McFadden makes mining an issue in Senate race against Franken

Inside the concentrator building
A view inside the concentrator building in October 2013 at PolyMet near Aurora, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

A central theme of Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden's campaign is that U.S. Sen. Al Franken, President Barack Obama and other Democrats are strangling the nation's economy by over-regulating businesses.

One example McFadden frequently cites is a proposal to mine copper and nickel on the Iron Range.

Farmfest
Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken and challenger Mike McFadden at Farmfest on Aug. 6, 2014.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

For nearly a decade, PolyMet has been seeking permission to open a mining operation near Hoyt Lakes. Republicans are blaming Democrats for the slow regulatory process. Most Democrats say they support the proposed mine, but they want to ensure that it won't cause pollution.

Related: PolyMet copper-nickel mining coverage

If the government would lighten up, McFadden argues, the economy would take off.

On the national level, McFadden cites the Keystone pipeline as job creating project that should have proceeded by now.

In Minnesota, he singles out the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine as an example of a project the government is needlessly delaying. He pressed the point during his national Republican rebuttal to President Obama's weekly radio address earlier this month.

"Whether it's the PolyMet mine in Minnesota or the Keystone pipeline, there are good paying jobs waiting to be created if we just use more common sense in regulation," McFadden said.

PolyMet officials say that if the company is allowed to open the mine in northeastern Minnesota, it will spend nearly $500 million on construction and then employ 360 people with "high-quality, stable" mining jobs.

After visiting the proposed site last week McFadden said if he's elected to the Senate, he'll immediately direct the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to expedite the approval process for the mine.

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McFadden said it's "crazy" that several different agencies are responsible for making the decision.

"The idea that it's taken eight years and $200 million and we don't have answer is the definition of being unduly burdensome," he said.

Aerial view
This undated aerial file photo shows the LTV Steel Mining Company near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which shut its doors Jan. 3, 2001. The PolyMet Mining Corp. wants to use the facility for its copper-nickel processing plant.
Mark Sauer / AP

McFadden also accused Franken of not supporting PolyMet's effort and instead, pandering to environmentalists who oppose it.

"I support the mines. I will get these mines open," McFadden said. "I will work hard to do that. Senator Franken has been in Washington six years and he's not done anything actively to get these mines open."

Franken said he talks with PolyMet officials "all the time," and that the permitting process has not been unnecessarily arduous.

"You don't approve a project before all the agencies say, yeah, this works. This works," Franken said. "I'm pretty optimistic that we're going to get there, but I think it's irresponsible to say something like, 'this could have been done years ago.'"

Besides, Franken said, PolyMet officials say the regulatory process is working.

Brad Moore, the company's executive vice president for environmental and government relations, said PolyMet will not get involved in political battles such as Minnesota's Senate race. But he said since the mine project was first proposed, Republican and Democratic elected officials on the state and federal levels have been supportive.

Polymet site
A roadway between the concentrator building (right) and the fine crusher building (left) in February 2013 at PolyMet near Aurora, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

"It is been a very long process. It typically is in America," Moore said. "But in going through that process, the project has improved. The environmental compliance or environmental impacts are lessened and, as a result, we're going to be sure to meet all state and federal requirements in order to actually operate the mine."

The PolyMet proposal is complicated. Among other things it involves a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service. Moore said the scope of the project requires involvement from many state and federal government agencies.

"We have been pleased with the level of coordination between the agencies," Moore said. "They're appropriately tough on us, but they've also been fair."

As for McFadden's promise to direct federal agencies to fast-track permitting for PolyMet, Franken said Senators lack that power, and that McFadden would have a tough time keeping that campaign promise.

"I don't think he actually can do that, first of all," Franken said. "So you know, I think we need someone in the Senate who knows how things work."

Still, with hundreds of jobs at stake, McFadden is likely to keep talking about PolyMet, trying to make Franken play defense in an area of the state where Democrats traditionally can count on lots of support at election time.

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