ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Sometime next year, Gov. Mark Dayton expects to face a major decision about whether a new copper and nickel mining project gets the ultimate go-ahead.

The PolyMet Mining Corp. venture in northeastern Minnesota has been years in the planning and already has caused a rift within Dayton’s Democratic Party. Dayton says he hasn’t made up his mind, and this week will tour the Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota and the Eagle Mine in Michigan as he tries to familiarize himself with the type of mining involved and its environmental track record.

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Dayton sat for an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the trips. Here are some excerpts.


AP: You’ve described this as “the most momentous, difficult and controversial decision” you’ll confront as governor. Why is that?

DAYTON: The people who are engaged in the issue right now, who are knowledgeable in it, are either totally for it or they’re totally against it. There’s virtually no in between. The decision itself is either to proceed with the permit to mine or deny the permit to mine. It’s either-or, there’s no middle ground. I’ve always said environmental protection and economic development are complementary objectives and that’s the goal. The goal would be for the mine to produce employment for the 20-plus years predicted — thousands of construction jobs and an estimated 300 direct employment and indirect employment with all the economic benefits for the east side of the Range — with the environment perfectly protected for that time and years thereafter.

AP: On your trip, what types of things are you looking for? What do you hope to learn?

DAYTON: One was recommended by the opponents, one is recommended by the proponents. I don’t know much more about either one of them … I guess for one there was a failure and environmental and remediation costs and I’d like to see what were the reasons for that, what the environmental consequences were, what lessons have been learned. … Conversely in Michigan, what’s gone well, why has this one been successful, what are the key ingredients in protecting the environment. It’s also to see the scale. You go up to the Iron Range and you see the scale of those open-pit mines and see the scale of the machinery that’s involved. You go into one of those enormous sheds — probably two football fields long — and they blast these blast furnaces. With the noise and the temperature, you just realize the scale of these projects. And then of course the tailings basins, which will be crucial here, because that’s where the toxic sulfide residue would be stored. What’s going to protect that from leaching into the soil and into the watershed district.

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AP: Are you clear on what your precise role is in determining if the PolyMet project proceeds or doesn’t?

DAYTON: I don’t have any role in determining whether the (environmental impact statement) is “adequate or inadequate.” I suppose I could in terms of the DNR’s processing of it, but I intend to let them make that decision. … If either the DNR or one of the two federal agencies determines it’s inadequate, then it stops the process or it has to go back and be redone. If it’s determined to be adequate then the permitting process begins and there are 23 I believe different state and local permits that have to be obtained for air, for water, and then there are financial assurances that have to be provided for if 30 years from now things start to leak or it closes down. … There’s a final permit to mine, which is a general permit, which by statute the commissioner of DNR makes. But I expect to be closely involved in consultation with him. Of course, he works for me. It’s his decision by statute but I’ll have a lot to say about that.

AP: You’ve said you want to keep politics out of the decision but you know it’s been a sensitive topic, especially within your party. How are you balancing that?

DAYTON: I want to make sure we are doing everything properly. That’s why I’ve said I’m not going to make a decision. I’m not going to allow the permitting process to begin, despite PolyMet’s request to do so preliminarily, until after the EIS. We’re going to try to do everything exactly the way the law requires and we think it should be done so it can withstand any court challenge that would occur as well as to look Minnesotans in the eye and say, ‘This is what I believe, what my administration believes is the proper decision and here’s why.’ The politics will follow thereafter. … I can’t predict how much of an issue it will be in other parts of the state that aren’t directly involved.

AP: Are you worried this will be one of those historic fault-line issues for your party?

DAYTON: I’m old enough that I was here in the ’78 Boundary Waters conflagration, which had a lot of factors that added to the political fire that occurred at that time. … There will continue to remain sharp disagreements I assume between Democrats who are opposed to the project and Democrats who are in favor of the project. It will come down one way or the other and I’m sure others will try to exploit that, assuming that decision’s been made, and exploit that for political gain. That’s almost unavoidable. I couldn’t live with myself and I couldn’t look Minnesotans in the eye and tell them I made a decision because of some perceived political benefit one way or another.

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