On a snowy afternoon last February, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced her bid for president of the United States while standing on the bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. She noted how waterways like the Mississippi unite us and how they have helped many cities prosper. And she told the story of her immigrant grandparents, who’d arrived with only a suitcase and managed to build a life as her grandfather found work underground in the iron-ore districts of northern Minnesota, known as the Iron Range.
“I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner,” Klobuchar said, promising to fight for “every worker, farmer, dreamer and builder” if elected to the White House.
Yet those underground mines where Klobuchar’s grandfather toiled morphed into massive open-pit operations ― the scars of which can easily be spotted from satellites. And even those operations, like the nation’s mining industry as a whole, have struggled in recent decades as the number of jobs declined by about 22% from 2000 to 2018.
Now Twin Metals Minnesota, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, is looking to breathe new life into this small sector of the state’s economy with a $1.7 billion underground copper-nickel mine just a few miles from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The pristine 1.09-million-acre landscape near the Canadian border is the most visited wilderness area in the country, a vast network of protected rivers, lakes and creeks that has helped small towns throughout northeastern Minnesota get ahead. It’s a proposal that many Democrats and environmentalists fear could forever destroy the beloved wilderness, as extracting sulfide-bearing minerals like copper and nickel can lead to acid mine drainage that can persist indefinitely.
The planned mine, unlike anything the Land of 10,000 Lakes has ever seen before, has become a political lightning rod. In the final weeks of President Barack Obama’s administration, federal agencies blocked the Twin Metals mine only to have the industry-friendly Trump administration move quickly to revive it. Five current 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have pledged to protect the Boundary Waters from the proposed sulfide-ore mine. Notably missing from that opposition: home state Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar has largely avoided talking about the planned mine since launching her presidential campaign, turning down or not responding to several interview requests from the media. The campaign declined HuffPost’s interview request, but a spokeswoman said in a statement: “Senator Klobuchar has consistently and publicly called for the thorough environmental review of this project; this has always been her position and continues to be her position.”
Her silence has been largely interpreted as support, raising environmentalists’ fears about what a Klobuchar administration would mean for the remote and fragile ecosystem.
“Given how bold Sen. Klobuchar generally is to take on the Trump administration, it’s especially disappointing that she hasn’t taken the lead to permanently protect this national treasure, especially when virtually all of the other candidates for president have unequivocally endorsed permanent protection,” said Dan Hartinger of The Wilderness Society Action Fund.
To be sure, many view the mine proposal as one of the more significant stains on Klobuchar’s environmental record. While she has a 96% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund gave Klobuchar a “D” grade ― the lowest tally out of the leading Democratic candidates ― in its environmental voting guide last month, in no small part because of her stance on Twin Metals and even clearer support for PolyMet, a second planned copper-nickel mine just 15 miles to the southwest, near Hoyt Lakes.
In 2018, Klobuchar co-sponsored an amendment to a military spending bill that would have cemented a land exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service, effectively ending lawsuits brought by environmental groups and paving the way for the mine’s development. That provision was removed during committee negotiations.
In its guide, the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund writes that Klobuchar “supports mines that threaten waterways in her own home state” and “would be an unmitigated disaster for the environment” as president.
It remains to be seen if copper mining and the accompanying threats will be an issue on Minnesotans’ minds when they head to the polls for the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries on March 3.
A majority of registered Minnesota voters, 60%, oppose new mining near the Boundary Waters, while just 22% support it, according to a poll Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune newspaper released in late February. Still, a University of Massachusetts-Lowell poll this month had Klobuchar leading the presidential field at home with 27% of likely Minnesota voters.
In its Dec. 15, 2016, decision to revoke Twin Metals’ leases, the Obama administration cited concerns that the mine could spoil the wilderness and harm the area’s $45 million tourism sector. It ordered an additional study of the potential environmental impacts and moved to withdraw sensitive areas of the watershed from new mineral leases.
Then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called it “the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy.”
Twin Metals warned that the move would “have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of Northeast Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region.”
Klobuchar came to the company’s defense. In a public statement on Dec. 16, 2016, that Twin Metals took as a sign it had an ally in the Democratic senator, Klobuchar laid out her concerns and said she had “worked very hard to protect our environment while at the same time preserving mining jobs in northern Minnesota.” And in a private email that same day to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, soon to be replaced in the incoming Trump administration, she said she was “floored” by the Obama administration’s decision.
“Trump will reverse this,” Klobuchar wrote in the Vilsack email, which a columnist at The Wall Street Journal obtained from “government sources” within a few weeks after the Trump administration officially renewed the company’s leases in May 2019. “When you guys leave and are out talking about a job message for rural America, I will be left with the mess and dealing with the actual jobs.”
Klobuchar added that she was “not for or against this project but I just wanted a fair process based on science that told us the truth” about whether it would be environmentally safe.
Her email included a press release from the Republican Party of Minnesota in which its chairman, Keith Downey, slammed the move as a “cruel attack on Iron Range families right before Christmas.” Downey also called out Klobuchar and other Minnesota Democrats by name, accusing them of “shamefully” claiming to support mining while likely knowing the Obama order was coming down the pike.
The timing of the email’s leak suggests that the Trump administration saw Klobuchar’s letter slamming the Obama administration as a solid defense of its decision to revive the project. “Minnesota Democrat skewers her party for putting politics ahead of the law,” the WSJ columnist declared.
Forced to do damage control over the email release, Klobuchar’s state director, Ben Hill, issued a statement saying that the senator “continues to have serious concerns about this project being so close to the Boundary Waters” and “does not believe this administration will move forward in good faith to protect the environment.”
“She can say all she wants that she’s not necessarily for putting a mine there, but there’s only one thing that company wants to do with that lease: that’s put a mine in there,” said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the former chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.
As Painter sees it, Klobuchar is happy to be an environmentalist so long as it doesn’t affect special interests on home turf. He pointed to her support for removing Endangered Species Act protections for Minnesota’s gray wolves and her failure to take a public stand against the proposed $2.6 billion, 337-mile Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which would carry Canadian crude oil through wetlands and tribal land in northern Minnesota to Wisconsin.
“When we pick a president, we look for someone who sort of rises above constituent service,” Painter said. “They have a theme and a main cause they are fighting for.”
The copper mining industry has a toxic legacy, even in recent years. A 2012 study by conservation group Earthworks reviewed data for 14 out of the nation’s 16 operating copper mines and found that all had reported spills or accidental releases of contaminants. The nonprofit American Rivers put the Boundary Waters on its annual list of “most endangered rivers” in 2018, noting that “this wild freshwater haven will be gravely threatened by acid mine drainage” if the mine is built.
Kathy Graul, a spokeswoman for Twin Metals, told HuffPost “there will be no acid mine drainage at our site due to the unique geology of the mineral deposit we will be mining and the way in which we will process the ore.”
Although not as well known as Twin Metals, the $1 billion proposed PolyMet mine has also faced years of controversy. And unlike the Twin Metals project, it would be a massive open-pit copper-nickel mine in the watershed that drains into Lake Superior.
State Sen. John Marty, who represents a suburban district northeast of Minneapolis, noted that PolyMet’s proposed barrier to keep mine pollution from contaminating nearby waters ― a structure of trapezoidal embankments called an upstream tailings dam ― have a legacy of disaster. He pointed to the 2014 Mount Polley mining disaster in British Columbia and last year’s catastrophic dam burst in Brazil’s state of Minas Gerais, which prompted the notoriously anti-environment government of President Jair Bolsonaro to ban tailings dams.
“Even the government of Brazil is so concerned about this style of dam they say, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’” said Marty, who is backing Sanders. “Yet Minnesota is charging ahead.”
Last summer, a handful of Iron Range Democrats joined Republicans to publicly back new mining. Union officials who support the project say that “you’ve got to trust” the engineers the mining companies hire to maintain safety.
“We think, from conversations with the company, that a tailings dam is proper,” said Emil Ramirez, the director for the United Steelworkers district that includes nine Midwestern and mountain states. He added that unemployment is low in Minnesota’s mining industry, but the union sees new mining projects as crucial to keeping it that way.
Further complicating Klobuchar’s position on copper mining are Trump family ties to the Chilean billionaire behind the Twin Metals mine and his company’s record of contamination in Chile.
Shortly after Trump’s election in November 2016, Andrónico Luksic, the billionaire whose family controls Antofagasta, purchased a $5.5 million home in an affluent area of Washington. Within a couple of months, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner had moved in, becoming tenants of a man whose company was then suing the federal government over the Obama-era decision not to renew its mineral leases near the Boundary Waters, as The Wall Street Journal first reported. A White House official told the WSJ at the time that Trump’s relatives were not aware of their new landlord’s business interests; Luksic has said he doesn’t know Trump or any member of his family.
That didn’t deter scrutiny from ethics experts and Democratic lawmakers. In a March 2019 letter to Trump’s interior and agriculture secretaries, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the tenant-landlord relationship an “interesting coincidence” and demanded documents related to the administration’s efforts to advance construction of the mine.
Antofagasta is one of the top 10 largest copper mining companies in the world. Its subsidiary Twin Metals has spent approximately $1.2 million lobbying government agencies since Trump took office, according to federal filings.
Many concerns about the Twin Metals project stem from Antofagasta’s track record in its home country. In a 2017 report, the London Mining Network detailed a history of pollution, worker fatalities and archeological damage at Antofagasta’s Los Pelambres copper mine. The report notes that the Chilean Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the mine’s tailings dam posed a “danger to human life” and cites a 2012 independent study that found high levels of mercury and other heavy metals in drinking water resources near the mine. In 2016, Chile’s environmental regulator charged Los Pelambres mine with nine violations.
“If Senator Klobuchar wants to prove she’s serious about protecting the environment, she needs to fight the foreign special interests teaming up with the Trump administration to pollute Minnesota’s wilderness,” Kyle Herrig, president of the Washington-based oversight nonprofit Accountable.US, said in a statement accompanying a new report that highlights many of Antofagasta’s alleged offenses overseas.
An Antofagasta spokesperson told The New York Times last year that it is proud of its environmental record and dismissed a 2016 analysis in which the head of the U.S. Forest Service warned that the proposed Twin Metals mine “might cause serious and irreplaceable harm” to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters as “riddled with errors.”
Many Minnesotans simply aren’t willing to gamble with one of their state’s crown jewels. And they expect the state’s senior senator to step forward as well.
Meanwhile, House Republicans last month tried to recruit Klobuchar in their fight against a bill introduced by Rep.Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) that would permanently block the Twin Metals mine by banning future sulfide-ore mining on 234,000 federal acres adjacent to the Boundary Waters wilderness.
“Many individuals, yourself included, have stressed the importance of allowing a thorough review of this project before determining if it should be permitted,” Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) wrote in a Jan. 30 letter requesting that Klobuchar submit testimony against the bill.
This article has been updated with a statement from Twin Metals, as well as with language to indicate that state Sen. John Marty was referring to PolyMet in his comments about the tailings dam.