Delay of Mining Leases Prompts Complaints from Iron Rangers, Republicans

Politics in Minnesota

Paul Demko


In 1954, when Tom Anzelc was 8 years old, his family was kicked off their plot of land near Keewatin on the Iron Range. The parcel, along with 40 to 60 others, was confiscated for mineral exploration.


Anzelc’s parents hauled their house two miles south into town. The prior location of their home eventually became a taconite mine that produced 6 million tons of iron ore pellets annually. Both Anzelc and his father eventually spent time working in the mine.


“The company wanted to get the people out of there because we were living on top of great wealth that they knew existed,” Anzelc recalled. “We never trusted the mining company from that day forward.”


Anzelc didn’t remain in the mines, but the industry has informed his outlook on life ever since. The DFL legislator is now serving his third term in the House representing the Iron Range.


“I’m sure history will show that I will be the last person to serve in the Legislature who was born and raised in a mining location in a mining company house,” Anzelc said, noting that his parents did not want to leave their land: “Didn’t want to go; didn’t believe it; didn’t understand it. It took a dozen years for them to understand it.”


The issue of mineral rights versus property rights is suddenly generating sparks at the Capitol. Earlier this month the state’s Executive Council — which consists of Gov. Mark Dayton and the state’s four other executive officers – met to consider whether to approve 77 mineral leases that had been negotiated by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The authorization was expected to be a formality, as hundreds of such leases have routinely been granted over the years.


But after nearly two hours of testimony from property owners opposed to the leases, Dayton surprised nearly everyone by suggesting that approval of the contracts be delayed for six months while the issue of mineral rights is scrutinized. “This is not a moratorium on mining or nonferrous mining in Minnesota,” Dayton said, noting that three major mining projects can continue the permitting process in the interim. “This is not about preventing jobs from developing in northeastern Minnesota.”


But Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, chafed at the proposed six-month delay. “These have met the test,” Ongaro said of the leases. “This is changing the rules of the game in the last inning, and we believe these should be approved now and there should be no further delay.”


Ultimately the Executive Council sided with Dayton and approved the six-month delay.


The severing of mineral rights is immaterial to the overwhelming majority of property owners, who live in areas where there is very little risk of mineral exploration. But in parts of the state where mineral deposits are common, it means that property owners are at risk of losing their land through state seizure. Both the state Constitution and statutes delineate this right.

The debate over mineral rights is a politically charged issue that will have reverberations in the months ahead. Pro-mining Iron Range Democrats, who’ve long counted Dayton as a key ally, were caught off guard by the proposed six-month delay. Just last month the governor seemingly signaled his strong support for expanded mining by announcing that he would appoint a state mining coordinator to help companies navigate the myriad federal and state permitting hurdles.


“I’ve still got a stiff neck from shaking my head,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia. “I just couldn’t believe it.”


Rep. David Dill of Crane Lake, who represents much of the area affected by the leases, is slightly more diplomatic. “Nothing’s a surprise to me anymore,” Dill said. “I would have preferred that we not have this six-month delay. It is what it is.”


Iron Range legislators point out that people are losing their properties to mining companies all the time without much attention from politicians or the news media. They argue that it’s only when the leases affect the vacation homes of Twin Cities residents — as is the case with many of the pending leases — that there’s an outcry. “I have people, as you and I are speaking, that are having their homes bought out by U.S. Steel,” said Rukavina, citing mining exploration around Parkville. “It happens every day. It’s happening right now.”


Democrats wary of mining because of environmental concerns, by contrast, praised Dayton’s decision. “I am thrilled,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “I just thought it was a brilliant solution to a very, very difficult situation.”


The reaction from Republicans has been surprisingly muted. Rather than pillorying Dayton for being anti-business, they have largely stayed quiet about the issue. “It’s pretty unprecedented,” one GOP lobbyist said of the six-month delay on leases. “I was surprised that Republicans and some of the Range delegation didn’t make somewhat of an uproar. The silence was a little bit perplexing.”


Anzelc suggests that one reason for the GOP’s silence is concern over antagonizing the GOP base by seeming insensitive to property rights. “They are betwixt and between,” Anzelc said. “They don’t want to alienate this property rights group. The Republicans have always demagogued property rights.”


A high-ranking GOP caucus source confirms that concerns about property rights have made Republicans cautious about clubbing Dayton on the mineral rights issue. But GOP silence should not necessarily be seen as sympathy among lawmakers for homeowners who risk losing their property to mining interests.


“These folks don’t have those property rights. I’m sorry, they don’t,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. “I don’t mean to be really blunt, but that’s the truth. We can’t right what everyone thinks is wrong.”


Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is only slightly more sympathetic. “The condemnation thing is a troublesome word to me, but it’s done all the time,” Ingebrigtsen said. “There are some things you just have to have and have to hang on to. Otherwise you can’t do business, you can’t function as a state that gives the public service for the dollars it puts out there. Rights to property are very important to me, and I know my caucus, and for government to interfere in those rights — I don’t like it. However, this has been around for a long time, and there is a time and place for it.”


Those skeptical reactions from GOP legislative leaders suggest that Dayton may have simply delayed the inevitable — because if the Legislature does nothing to intervene, the Executive Council will likely be facing the same angry crowd of property owners when the leases come up for review in six months.


Anzelc is a strong supporter of expanded mining on the Iron Range. He points out that infrastructure booms in China and India have created significant opportunities for expanded taconite production. But given his family history, Anzelc is not completely unsympathetic to the concerns of property owners. “Personally, this is a conflict for me,” Anzelc said. “I believe in property rights. I believe in the rights of the people to control the land they live on.”