By Ron Brochu
In rare parting of ways, area leaders in the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party have publicly announced a political position that differs from the one favored by the DFL's own elected representatives.
A segment of the party representing St. Louis County Democrats on Monday announced it opposes nonferrous mining, saying the extraction of copper and nickel “has unacceptable environmental impacts.” The St. Louis County Unit of the Third Senate District’s DFL Executive Committee “is concerned that nonferrous or sulfide mining, which has never been done in water-rich environments without pollution, would leave long-term water pollution behind that could stick Minnesota taxpayers with the costs for clean up and monitoring,” the unit said in a press release that announced its weekend vote.
Two years ago, delegates to the party's state convention narrowly defeated a similar resolution, said Kristin Larsen, who chairs the St. Louis County unit. She chose her words carefully when asked why no members of the Iron Range DFL delegation share the DFL's Saturday position.
“It's a couple of years later and people have learned more,” she said in an interview. “I would see those officials increasingly listening to their constituents,” who she contends also oppose nonferrous mining.
“Our region needs diverse economic development. Until there is certainty that copper-nickel sulfide mining in the Duluth Complex can be done without long-term water pollution, that pollution threatens our environment, economy, and way of life,” the DFL unit said.
The Iron Range delegation "has never taken an official position up or down on the principals of copper/nickel mining," said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam, who chairs the group of elected officials. "But, I can tell you that our delegation is a solid eight for eight in support of the regulatory structure, permitting apparatus and tremendous due diligence that all the regulatory agencies - both state and federal - are going through. We will abide by the decisions from the agencies that will or will not grant permits."
The DFL vote was announced four days prior to the first of three public meetings that will address the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement PolyMet Mining Co. has submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The PolyMet mine plan calls for hundreds of years of expensive water treatment to prevent pollution from escaping the site. We cannot support allowing corporations to profit from risk borne by the people of St. Louis County now and for generations to come,” Larsen said in a prepared statement. “The board is not asking for a moratorium and understands that rules and procedures are in place to protect the water and wild rice, however all that can disappear with a variance. Variances are a common practice in Minnesota, and we need to know there is the will for uniform enforcement of the laws that protect Minnesota's environment from pollution."
The Range DFL delegation, she said by telephone, is facing incredible pressure to support economic development. That also is true of agencies including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. For that reason, Nelsen argued, they are torn between creating good jobs and protecting the environment.
“We want bountiful opportunities for employment in our region, and we also need to protect Minnesota from the Boundary Waters to Lake Superior,” she said.
In its resolution, the DFL committee also said sulfide-ore mining results in polluted run-off from mine pits and mine wastes for at least 500 years; sulfide-ore mining has created taxpayer liabilities across the country when mining companies go bankrupt, leaving pollution behind; and there are no assurances that Minnesota taxpayers will be protected from long-term costs of sulfide-ore mining.
A key argument among supporters of regional nonferrous mining is that it will be closely monitored by state and federal regulators to ensure there's no pollution. That's a better option than mining and processing copper and nickel in other parts of the globe, where countries ignore pollution, they say. Air that is polluted elsewhere can even drift to the United States and create acid rain, regional nonferrous mining proponents contend.
Nelsen takes issue with that argument, saying some of the same companies that pollute in other countries want to engage in domestic nonferrous mining. Among them, she said, is Glencore, a significant owner of PolyMet equities and possibly a future PolyMet customer.
“What would they do here if we didn't have agencies watching out for us?” she asked rhetorically.
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr recently said people should not view the upcoming PolyMet meetings as an opportunity to vote in a straw poll. Instead, they should treat them as opportunities to address data in the SDEIS.
“I think people have a strong right to express their feelings,” she said. “I'm not supportive of what he's saying.”
In an e-mail, she was harshly critical of comments she attributed to Landwehr.
“In a recent interview he said it would take 'world war z and zombies' to make a situation where Polymet would be a problem. I was dismayed that someone with access to all the information to be so cavalier and dismissive when its precisely he who is supposed to be aware of the risks of what is the most polluting industry in the nation and precisely he who is responsible for informing the people in the most careful of term of the risks and possible problems,” Nelsen wrote. “This is no time for good ole boy joking around; this is something that risks the health of future generations for time out of mind and it is not something the Dayton administration should be cracking jokes about.”