Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says he's moved from being "genuinely undecided" on the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine to being a genuine supporter of the project.
PolyMet has many backers because it promises 360 permanent jobs in the Hoyt Lakes-Babbitt area of northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range, 600 indirect jobs and an annual economic benefit to St. Louis County of over $500 million. But environmentalists say it could lead to environmental disaster, citing the potential for acid mine drainage from the sulfide-bearing rocks and of spills if the tailings basin dam breaks.
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"Nothing of that magnitude is risk free but I think it's a risk worth taking and I support the project," Dayton told the St. Paul Pioneer Press for a story published Tuesday. "But they still have to meet the environmental permitting requirements."
The company is in the process of seeking those permits, and the Democratic governor said he won't interfere with state agency permitting decisions.
Dayton also said he's working with officials to pin down the final financial assurances plan so that taxpayers won't have to pay the environmental cleanup and monitoring costs if PolyMet goes bankrupt. Dayton said he had a meeting last week on some of those details. He said they're building in sufficient environmental and financial protections.
"They'll be controversial, but that's where I come down on the side of jobs and environmental protection," he said. "I think we've found a way to make them compatible."
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that he and his allies "respectfully disagree" with Dayton's stance, which he called "befuddling."
"It's a high risk project in a highly sensitive watershed," Morse said. "As Minnesotans we ought to be protecting all of our water resources."
Dayton saids he's not as comfortable with another proposed copper-nickel mine, Twin Metals near Ely, because it's in a watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The federal government in the last weeks of President Barack Obama's administration essentially declared at least a two-year time out on that project and said it wouldn't renew the mineral rights leases it needs to proceed. Some members of Minnesota's congressional delegation are trying to persuade President Donald Trump's administration to reverse those decisions.
The governor said he understands that people who want jobs in northern Minnesota see Twin Metals as worth the risk, while those whose priority is protecting the Boundary Waters and that region think it's not. He said he doesn't see any middle ground.