A copper mine that could provide hundreds of high-paying jobs on the Iron Range also is threatening to crack the fragile alliance of blue-collar Democrats up north and the environmentalists that are an influential part of Minnesota DFL’s base.
Iron Range Democrats are looking to the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine as a way to rejuvenate an area rocked by years of declining mining employment. But such mines also have a long history of pollution in other states and countries, and some have warned that a mine expected to last 20 years could result in centuries of cleanup.
All sides are closely watching as Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration faces a crucial decision on the project that could come near the election.
At risk is a political coalition that has made good on a string of high-profile DFL priorities like same-sex marriage, higher taxes for the rich and expanded union influence around the state. Dayton is depending on that same coalition to help him press for a second term and keep the state House in DFL hands.
“We are going to go through some hard times,” predicted Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township. “This may be the signature event in the decades-long battle between jobs and the preservation of the environment. This battle determines what kind of a Minnesota Minnesotans want.”
Democrats are scrambling to contain the conflict and prevent another “massacre” of 1978, when Republicans capitalized on similar outrage over the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Rivals divided the DFL over the issue and allowed Republicans to make historic electoral gains, claiming the governor’s office and both U.S. Senate seats.
Already some Republicans are seizing on the rare opening, after years mired in scandal and defeat.
Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers is banking on his support for mining to help him emerge as a breakout Republican candidate for governor. He released a graphic on social media last week with text over a scenic lakeside landscape: “Fact: We can open copper and nickel mines while safeguarding natural resources with the toughest environmental standards already in place.”
Zellers, who represents the area around Maple Grove, has already gone deep into DFL territory in northern Minnesota to make his pitch: “I think it is our North Dakota oil fields,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. Am I the only guy, Democrat or Republican, talking about it? Yeah, absolutely. There are a vast majority of Minnesotans that don’t believe the hysteria that this is going to ruin the Boundary Waters.”
PolyMet Mining Corp. says it will invest $650 million initially, create up to 360 high-paying mining jobs and infuse another $500 million annually over the projected 20-year life of the mine.
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