PolyMet mining project tears at DFL unity

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2013 - 7:03 AM

PolyMet plant could unlock a new era of mining and jobs, but fears of long-term environmental damage strain the party’s alliances.

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FILE - In this undated aerial file photo, the LTV Steel Mining Company which shut its doors Jan. 3, 2001, is shown near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. The PolyMet Mining Corp. will use the facility for its copper-nickel processing plant. The planned open-pit copper-nickel mine will be near Babbitt, Minn.

Photo: Mark Sauer, Associated Press - Ap

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A copper mine that could provide hundreds of high-paying jobs on the Iron Range also is threatening to crack the fragile alliance of blue-collar Democrats up north and the environmentalists that are an influential part of Minnesota DFL’s base.

Iron Range Democrats are looking to the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine as a way to rejuvenate an area rocked by years of declining mining employment. But such mines also have a long history of pollution in other states and countries, and some have warned that a mine expected to last 20 years could result in centuries of cleanup.

All sides are closely watching as Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration faces a crucial decision on the project that could come near the election.

At risk is a political coalition that has made good on a string of high-profile DFL priorities like same-sex marriage, higher taxes for the rich and expanded union influence around the state. Dayton is depending on that same coalition to help him press for a second term and keep the state House in DFL hands.

“We are going to go through some hard times,” predicted Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township. “This may be the signature event in the decades-long battle between jobs and the preservation of the environment. This battle determines what kind of a Minnesota Minnesotans want.”

Democrats are scrambling to contain the conflict and prevent another “massacre” of 1978, when Republicans capitalized on similar outrage over the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Rivals divided the DFL over the issue and allowed Republicans to make historic electoral gains, claiming the governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats.

Already some Republicans are seizing on the rare opening, after years mired in scandal and defeat.

Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers is banking on his support for mining to help him emerge as a breakout Republican candidate for governor. He released a graphic on social media last week with text over a scenic lakeside landscape: “Fact: We can open copper and nickel mines while safeguarding natural resources with the toughest environmental standards already in place.”

Zellers, who represents the area around Maple Grove, has already gone deep into DFL territory in northern Minnesota to make his pitch: “I think it is our North Dakota oil fields,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. Am I the only guy, Democrat or Republican, talking about it? Yeah, absolutely. There are a vast majority of Minnesotans that don’t believe the hysteria that this is going to ruin the Boundary Waters.”

PolyMet Mining Corp. says it will invest $650 million initially, create up to 360 high-paying mining jobs and infuse another $500 million annually over the projected 20-year life of the mine.

There also is the possibility of touching off a dramatic mining renaissance in the area. Other companies are already lining up to tap one of the world’s largest untouched deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals needed for products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars.

But with that comes the potential for acid drainage that could require centuries of special cleanup and jeopardize the watershed that feeds Lake Superior.

How much PolyMet must pay to treat the water — and for how long — has emerged as a key friction point in the project. Future taxpayers could face a stiff bill for cleanup if PolyMet is not required to kick in enough money.

So far, the Democratic governor has offered little hint of how he is leaning. Dayton has built a political foundation from his strong pro-jobs reputation on the Iron Range, but he faces intense pressure from well-funded environmental groups and his former wife, Alida Messinger, a top DFL donor and avid conservationist.

Governor taking his time

Dayton said he has just begun reviewing a recently released 2,200 page environmental review. “I am going to wait until all of the facts are known before I come to a conclusion,” he said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “It’s hugely important and there are very strong feelings on both sides.”

Some Democrats already are diving in — and occasionally taking a beating for it.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto traveled to Democratic strongholds on the Iron Range in recent weeks, holding a series of meetings to express her deep skepticism about the future of copper and nickel mining in Minnesota.

The DFLer told crowds that copper mining operations have a history of shutting down and leaving taxpayers to shoulder the cleanup costs.

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