Gov. Mark Dayton recently lent his personal, though heavily qualified, support to northeastern Minnesota’s controversial PolyMet Mining project. He has taken a reasonable position on this particular mining proposal despite outcry from environmental opponents.

In an October interview with a Pioneer Press reporter, Dayton was asked about the PolyMet copper mine proposal, along with other issues. His reply: that he supports the project if it can meet environmental and financial assurance standards.

That’s a big “if,” but the governor’s remark is noteworthy because it clarifies his position on a project that has generated an emotional, drawn-out debate statewide — one that pits job growth against stewardship of Minnesota’s treasured water resources.

The PolyMet project may create up to 360 full-time jobs on the state’s economically challenged Iron Range. At the same time, many environmentalists are vociferously opposed to any copper mining in the state because of water-quality concerns. If left untreated, acid runoff from mining operations can harm regional watersheds and native species.

The PolyMet project’s location near Hoyt Lakes is within the St. Louis River watershed, heightening concerns about runoff flowing into Lake Superior. A different mine has been proposed at a site 9 miles southeast of Ely, within the Boundary Waters watershed.

Dayton’s position, which drew criticism from environmental groups, is reassuring as PolyMet’s decadelong evaluation process nears a key milestone. The state is expected to issue a draft of the main permit for public comment before the end of the year. Rather than score political points with one side or the other, the governor is endorsing the science-driven process now underway. That is laudable.

Multiple government agencies have scrutinized PolyMet’s environmental impact and operational plans. If these analyses conclude that the mine can be operated responsibly without harm to the St. Louis River watershed — and if PolyMet can meet financial safeguards to protect the state against unexpected cleanup costs — the project merits Minnesotans’ support.

If the analysis shows otherwise, PolyMet shouldn’t get the required permits. Minnesotans should feel comfortable relying on the data-driven conclusion experts reach. Dayton, through his evolved PolyMet position, is sending a timely signal that this process can be trusted.

It’s important to note that this is the real significance of Dayton’s PolyMet statement. He may be the state’s chief executive, but his support does not mean an automatic green light for the proposed mine. Conversely, Dayton’s personal opposition to the project shouldn’t derail it at this point, either.

That is how it should be. There are high stakes in the debate over allowing PolyMet and other companies like it to operate here. New mines could revitalize northeastern Minnesota’s economy. But the industry also has an abysmal environmental track record worldwide.

Whether these mines can be run responsibly within the state’s water-rich environment is a complex question that must be answered site-by-site and by those with deep expertise. Dayton is to be commended for publicly putting his faith in science and encouraging Minnesotans to do the same.