Minnesota has been working with the Huber corporation, based in New Jersey, for the past few years to help Huber set up a new lumber mill in northern Minnesota. The mill would operate on the doorstep of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the city of Cohasset, but the latter has had far more say in the matter than the former. Unfortunately, throughout that collaboration, the State of Minnesota and the city of Cohasset have been bending Minnesota law to make it easier for Huber to operate here, ignoring the concerns of the Band and environmental risks posed by the mill. That has included allowing the City of Cohasset to have final say on whether the project can go ahead without requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS). An EIS is a formal and impartial assessment of a project’s potential environmental effects, which can be required in a specific case for a number of reasons.
On April 25, the Band filed an appeal challenging the City of Cohasset’s March 8 vote to approve the project without an EIS. The Band, supported by Honor the Earth, has argued repeatedly and in a number of venues that the potential environmental effects of the project are serious enough to require an EIS under Minnesota law before it can be approved. They say that the Huber Mill poses a significant threat to the Band’s lands and waters, violating their treaty rights to fish, hunt, and gather. They have also highlighted a number of other procedural irregularities in the project’s approval.
The mill’s operation will result in a 14% increase in logging in Minnesota, and most of that increase will fall on either Leech Lake reservation land or land that they have the rights to use and harvest, per Minnesota treaties. That land is already being logged, by two other nearby mills, and the Band is concerned that with such a great increase in harvesting, the health of the forest will suffer greatly. They also rely on old growth forest, or forest that has been growing for hundreds of years, to harvest their traditional medicines. If the mill clear cuts or harvests substantially, even if it doesn’t wipe out the forest, the Band could lose touch with that core part of their culture. Cohasset approved that increase because it does not push statewide harvest levels above the maximum foresters set. However, the Band says that the question needs to be looked at more closely because that significant increase in statewide harvest will fall on such a small land area, which the band says is already overharvested.
The project will also release significant levels of EPA-regulated atmospheric pollutants and destroy about 30 acres each of wetlands, forests, grasslands, and cropland. Some of those wetlands are connected hydrologically to the great Mississippi River and a stand of wild rice (manoomin). That species has great cultural significance to the Leech Lake Band as Anishinaabe, and they rely on it for subsistence. Manoomin harvests have been dropping across the state due to other threats, and the stand in question is one of the few that has continued to provide a reliable harvest. The wetlands on the site also include peatlands, which are able to store immense amounts of carbon, amounts that are released into the atmosphere when the peatlands are destroyed. This destruction of habitat may also further threaten endangered species, including long-eared bats and bald eagles. Both species possess significance to the Anishinaabe, and both have nesting sites near where the mill would be constructed.
The threat of significant environmental damage posed by the mill should be enough to trigger a higher level of environmental assessment under Minnesota law, but the project was approved without one. This is not the first procedural irregularity in the state of Minnesota’s handling of the Mill’s approval. Initially, Huber announced they would build their mill here in the midst of last summer’s contentious state budget negotiations. With a week to go to a government shutdown deadline, lawmakers agreed to give Huber certain concessions to win their business. Hoping that the mill could bring income and jobs to the state, our government promised them a sizable loan and a break on the environmental regulation process.
Based on the size of the project alone, Huber would normally be required to conduct the highest level of environmental assessment to gain approval, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). However, our representatives snuck an amendment into the Environment and Natural Resources Appropriation Bill that says that any project with certain characteristics, which are quite specific to the Huber Mill, will be exempted from the requirement under Minnesota law that it undergo a mandatory EIS “that is triggered solely by the proposed facility’s gross floor space area.”
Clever as that may have been, the amendment did not exempt Huber from having to conduct an EIS for any other reason – and there are a number of other reasons why one might be required other than size, including significance of environmental impact. On February 24, 2022, the Leech Lake Band sent a letter to the city of Cohasset as part of the feedback process for the project, arguing that the environmental impacts are significant enough to require an EIS. The Band also argued that under Minnesota law, given the amount of certain air pollutants the project will release, it is the MPCA that actually has the authority to approve or deny the project, not the city of Cohasset. Lastly, the Band noted that under Minnesota law, if you’re going to destroy wetlands, you must prove that there is no alternative site that would work for your project. They pointed out that Huber’s claims that there is no alternative site were inconsistent with their indications in other parts of that report (and likely in their negotiations with the state government) that they’re willing to build this project in other places.
Despite not having the authority or grounds to give the project the go-ahead, the city voted unanimously to approve it. Now, the Leech Lake Band is appealing that approval – and you can support them. Tell Huber that if they want to do business in Minnesota, they have to respect our rules, our waters and our treaties, no matter the jobs or money they bring in.
Ella Johnson is a born and raised Minnesotan who is currently studying law in Montreal. She is passionate about environmental issues in her home state and abroad and has been an MN350 volunteer for two years.