The DFL will likely avoid a nasty internecine fight after environmentalists agreed to put off a debate over copper-nickel mining — for now.
The mining resolution — to be taken up by the DFL State Central Committee at its Saturday meeting — is aimed at copper-nickel mines like that proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp. in northeastern Minnesota.
But it was viewed by Iron Rangers as a broader assault on mining and the organized labor interests that are still an integral part of the DFL coalition.
The DFL’s environmental caucus conferred Wednesday and agreed to recommend the resolution be tabled at the upcoming party meeting.
The party lost legislative seats in greater Minnesota in November on its way to losing the Senate and falling deeper into the minority in the House. The election results were a wake-up call to DFLers that the political reality has changed, and Minnesota could become solidly Republican, said Veda Kanitz, a science teacher at Rosemount High School and mother of four who is chairwoman of the DFL environmental caucus.
“There’s strength in unity,” she said of the caucus decision to recommend that the party table the mining issue until later.
Party leaders engaged in months of lobbying and maneuvers to delay the conflict or find some acceptable compromise.
DFLers feared any hint of opposition to mining would exacerbate perceptions — driven home by Republicans in ads and the news media — that the DFL is narrowly focused on an urban constituency that neither understands nor cares about the natural resource economies of outstate areas.
Although the resolution specifically excludes taconite mining — the lifeblood of the Range for more than a century — Rangers complained that the resolution’s wording was too broad, castigating sulfide ore, even though taconite is found in most sulfide-bearing ore.
Cobbling together legislative majorities will require the DFL to capture outstate seats not just on the Iron Range but also in other regions that are balancing environmental and economic priorities, such as agriculture and clean water in southern and western Minnesota.
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, a Range lawmaker whose background is organized labor, applauded Kanitz and the DFL environmentalists.
“It’s kicking the can down the road, but I think they’re starting to realize with this election that Democrats fighting among ourselves is not a good thing, and we need to find a better resolution to these issues than taking potshots.”
Ecklund said the past few months had allowed for constructive conversations between people like himself and environmentalists, whom he called “passionate and forthright.”
The resolution was the most popular among all resolutions passed up through local DFL organizing units to the state convention’s platform committee, indicating grass roots DFL opposition to copper-nickel mining, Kanitz said.
Range residents hope new copper-nickel mining can restore hundreds of jobs in a region economy depleted by cheap imported steel and related plant closures and layoffs. Minnesota officials approved a decadelong environmental review of the first copper-nickel mine proposed for the Iron Range earlier this year.
The intraparty conflict is by no means finished. Environmentalists will continue to try to make the DFL the party that is against copper-nickel mining, which they say is too dangerous given the region’s water-rich environment and the cost of cleanup that could extend for decades should projects go wrong.
Brad Moore, a spokesman for PolyMet, said the company’s reverse osmosis technique is a proven and effective water treatment technology that will ensure safety for the mine and surrounding watershed.
Ecklund, who calls himself pro-mining, said nevertheless he also represents environmentalists in his district.
“It’s a balancing act in my district,” he said.