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Even the best experts have no idea what cleanup costs would be over the course of hundreds of years, Otto said. “If we think we do,” she said, “we are kidding ourselves.”
Suddenly, the auditor who was little known on the Iron Range became a household name after taking a barrage of criticism from local mining supporters. Her campaign also released a fundraising letter outing her lone vote against 31 mineral leases on the Iron Range — leases that are routinely approved by the governor and other state leaders.
That infuriated mining supporters. A DumpOtto.com website popped up, lambasting Otto for owning a hybrid car and wind turbine and then coming out against mining for the very materials needed to make those products.
“I find it a little smarmy,” Anzelc said of his fellow DFLer’s fundraising push.
Otto did not back down.
“It’s not a secret that people who run for elected office fundraise,” she said. “The issue of the day is the financial assurance. I am doing my job, and I am not going to stop. … We need to go into this with eyes wide open.”
The mother lode
Legislators from the Iron Range say the minerals sitting underground are essential to meeting consumer demand, whether they come from Minnesota or Africa. In Minnesota, they note, the regulations are strong and the workers eager.
“They are hitting the mother lode on every single drill hole,” state Sen. David Tomassoni said of the mineral exploration. “Your little cellphone has something like 39 minerals in it and not one of them fell out of the sky.”
In his office at the Capitol, a large, blue PolyMet poster leans against the Chisholm DFLer’s desk. It features a drawing of a huge dump truck and windmills in the background. The sign reads: “Jobs AND Environment.”
If environmental regulations snuff out the state’s mining industry, “There is nothing else,” Tomassoni said. “We become a ghost town.”
State leaders are poring over the environmental review against an increasingly uncertain political backdrop.
“It’s very intense,” said Craig Grau, former political science professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “As often happens politically, you have immediate rewards versus long-term losses. That’s a difficult thing to balance.”
House Speaker Paul Thissen is trying to thread his way through the perilous political landscape. He and other Democrats say the differing factions within the DFL have learned to stick together even as they untangle politically complex topics, such as the marriage issue.
He is holding out hope a deal can be reached that both sides can live with.
“We are pretty good at working through divisive issues and coming up with something,” said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “This will undoubtedly be a challenge, but we will be OK if we continue to talk it through and focus on the facts.”
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