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Mining fight continues to roil DFL factions

People attending Tuesday night’s hearing on the planned PolyMet open-pit copper mine view posters  about the mine’s environmental impact before public comments on the plan. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

People attending Tuesday night’s hearing on the planned PolyMet open-pit copper mine view posters about the mine’s environmental impact before public comments on the plan. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

 Last public meeting on PolyMet proposal underscores divide

At Tuesday night’s hearing over a controversial plan for the PolyMet open pit copper mine, a sharply divided crowd traded talking points about the risks and rewards of copper mining. It is a good bet that few were swayed from their original opinions by the three hours of testimony, the 59 speakers, the guy who performed a Pete Seeger-inspired anti-mining song, the prophecies of a pristine wilderness despoiled or the happy visions of an Iron Range restored to prosperity by “mining done right.”

This was not a night for agnostics, and perhaps the best news for the riven party is that the dispute is likely to stay unresolved until after the 2014 election.

The 2,000 people who packed the ballroom at St. Paul’s RiverCentre for the third and final public comment hearing demonstrated one thing clearly: In political terms, PolyMet is a royal headache for the DFL.

By Tom Rukavina’s calculation, about 80 percent of the attendees were Democrats. Normally, that would be a comfortable and familiar setting for a lifelong Iron Ranger, former state representative and DFL stalwart such as Rukavina.  “But unfortunately, this crowd was split right down the middle. Opposite wings of the party,” he said.

Rukavina, who championed the legislation that preserved the shuttered LTV Steel plant where PolyMet wants to set up shop, used his allotted three minutes at the microphone to deliver a feisty pro-Polymet speech. In the night’s most theatrical gesture (with the possible exception of Pete Seeger acolyte Larry Long), Rukavina waved a paper bag in the air and then urged mining foes to dispose of their cell phones, car keys and any other possessions containing mined materials.

In a telephone interview two days later, Rukavina characterized the campaign to defeat the PolyMet project as an existential threat to the Iron Range. “This is our culture. This is not the Tourist Range. This is not the Wilderness Range. It’s the Iron Range,” he said. “No mines, no Range. Maybe that’s what those people want. But if they want to make the Range into a wilderness, we are not going down without a fight.”

Episode recalls Boundary Waters dispute

For veteran DFLers, that sort of passion and hard feeling recalls the intra-party conflict over the passage of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area legislation in the 1970s. The rancor divided the DFL on similar geographic lines (essentially pitting the Iron Range against the Twin Cities) and is regarded as a major factor in the “Minnesota Massacre,” the 1978 election that saw the DFL lose two U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, and control of the state House.

Could history repeat itself in 2014?

Aaron Brown, a political blogger, author and former newspaper editor from the Iron Range, doesn’t think so. “There are a lot of parallels, but I think the most likely scenario is a lot of conflict and a lot of ancient grudges revisited – but in the end, the party will probably stay together for the purposes of the next election,” Brown said.

In political terms, the Range, which has lost population as the state has grown, doesn’t possess the voting clout it had during the BWCA furor. In some parts of the 8th Congressional District, where fealty to mining interests was long a given among DFL candidates, that dynamic is fading as well.

“I started seeing anti-mining resolutions in Duluth a few years ago. Now, they’ve got candidates in the 7A primary in the DFL who are trying to establish themselves as the anti-mining candidates,” Brown said. “On the Range, you have to establish yourself as pro-mining or you will lose. But Duluth is becoming a more liberal city, and people are not coming there for proximity to mines.”

For 8th District U.S. Rep Rick Nolan, that makes PolyMet an especially difficult issue, says Brown. “He has to walk this tight rope because Duluth is the biggest city and biggest bastion of support in his district. He’s had to be for mining but also be conscious of his environmental supporters.”

EIS error may cause delay

For candidates wanting to finesse both the environmental and labor constituencies, however, there is prospect of short-term reprieve from mining-related insomnia. An apparent error in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Study – one of the critical hurdles for PolyMet, and the subject of the three recent public hearings – that threatens to gum up the permitting process.

According to an internal memo obtained by the environmental organization Water Legacy, the Department of Natural Resources concluded that flows on the Partridge River are two to three times higher than the estimates relied upon in the EIS. The flow rate is important because it could affect how much pollution might seep from mine pits into the watershed and, ultimately, Lake Superior.

“With this project, every time there is a mild bump, you can add three to six months. So I think this will push the final EIS until just after the November ’14 election. That is a godsend for Sen. Franken and Gov. Dayton,” said Brown. Instead of risking alienating part of the base right before the election, he said, those candidates will be free to talk about other issues, such as health care and minimum wage.

While PolyMet’s foes say the discrepancy calls for a major revision to the EIS, Steve Colvin, who heads the PolyMet review for the DNR, told the Duluth News Tribune last week that technical staff is still reviewing its options but that he doubts it will be “a deal breaker.”

Even if the DNR decides not to rework its computer models, the agency still faces another daunting and time-consuming task: processing and responding to the thousands of public comments on the project and incorporating that data in a final EIS. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he didn’t know how long that would take, but “I would be surprised if it was more than 15 months.”

Even so, that would push the final EIS well past Election Day 2014.

One comment

  1. This is an interesting story, but I’m a little disappointed in the Twin Cities vs. Northern Minnesota presentation of the story.

    I’m a resident of Lake County, and I’m opposed to PolyMet’s copper mining plan. For those of you who are geographically illiterate, Lake County is that large county between Duluth and Tofte/Lutsen. Two Harbors is our county seat, and we have many popular state parks along the shore of Lake Superior, but we also have an operating taconite plant, an OSB plant, and the Fernberg trail at the edge of the BWCAW. And its also the county where Duluth Metals is planning to build another copper mine.

    But it’s not just me who opposes copper-sulfide mining. Many of my friends and neighbors do too. Some of them work or have worked in the mines. In fact, our Lake County DFL convention passed a resolution opposing copper-sulfide mining unless it could be proven safe.

    Similar resolutions have passed in other local DFL units Cook County and parts of St. Louis County.

    So lets get one things straight: Copper-sulfide mining might be popular in the heart of the Iron Range that Tommy Rukavina used to represent, but its pretty controversial and even despised in many other parts of northeastern Minnesota. What’s really going on in the DFL is a conflict between Range power brokers turned company men and everyone else.

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