DFL copper mining feud spills into public view

Closed LTV Steel taconite plant
This February 2016 file photo shows a closed taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which could become a copper-nickel mine, a project that's splitting state DFLers.
Jim Mone | AP file

Just off a disappointing election, Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin wants Democrats to fight Republicans, not each other.

That's why ahead of a Saturday meeting of the party's central committee he's concerned about the return of a divisive resolution left over from the 2016 state convention that would put the party officially against a proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minn.

The resolution opposes such "sulfide ore mining" in Minnesota due to "unacceptable environmental impacts," including water pollution from waste runoff. While the language targets sulfide ore mining and not the taconite business that dominates Minnesota's Iron Range, many DFL Iron Rangers still view it as an affront to the entire mining industry.

The proposal has driven a wedge into a key Minnesota Democratic stronghold. If it becomes official party policy, Republicans will be sure to use it against Democrats in coming elections, including the crucial 2018 governor's race.

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DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, with Smith and Nolan.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Given last month's poor DFL showing in rural Minnesota, party activists would be "tone deaf" to pass such a resolution, said Martin.

"The resolution in its current form would actually, I think, stick a finger in the eyes of people in greater Minnesota and once again prove this narrative that the Republicans have been trying to say about the DFL for years, that we don't get it or don't care about people in greater Minnesota," Martin said.

As long as Democrats allow the issue to fester, Republicans will use it against them, he said, adding that he welcomes the debate but wants the issue resolved in a decisive vote.

Supporters of the resolution have a different idea.

Veda Kanitz of Lakeville, chair of the DFL environmental caucus, said she notified party officials that the caucus will move to table the resolution. That means it couldn't be revisited until 2018.

Kanitz said the caucus wants to hold forums throughout the state about the potential environmental impact of copper-nickel mining, including the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes.

In November, PolyMet formally filed for a permit to build the controversial copper-nickel mine, a key next step that began an extended review of the company's finances and the potential environmental impact of the operation, which would be the first of its kind in Minnesota.

"We still have very valid, strong concerns about copper-nickel mining in Minnesota, which has never been done safely in a water rich environment," Kanitz said. "But we understand that the best way to have party unity and to really have any meaningful action is to talk to each other."

Opponents have wrongly described the resolution as anti-mining, Kanitz said. She acknowledged the resolution could have been written better, but she stressed there was no intent to criticize Minnesota's iron ore mining and taconite industry.

"No one is asking for that to go away," she said.

Still, many Democrats are offended by the resolution.

Mine workers see it as opposition to the way they make their living said state Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.

Metsa said he's willing to back an alternative resolution that does not single out the mining industry or his region of the state. He said the proposed compromise supports stringent regulations and oversight when evaluating proposals for any new industry in Minnesota.

Regardless of what happens, he said it's time for the central committee to decide on the resolution.

"At this meeting, we need to vote on something, because if we keep kicking the can, it's just that, kicking the can," he said. "I'm tired of driving to meetings to kick a can. I'd rather have a vote and either win or lose."