Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Commissioner Mark Phillips approved a $250,000 grant to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for a new water source, tower and treatment plant, two weeks after the agency's advisory board urged him to table the grant because the band was "anti-mining."
The recommendation to table the grant drew statewide criticism of the IRRR, which is funded by taxes on taconite produced in the region, as people accused board members of putting mining politics ahead of clean drinking water.
But the board only operates in an advisory role and can only make recommendations to Commissioner Mark Phillips, who has the final say and reports to Gov. Tim Walz.
In a news release Thursday, Phillips said he has approved the band's grant.
“After gathering additional information from our funding partners, I am pleased to move forward with this important infrastructure project to provide clean drinking water for the residents of Mahnomen and Brookston," Phillips said. "The project meets our program guidelines and aligns with our mission and vision to foster vibrant growth and economic prosperity in Northeastern Minnesota."
The Fond du Lac Band had asked for a $250,000 grant to help fund the $1.3 million project replacing an existing noncompliant system and serve 140 homes near Mahnomen and Brookston.
On June 11, board members Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, and state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, all expressed concern with giving money to a government that is "anti-mining."
“I’m pretty uncomfortable with this request,” Bakk said at the time. “I mean, I’d like to do something for this part of the Taconite Relief Area because we don’t get many requests, but I can’t remember us ever doing a grant to a local unit of government that is publicly anti-mining.”
The Fond du Lac Band has repeatedly challenged permits for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine and joined a lawsuit challenging permits for U.S. Steel’s Minntac tailings basin.
The day after the meeting, the band said its position was "anti-pollution," not "anti-mining" and it was working to protect wild rice, fish and all of its natural and cultural resources within the 1854 Ceded Territory from pollution.
But on Thursday, Bakk told the News Tribune his concern at the time was whether the Fond du Lac Band was eligible for the grant because its office is based in Cloquet, outside of the agency's service area, even though the project site, near Brookston and Mahnomen on the northern edge of the reservation, is within the Taconite Relief Area.
"I was concerned about the fiscal agent (Fond du Lac Band) not being in the Taconite Relief Area," Bakk told the News Tribune, adding he wondered if the funds could have just been given to the city of Brookston instead.
In fact, during the meeting earlier this month, IRRR staffer Chris Ismil explained to the board that the project was eligible for the agency's grant because the part of the reservation its on also fell within the agency's service area.
Bakk said discussions among IRRR board and staff members in the weeks since have clarified that and he supports Phillips' approval of the grant.
The Fond du Lac Band was glad the grant was approved, the band said in an emailed statement to the News Tribune on Thursday.
“Although we remain concerned about the Board’s behavior, we are pleased that the Department fulfilled its legal obligation to approve the grant," Fond du Lac Band spokesperson Rita Aspinwall said after the grant was approved.
State Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL–International Falls, chair of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said in a statement he also agreed with the decision to approve the grant.
“I’m proud that we are able to move forward with this important infrastructure request for the residents of Brookston. It meets the agency guidelines and aligns with our mission and vision to foster vibrant growth and economic prosperity in Northeastern Minnesota,” Ecklund said. “Clean drinking water is important to both the health of individuals and the community. I am glad we were able to address this in a timely fashion.”
In an interview with WTIP Community Radio in Grand Marais last week, Ecklund said, "It put things in delicate position and unfortunately I don't think it shed the right light on the board."
This story was updated at 5:44 p.m. June 25 with quotes from State Sen. Tom Bakk, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and State Rep. Rob Ecklund. It was originally posted at 2:23 p.m. June 25.