Conservation Minnesota

Today’s Republicans should stand with the taxpayers in the mining debate.

“I have not felt as if I were fighting for Knute Nelson, or any other little Norwegian, but for principle.”*

Knute Nelson, July 12, 1882

tumafeatureSome 130 years ago, there was a battle for the heart of the Republican Party in Minnesota in the new Minnesota 5th Congressional District. A critical Republican endorsement battle was fought between a young Norwegian upstart and a millionaire railroad mogul. This election gave this new congressional district the moniker, at the time, of the “Bloody Fifth District”.

As a result of the Census of 1880, Minnesota gained a new congressional district that covered the entire northern section of the state above St. Cloud. The Republican endorsement contest pitted a young attorney and State Senator from what was then the small Norwegian pioneer outpost of Alexandria by the name of Knute Nelson against millionaire Northern Pacific Railroad mogul Charles F. Kindred.

Knute Nelson was one of the great populists in the history of Minnesota’s Republican party.  Of illegitimate birth, he arrived in America from Norway at age 7 with his single mother in 1849.  He learned how to curse and fight with the best of them as a paperboy on the streets of Chicago while staying with his uncle.  After his mother wed, his stepfather moved them to Dane County, Wisconsin.  During the Civil War, Knute joined the Wisconsin Fourth Volunteers and served with distinction as a corporal.  Upon returning home from the war, he worked hard to educate himself to become a lawyer and received admittance to the Wisconsin Bar.  He even served two terms in the Wisconsin Assembly. He was encouraged to join other Scandinavian immigrants flooding to settle the outward reaches of Minnesota and found his place in the community of Alexandria, where he rose to the level of serving as their State Senator for one term.

Stout hard-working Knute Nelson, popular amongst the Scandinavian settlers of the western part of the district, was up against Northern Pacific Railroad mogul Charles F. Kindred, whose power base was amongst the logging and mining interests of northeastern Minnesota.  Kindred made no secret that he was willing to spend his wealth to gain the congressional seat and did everything his money could do to buy delegates for the Republican convention in Detroit Lakes on July 12, 1882.

The convention was full of skirmishes and disorder regarding the seating of delegates.  At one point there were about 50 people around the podium screaming for attention.  Eventually the Nelson faction realized there would be no semblance of order and left the convention for their circus tent they had set up outside.  They formed a Rump Convention and nominated Nelson to run as an independent.  Despite some obvious corruption in the general election from some of the precincts Kindred owned, Nelson went on to win the election handily with 16,956 votes to Kindred’s 12,238.

Nelson would go on to serve our state with distinction, not only as a congressman but also as a future governor and one of our longest serving U.S. senators. He was so respected that his statue was placed at the beginning of the front steps of our Capitol – one of only two that have the honor of guarding the front of the Capitol’s entrance.

Nelson’s Republican actions always put the common man and the taxpayers foremost. He would rail against the crony capitalism of the old “stand pat” Republicans. Today’s Minnesota Republican Party should take a lesson from one of our state’s greatest Republicans by finding ways to protect the taxpayers for the potential cost of failed mining operations.

There is a segment in the Republican Party that live in an Ayn Rand fantasy, thinking that corporate interests do not engage in crony capitalism nor will they act in their own self-interest by avoiding cleanup costs. That type of narrow thinking will only keep the Republican Party from ever becoming the state’s majority party. Taking a thoughtful approach to mining by protecting taxpayers will help the party grow to a more inclusive majority in the state.

The fact is the new kind of mining that is being proposed in northeastern Minnesota has had a long history of stiffing the taxpayers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified hard rock mining as the nation’s top toxic producing industry. For example, in a recent EPA report, the metal mining industry was responsible for 41 percent of all toxins released into the environment. The EPA produces an annual “Toxic Release Inventory” (TRI) that provides the public with information about toxic releases in and around their communities. The 2011 TRI data show that, as with every year since 1997 when the metal mining industry was required to report, this industry releases the largest amount of toxic materials, accounting for 41 percent of all toxics reported.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the cost of mine cleanup for sites listed as national priorities is $20 billion. The most significant cost associated with this cleanup is long-term water treatment and management. Here are just a few examples of failed mining operations where taxpayers were saddled with the bill:

  • Summitville Gold Mine, Colorado – The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving cleanup costs to the public. Costs are expected to be about $235 million and take at least 100 years.
  • Zortman Landusky Mine, Montana – In 1998, the company abandoned the site and filed for bankruptcy. After several lawsuits against the mining company and its creditors following the company’s bankruptcy, Montana’s taxpayers are still liable for anywhere from $8 million to $90 million.
  • Gilt Edge Mine, South Dakota – The parent company, Dakota Mining, went bankrupt and abandoned the mine in 1999 with only a $6 million bond in place, an amount insufficient to cover water treatment for even a single year. In 2000, South Dakota requested the site be designated a Superfund site for long-term cleanup, leaving the burden of reclamation costs on taxpayers.

For more details go to the Mining Truth website. No doubt Republicans need to stand for mining jobs, but they should not be so foolish as to leave the taxpayers at risk for cleaning up the mess – a mess that could permanently destroy other important economic drivers in the region such as tourism. I’m going to guess that is something one of our founding Republican champions of the past, Knute Nelson, would not have tolerated.

*101 Best Stories of Minnesota, Merle Potter, Harrison and Smith Co., 1931, page 31.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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