Political Matters: PolyMet and the race for auditor
Thursday, August 07 2014
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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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 (, 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.”

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