Gov. Tim Walz affirmed his support for PolyMet Mining Corp.’s $1 billion copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota, if it can be done safely. But the governor says he has urged PolyMet’s new owner, Glencore, to put its name on PolyMet’s permits and on the financial assurance package aimed at protecting Minnesota taxpayers from accidents and future cleanup costs.
At a meeting last week with Glencore representatives, Walz also urged the company to honor a contract PolyMet signed in 2007 to use union labor to build the PolyMet mine and processing facilities. Walz said he “laid out the expectation” to Glencore that it would meet with the United Steelworkers, a union with which the company has had tense relations.
The hourlong meeting at the State Capitol last Thursday was the state’s first discussion with Glencore since the Swiss mining and trading conglomerate took majority ownership of PolyMet in June, after years of being a quiet partner. The ownership move prompted concern not only because of Glencore’s size, but because of its troubles with regulators around the globe and the fact that it’s under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The talk didn’t result in an agreement or a timetable for decisions, but Walz, a Democrat, said he clearly conveyed the state’s expectations on financial and environmental accountability.
“Our working policy is that the parent is on the permit,” Walz told the Star Tribune Monday. “My overriding message to them is if this is going to be done, it’s going to be done right.”
“You can’t be the puppet master behind the curtain.”
Walz described Glencore’s reaction as “measured.”
The meeting was with two Glencore members of PolyMet’s board of directors: Helen Harper, an asset manager for Glencore’s North American copper operations who lives in Ontario, and Stephen Rowland, Glencore’s managing director for copper, North America, who lives in Connecticut.
Also attending were PolyMet chief executive Jon Cherry; Barbara Naramore, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR); DNR assistant commissioner Jess Richards; Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), MPCA Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester and MPCA Assistant Commissioner Craig McDonnell.
Walz declined to specify what he’d do if Glencore does not honor the labor agreement or agree to put its name on the PolyMet documents. He also declined to say whether he would move to stay PolyMet’s permits in light of the company’s ownership change and questions about the integrity of the permitting process — something environmental groups, community groups and Democratic lawmakers have been pressuring him to do.
He said he called for the meeting before the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered a stay on PolyMet’s crucial water quality permit while the Ramsey County District Court looks at “procedural irregularities” with the permit.
If the court comes back with concerns, he said: “We will assess it at that point.”
Walz said he doesn’t have the authority to order the Legislature to hold a public hearing on PolyMet, but that it’s possible a hearing could be warranted after the District Court’s review. He said he welcomes “more sunshine.” There are many critical issues not having public hearings, he noted, such as guns and insulin.
Walz reiterated his qualified support for PolyMet, which he also expressed on the campaign trail.
“I believe if we can follow science, law and process … and we can do these safely, we should,” Walz said. He called the copper, nickel and other minerals that will be mined “critically important for a clean energy economy.”
“I recognize the inherent risk of copper-nickel mining, but I think it is incumbent upon us after a 14-year process, if we can do it safely, and we can prove it, we should.”
Toronto-based PolyMet has worked for more than a decade to build a 6,000-acre open-pit mine, tailings basin and processing plant near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes — the state’s first hard-rock mine. It continues to work to raise the additional $945 million to start construction.
The company and project supporters say the mine will operate safely and create 360 full-time jobs for a region that badly needs them. Conservationists say the mine is not worth the threat of polluting the state’s waters with toxic heavy metals and potential acid mine drainage generated by oxidizing sulfide minerals in the rock. That’s a serious concern, because the mine would be located at the headwaters of the St. Louis River, which flows to Lake Superior.
Spokesmen for Glencore and PolyMet each characterized the meeting as constructive.
“We appreciated the opportunity to meet with the governor to understand his priorities,” said PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson.
Richardson said the company’s commitment to the labor agreement “stands” and that it has a good relationship with organized labor.
Emil Ramirez, director of United Steelworkers District 11, which includes Minnesota and eight other states, said he hasn’t heard from the company yet.
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who led a group of Democratic lawmakers urging Walz to put the brakes on the project while concerns are addressed, called the meeting “progress.”