Loss of huge milling plant prompts call for Walz review of what went wrong

It’s too late to do anything to lure back the owners of a proposed $440 million wood processing mill that pulled out of the northern Minnesota project earlier this year due to frustration with the state’s regulatory hurdles. But a key player in the process apparently won’t let it go until residents and supporters get answers from the Walz administration over what went wrong in hopes of preventing a repeat performance if and when another project comes along.

The Blandin Foundation has put the Walz administration on the spot, requesting a high level review of the reasons why Huber Engineered Woods abruptly ditched the plant to build it in Mississippi. The loss of 158 well paying jobs in the economically struggling area prompted the highly unusual development covered by the Duluth News Tribune.

The head of a northern Minnesota foundation wants state leaders to review the failure of a high-profile mill project.

The Blandin Foundation, which is based in Grand Rapids and aims to help rural communities in the region, called on Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday to commission an “after-action review” of the Huber mill project in nearby Cohasset…

“It is from this vantage point that I respectfully request your administration commission an independent after-action review of the Huber project in Cohasset, Minnesota, to inform and prepare the state for its continued energy transition,” Palmer wrote. “Those participating in the review must represent a broad cross section of the impacted interests to ensure a fair and comprehensive analysis. The objective of the review team should be to support sustainable energy models and resilient workforce structures.”

Walz’s office confirmed receipt of the request for review and got a heads-up on the pointed questions it would raise by the media and residents who lost out on a significant opportunity.

The News Tribune asked staff at Walz’s office whether the governor would convene such a review, why he believes the company took its project elsewhere, and what lessons he has taken from the failed project.

“The Governor is deeply disappointed that Huber chose not to bring these jobs to Minnesota,” Claire Lancaster, a spokesperson, wrote in response. “He has received and will review the letter.”

The company’s abrupt departure followed a legal run-around with tribal and other officials over the need for a more in-depth environmental impact statement that the project had been exempted from by the legislature.

A facility of Huber’s size, 800,000 square feet, would typically trigger an environmental impact statement, but the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that specifically exempts the project from such a study.

The project would have meant an estimated 158 jobs in the area, where the longstanding logging industry has been flagging and the Bowell plant is set to go coal-free by 2035. State leaders readied millions worth of loans and other economic incentives for the mill.

Instead the Huber mill will be located in Noxubee County, Mississippi. It’s a significant lost opportunity that never should have happened, according to local legislators.

“By moving to Mississippi, Huber will probably be permitted in just a few months and the plant will be up and running in no time,” said Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids in a statement. “When the alternative is Minnesota’s ridiculous permitting process, regulatory hurdles, and legal action from the Leech Lake Band, it is a no-brainer.”