According to the recent Star Tribune/MPR poll, 60% of Minnesotans oppose new mining projects near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), such as the proposed Twin Metals and PolyMet copper-sulfide mines. The poll also shows that Gov. Tim Walz enjoys a comfortable approval rating of 56%.
What's confusing about these otherwise clear numbers is that our popular governor is unwilling to take a popular position and oppose these copper-sulfide mines, especially since an overwhelming majority in his own party — 80% — oppose mining near the BWCA.
Every administration inherits some controversy, some mess it does not want to deal with. Copper-sulfide mining has been a thorn in the side of the Walz administration since he took office. It is safe to say that it is an issue the DFL wishes would go away. The accepted wisdom is that this issue splits the party's two geographic strongholds: the metro region — which opposes copper-sulfide mining — and northeastern Minnesota, where copper-sulfide mining was thought to have been supported.
In an apparent effort to appease both sides, Gov. Walz has attempted a balancing act that amounts to supporting copper-sulfide mining without making a full-throated endorsement of this type of mining, which would be new to Minnesota. Nonetheless, as Walz's tenure in office has continued, he has become more forthright in his support of risky, copper-sulfide mining projects. For example, he has repeated the talking points straight from the mining industry that, if we do not mine it in Minnesota, it will be done by child labor in other parts of the world (never mind that, at full production, PolyMet would annually produce about 0.1% of the world's copper supply).
Copper-sulfide mining is a controversy that will not go away for Walz.
In recent months, courts have uncovered scandals and irregularities surrounding the PolyMet permitting process. These revelations forever burst the myth that Minnesota's regulations governing copper-sulfide mining will protect our environment.
The science on copper-sulfide mining is clear. There has never been such a mine that has not contaminated the surrounding water. In a water-rich environment like Minnesota, it is guaranteed to pollute. The science is so clear that the industry sees it as a threat, and has exerted enough pressure to cancel a federal study into the effects of sulfide mining in the BWCA watershed.
And it is not just the environment. An economic study out of Harvard found that copper-sulfide mining is detrimental to the long-term economic well-being of the region.
In short, the proposed copper-sulfide mines are scientifically unsound, legally shaky, economically suspect, and widely unpopular.
In the face of this, the multibillion-dollar Swiss and Chilean conglomerates that wish to mine near the Boundary Waters have attempted to muddle the facts. The Star Tribune/MPR poll debunks the notion being pushed by these foreign companies that a large majority of Minnesotans support these mines and exposes their claims to be as phony as the ads that they run during the state hockey tournament. The more that Minnesotans know about the two copper-sulfide mines near the BWCA, the more they oppose them.
Gov. Walz ran on a vision of One Minnesota. During his time in office, he has worked to put forward inclusive policies that reflect the will of the people. One of the striking findings of the Star Tribune/MPR poll is that a strong majority (57%) of the people of northern Minnesota also oppose copper-sulfide mines near the Boundary Waters. Supporting these new mining projects near the Boundary Waters puts the desires of international mining giants before the will of the majority of Minnesotans, including those in northern Minnesota.
In his quiet backing of copper-sulfide mining, Walz is making a gamble. The stakes in this case are our clean water, our natural heritage and his own vision of One Minnesota.
Chris Knopf is executive director, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.