Dayton walks fine line on mining as he seeks second term

Signs supporting mining spread across the Range.
Signs supporting mining can be seen on roads all across the Iron Range, including this one surrounding the "Welcome to Babbit" sign.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Most Minnesota Democrats are united behind Gov. Mark Dayton, who will undoubtedly be endorsed for a second term at the DFL state convention in Duluth on Saturday.

But there's at least one issue that risks dividing the party: proposals for large copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota. Union members who are pushing for expanded mining say Dayton needs to take a stronger stand in favor of mining or he could lose votes this fall. But taking that stand would put him at odds with another key DFL constituency -- environmental groups that oppose the mining operations.

Read more about Polymet and copper-nickel mining

For the most part, Minnesota Democrats support Dayton, who in recent weeks has touted the accomplishments of his administration and a DFL-controlled Legislature - from a minimum wage increase to investments in education. But mining is different.

Anti-mining signs are also across the Range.
There are anti-mining signs across the state, including this billboard outside of Ely.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Dayton has said it would be inappropriate for him to make a decision on a proposed copper-nickel mining operation in Hoyt Lakes, where PolyMet mining wants to mine copper, nickel and precious metals for 20 years. PolyMet has been seeking approval to operate the mine for years.

By staying on the sidelines, the governor said, he is allowing government regulators to do their work.

"I'm intentionally remaining undecided and unresolved until all of the evidence is in," Dayton said.

That stance is causing anxiety among some Democrats on the Iron Range. They say the governor should come out more forcefully in support of PolyMet and other mining opportunities.

"If it can meet the standards, we want an endorsement from our governor," said Aurora City Council member Dave Lislegard, a former steel worker at the LTV site in Hoyt Lakes.

Marlene Pospeck
Marlene Pospeck is the former mayor of Hoyt Lakes. She says Dayton should vocally support the PolyMet project.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

"I would say that I'm a labor Democrat," Lislegard said. "But I will tell you that I'm at a point in my life that I will vote for those who support our way of life. Across the Iron Range, that is becoming more of a reality."

Lislegard isn't alone. The promise of high-paying mining jobs is bolstering support for the PolyMet project in a region that is considered a DFL stronghold. Former Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck said Dayton's re-election chances could hinge on his support for mining -- especially given that he won by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2010.

"We expect that he should get on board because I would say that his margin wasn't very big the last time," Pospeck said. "And I would think that every vote that he can get is important for his re-election."

But Dayton also has to be mindful of other interests. Among the others on the Iron Range that he must cultivate is Kristin Larsen, who chairs the St. Louis County DFL Party Unit 3.

On a recent afternoon, Larsen walked onto a dock on a lake within the Cloquet Valley State Forest, where she voiced her frustrations that any pollution caused by Polymet could run into lakes and streams across northeastern Minnesota.

Kristin Larsen
Kristin Larsen is an executive with the St. Louis County DFL Party. She opposes copper-nickel mining in Minnesota.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

"This is a very, very wild place and it's very special," she said. "We're close to the mining and there's an exploration for a titanium mine that is just up by one of the houses that we're going to stop at. So we're not very far from the mining at all."

Larsen is one of several Democrats in northeastern Minnesota who say copper-nickel mining would threaten some pristine wildlife areas in Minnesota, and that pollution from mining could result in fewer tourism related jobs.

Fellow Democrat Tom Thompson said Dayton needs to reject any expansion of mining. Thompson, a Sierra Club board member who lives in Brimson, said politicians are looking for a compromise that doesn't exist.

"They're looking for a way out because they know it's a touchy issue," Thompson said. "I don't think they want to be saddled with the thought of a few years from now someone points a finger at them and saying 'See, this isn't turning out so well and you could have stopped it or you could have made it better and you didn't do it.'"

Some politicians have already taken a position. The entire Iron Range delegation in the Legislature supports the Polymet project. Many of Dayton's Republican opponents also support it.

Tom Thompson
Tom Thompson is a DFLer who sits on the board of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter. He thinks Dayton should oppose copper-nickel mining.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kurt Zellers said the Polymet mine should be approved regardless of the environmental review.

"The problem isn't the folks on the Iron Range; the problem isn't the businesses who have put in all of the things that have been asked of them, and in many cases have exceeded those standards," said Zellers, a state representative from Maple Grove. "But now it's the government that's in the way and in this case it's the governor and his administration."

But Dayton isn't being swayed by the GOP challenge.

"For me to step in for political reasons, one way or another, and take a position as some of my Republican opponents have, who have taken a position well before the draft EIS came out, that's just pure political opportunism," Dayton said. "I'm not going to do that."

For now Dayton has some wiggle room. The state Department of Natural Resources isn't likely to make decisions on permits until after the election.

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