study, increases of this magnitude will have a significant long-term impact on our communities and families. As researchers, we are continuing to work with our local and national partners to find answers.”  (University of Utah Health Care)
What is the University of Minnesota doing? What about the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)? After the toxic levels of mercury were found in the blood of newborns from the Lake Superior Basin, the MDH recommendation was to tell pregnant women to just not eat fish.

The MDH study was Minnesota’s wake up call, just as the CDC study was Utah’s. Sulfide mining being proposed for Minnesota needs extensive research before Minnesota gives away any more land to the mining industry, claiming it will benefit our children when in reality it will more likely do them irreparable harm.  

Who will care about
Minnesota’s children if
we do not defend them?

Our children have a right to their health. Our children have a right to clean water. They have a right to fish that are safe to eat. We are responsible. To keep this land and water protected for our children and for their children, and for generations beyond them. To see that no corporation wages what amounts to war on children’s physical and intellectual health and development, that corporations do not make our children their collateral damage.