Iron Range board delays Fond du Lac band water improvement grant; critics say it’s political payback

Hibbing Taconite mine overlook at the old tourist center. Proceeds from taconite taxes are used to support local projects. A grant to the Fond du Lac band for clean water was delayed. Photo by Aaron Brown.

A state mining board tabled a $250,000 grant to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to provide clean drinking water — a move critics said is intended to suppress opposition to copper-nickel mining in sensitive watersheds.  

“I can’t remember us ever doing a grant to a local unit of government that is publicly anti-mining,” said state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a veteran Iron Range lawmaker who sits on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, known as IRRRB. 

The IRRRB is a state agency funded with mining proceeds to pay for local public works, economic development and other projects in its service area. 

During the June 10 IRRRB meeting, Bakk objected to the application because of the band’s support of a wild rice sulfate standard, as well as support for a lawsuit against potential pollution from a controversial PolyMet copper-nickel mining plan. (The band is not against taconite mining.) 

Fellow Ranger, state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, expressed similar objections and made a motion to table the request, delaying the installation of a water treatment tower in Brookston. 

The application went through a competitive grant bidding process. IRRRB staff scored the grant high and recommended approval. Because the board serves in an advisory role, the final decision to issue the grant falls to IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips, who hopes to see the board change its mind in an upcoming meeting. 

Phillips said in a Reformer interview that he and his staff intend to provide more information to the board about the project, including reiterating the fact that the band is eligible for the grant and falls within the agency’s service area, despite some apparent confusion by Bakk and other members of the board. 

Phillips said a grant applicant’s political views on mining — long a litmus test for most Iron Range politicians — should have no bearing on whether they win a grant or not. “On a technical basis, it should have no difference,” he said. 

Phillips said Bakk and other board members objections to the tribe over their perceived mining stances will have no bearing in the final outcome.

“Some people draw a line and say, ‘How can somebody anti-mining apply for mining dollars?’” Phillips said. “I get it. I understand that, but that’s not the way the rules work, and that’s not the way I work.”

Iron Range historian Aaron Brown wrote a pointed blog post in which he suggested “smashing” the IRRRB after the Fond du Lac clean water vote: “Is the agency here to serve the common good of all residents? Or is it just the arm of an entrenched political establishment that uses funding to suppress dissent, control local governments and project outsized power for a few politicians?”

During the meeting, the board asked staff if they had legal justification to reject the grant. 

Asked by Bakk if the funding could go to a different entity, IRRRB staff replied, “The application met all of the criteria requirements, it was scored competitively and to be honest with you, it scored above other projects that came in.” 

The proposal for a $250,000 grant was relatively small, but its impact would be significant — providing clean drinking water to a rural community of 500 people in St. Louis County.

Walz has made tribal relations a priority

The kerfuffle could complicate efforts by the administration of Gov. Tim Walz to shore up tribal relations.

Walz issued a 2019 executive order directing state agencies to have more direct consultations with Minnesota’s tribal nations. 

Messages seeking comment from tribal Chairman Kevin DuPouis were not returned. 

Phillips explained during the June 10 meeting that the water treatment project application was borne out of consultations with the four tribes in the IRRRB service area. 

“That has generated more interest in our programs from tribal governments, no question about that. So, I think it was unavoidable because it was part of Gov. Walz’s executive order,” Phillips said.

The IRRRB has faced scrutiny in recent years over financial mismanagement and cronyism and has long been viewed as an independent agency that operates under the aegis of powerful Iron Range figures like Bakk, despite its place in the executive branch.  

Even Phillips has come under scrutiny, receiving a written reprimand by Walz last year over an incident in which he bypassed the normal HR procedures to hire a DFL operative.

In a Reformer interview, Bakk said he was considering the optics of approving the project, and maintained that IRRRB staff wrongly approved the tribe’s eligibility. 

“I don’t want a big newspaper story saying the agency is doing grants to entities that are outside the taconite relief area,” Bakk said. “I don’t want to have to go through that. So it’s just cleaner: Give the money to Brookston Township. Then there’s not a question,” he said.