Minnesota governor: Mine near Boundary Waters not dead yet

(Photo by Brian Peterson)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine is “stymied” but he’s not ready to declare it dead yet, despite moves by his administration and President Barack Obama’s administration that dealt serious blows to the project.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dayton said he expects Twin Metals Minnesota and its supporters to try their hardest to persuade President-elect Donald Trump’s administration to reverse the Obama administration’s decision this month not to renew the federal mineral rights leases needed for the underground mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely in northeastern Minnesota.

“I don’t think it’s ever dead,” the Democratic governor said. “It’s stymied at present. And if the Trump administration doesn’t intervene and override what President Obama has decided, it’s not going to go forward.”

Water quality issues have been a top priority for Dayton in his final term, but that’s become more complicated since Republicans took control of both houses of the Minnesota Legislature in the November elections. He said he’s ready to defend his signature water initiative, a law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farm fields and waterways, and that he’s looking forward to his second Water Summit next month. He said he’ll seek to get stakeholders involved earlier in future initiatives, acknowledging it was a mistake not to do so with his buffer plan.

Dayton, who denied Twin Metals access to state-owned lands in March, said he doesn’t expect the company to walk away from the over $400 million it has invested so far. But he said reversing the lease decision “would be a very big step in a very wrong decision.”

Environmentalists and the Obama administration contend the potential for acid mine drainage poses too great a risk to the pristine Boundary Waters.

“Twin Metals is building one wing of the Mall of America underground. It’s a huge, huge project,” the governor said. “To think you can excavate all of that, and pull those minerals out, and process them, and just take them by train somewhere else, and bring the waste back and deposit it without consequences, to me is just totally unrealistic.”

But Twin Metals, owned by Chile-based copper producer Antofagasta PLC, says it can mine without harming the wilderness while creating thousands of well-paying jobs. Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals’ government affairs adviser, said Dayton’s criticisms are “without foundation” because it hasn’t made a formal mining proposal yet. He said Dayton is relying on a 2014 company study that falls short of being a project proposal.

Twin Metals is asking only that it be allowed to continue developing a formal plan that it can submit to state and federal agencies for a full environmental review, McFarlin said. He added that the company will press forward with its lawsuit to force renewal of its leases, which date back to 1966.

Dayton drew a sharp line between Twin Metals and the PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which is at a more advanced stage of development. Dayton’s administration signed off in March on the environmental review for PolyMet, which began applying for permits this summer.

“They’re very different projects,” he said. While PolyMet would be just a few miles away from Twin Metals, it sits in a different watershed that eventually flows into Lake Superior, so there would be more time to fight any spills.

Dayton also said he’ll propose new water initiatives after the session opens Tuesday but he declined to give details. He doesn’t plan any changes to his buffer strips law despite calls by some local officials and legislators to delay its implementation and reduce the burden on farmers.

“The Republican specialty is being against everything,” he said. “Now that they’re in the leadership in both the House and Senate the challenge for them becomes, ‘What are you for?’ And if you don’t like what we’re doing now, how will you make it better? I’m all ears.”

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