Political Matters: PolyMet and the race for auditor

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mordecai_specktor_some.jpgEnd of an era

In a recent email from Alfred Walking

Bull, The Circle’s editor, I was reminded that this edition

of the newspaper would include Jim Northrup’s valedictory column.

He’s leaving these pages after 25 years of enlightening and

entertaining us with “Fond du Lac Follies.” So, we’ll have to

look for his next book or elsewhere to learn about his travels, his

family in Sawyer and his chronicles of the Ojibwe lifeway: ricing,

sugar bush and the language camp keeping alive Ojibwemowin.

I and many others will miss Jim’s

writing in The Circle. But it was a good long run. Mazal tov!

(as we say).

PolyMet and the race for auditor

The controversy over

copper-nickel mining has entered a Minnesota electoral contest –

the race for state auditor, of all things. The incumbent, Rebecca

Otto, is being challenged by Matt Entenza, who registered at the last

minute to run in the DFL primary. Previously, in 2010, Entenza placed

third in the DFL primary for governor, with 18 percent of the vote.

Entenza’s political play seems to

involve the Iron Range, a dependable DFL stronghold, where Otto’s

stock has gone done since she cast the lone vote last year, as a

member of the Minnesota Executive Council, against granting

exploratory leases for copper-nickel (sulfide) mining. On Oct. 18,

2013, the Executive Council approved 31 mining leases for exploratory

leases. The exploratory drilling leases were approved, on a 4-1 vote,

by the state’s constitutional officers. “At least two Iron Range

legislators said they could no longer support fellow DFLer Otto in

her re-election campaign because of her position on the issue,”

reported the Mesabi Daily News.

Aaron J. Brown, on his Minnesota Brown

blog (minnesotabrown.com), has mentioned that the Mesabi Daily News

“has led a drumbeat of criticism” of Otto, which “coincides”

with the appearance of the “anonymous Dump Otto campaign based on

the eastern Iron Range. That campaign appears to originate from

within a network of pro-mining advocates in the region.”

Faithful readers of “Political

Matters” (both of you) will recall that my December 2013 column

focused on the state auditor’s concerns about financial assurances

from PolyMet. In a Star Tribune commentary published last November,

Otto wrote: “Minnesota law requires mining companies to provide

financial assurances. A financial assurance is a damage deposit

provided by the mining company before mining begins to ensure that

cleanup and reclamation can be done after the mine closes. Financial

assurances, if sufficient, protect taxpayers from having to foot the

bill for cleanup costs.”

As I’ve mentioned again and again,

hard rock mining in the American West has often left behind a

catastrophic mess of pollution, with governments left on the hook for

clean-up costs when mining companies went bust. Otto pointed out that

cleaning up the pollution from “nonferrous mines is costly and

difficult to predict. State regulators estimate that the PolyMet

Mining site in northern Minnesota, for example, will require water

treatment for up to 500 years. How do we calculate such financial

risk 500 years into the future?”

In fact, the Environmental Protection

Agency, which is monitoring the environmental review of PolyMet’s

proposed NorthMet mine near Babbit, is looking for additional

information about the timeframe for water monitoring, if

copper-nickel mining proceeds. The Minnesota Department of Natural

Resources (DNR) is reviewing some 50,000 comments on the Supplemental

Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS), then a final EIS will

be published; and the cooperating agencies – including the Fond du

Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands – and the public will have

at it again.

Getting back to the curious politics

of copper-nickel mining Up North, a knowledgeable observer told me

that elected officials are mainly uncomfortable with the issue. Gov.

Mark Dayton has staked out a neutral position, waiting for the

environmental review process to be completed. Senators Franken and

Klobuchar express the view that sulfide mining should proceed, if the

project satisfies the regulators. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents

Minnesota’s Eighth District in the U.S. House, is more supportive

of the copper-nickel mining proposal. On PolyMet’s company website,

you can find a headline: “Rep. Rick Nolan remains avid PolyMet

support” (the link goes nowhere).

In a letter submitted to the Minnesota

DNR, Nolan said: “After a great deal of study and review, I am

convinced the NorthMet Mining Project and Land Exchange proposal

encompasses the state of the art technologies necessary to protect

our environment, promote health and safety, and create good paying

jobs we need to assure the future of our region.”