By Bill Hanna
There was a lot of venting done in Hoyt Lakes on Friday -- and it was all aimed at federal and state agencies that local officials said are putting handcuffs on current resource-based businesses while putting a boot of delay on new ones just waiting to go.
Mayors, city council and school board members, mining and Minnesota Power officials all voiced the same frustrations over what they called "excessive" and often "unwarranted" federal and state regulations.
"We need to get pro-active. We can't afford to go backwards," said Aurora City Councilor Dave Lislegard at the informal roundtable discussion.
Eighth District Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack was there to hear their concerns and shared their frustrations, especially regarding the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"The federal government is in the way, rather than acting as a partner," Cravaack said.
Officials said delays to getting the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project near Hoyt Lakes, which would create 360 permanent jobs, hundreds more spin-off positions and 1.5 million hours of construction work, up and running after about eight years of environmental review, is preventing a resurgence of the East Range economy.
Another nonferrous project, Twin Metals near Ely and Babbitt, is not as far along as PolyMet but holds greater job potential.
And Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck said she is equally concerned about the state Public Utilities Commission's threat to close Minnesota Power's Laskin Energy Center in Hoyt Lakes and Taconite Harbor Energy Center by 2016.
The closing would affect 40 jobs in Hoyt Lakes. And Pospeck said it would have a devastating effect on the city's property taxes. "Laskin is about 70 percent of Hoyt Lakes' tax base," she said.
The state PUC held a hearing on the possible closings on Aug. 9, and gave Minnesota Power until March 2013 to come up with a plan to address environmental concerns from the coal-fired plants.
Preservationist groups such as the Sierra Club hailed the PUC's initiative. "What Minnesota Power has basically been trying to do is simply run the clock down," Joshua Low, an organizer representative for the Sierra Club's North Star Chapter in Minneapolis, said prior to the hearing.
Cravaack said he has been dealing with a recalcitrant Washington bureaucracy on regulatory issues since his first day in Congress in January 2011.
The congressman has had success.
* He successfully got an amendment attached to the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2012 that would provide a guaranteed time frame for the permitting process for mineral exploration, which would apply to Iron Range nonferrous projects. It would set a 30-month time limit for the permitting process. Cravaack's opponent, Democrat Rick Nolan of the Brainerd area, opposes the amendment, saying it would "gut" worker protections. Cravaack said the bill does not do that. The Senate has yet to take up the bill and Minnesota Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have not taken a public stand on the measure.
* His bill on a land exchange within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is the same as state legislation, has been approved by the House. The Senate has yet to take it up.
* Cravaack has also strongly blasted the EPA for proposing a rejection of the Minnesota State Implementation Plan put forth by the state Pollution Control Agency for upgrading taconite facilities. Cravaack said the EPA ruling "threatens the very livelihood of Iron Range residents."
Lislegard said a group of local officials needs to be organized to try to get heard by all state and federal elected officials who can then put pressure on the environmental bureaucracies.
"We need to get everyone here to face-to-face tell us what do they mean by "support' of these projects. And I mean everyone ... the governor and our U.S. senators," he said.
Cravaack said such action from the bottom up is needed.
"We need to get more people involved with what is going on and how the federal government is hindering the Eighth District," the congressman said.