MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Mark Dayton kicked off visits to mining operations in other states Tuesday as he prepares to make a major mining decision in Minnesota.

The state is considering whether to allow a mining company to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel operation. And it is a decision that is sparking controversy.

The Democratic governor toured an abandoned South Dakota gold mine which now suffers from extensive environmental damage.

The PolyMet mine would operate on the Mesabi Iron Range near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This is one of two mining operations Dayton will visit this week ahead of the PolyMet decision – which he says is the most difficult he will make as governor.

Minnesota is sitting on one of the largest copper-nickel deposits in the country, but extracting the precious metals for use in everything from cars to cell phones is more difficult and controversial than it sounds.

Critics, like the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, say copper-nickel mining is especially dangerous. Sulfide chemicals used for mining could contaminate the area’s water.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“This is the kind of mining that once you’ve cracked open the earth and ground up this ore very finely like you do when you do a mining process like this, it will continue to pollute water for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’ Aaron Klemz said.

Gov. Mark Dayton saw for himself the extensive environmental damage from the South Dakota Gilt Age Gold Mine, whose owners abandoned the operation in 1999.

But PolyMet supporters call this the exception, not the rule.

“Minnesota is a mining state. We’ve mined for over 130 years,” Mining Minnesota’s Frank Ongaro said.

Industry groups like Mining Minnesota say modern mine operations undergo more rigorous environmental review than ever before.

They are predicting 350 new mining jobs, and 600 more support jobs in surrounding communities.

“So you’re looking at one project with a thousand jobs going to an area that could use jobs like no other in that state of Minnesota,” Ongaro said.

Gov. Dayton will visit the Eagle Copper-Nickel Mine in Michigan Friday. It is considered a mining industry model of modern technology and environmental safety.

Pat Kessler

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