By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Mark Dayton is throwing his support behind a controversial copper-nickel mining project in northern Minnesota — and environmental groups are not happy.

He said Tuesday he supports the proposed PolyMet mine in Hoyt Lakes.

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The mine would bring nearly 400 jobs to the economically-distressed area, and supporters say it could lead to the rebirth of the mining industry.

This proposal has been debated for at least ten years, and Dayton has been neutral until now, expressing his concern for both the environmental impact and the need to bring jobs to the area.

Political analysts say the governor’s move is less about mining than providing a lifeline to a crumbling Democratic base on the Iron Range.

Dayton says his support is qualified on tough conditions: PolyMet will have to meet strict environmental standards and have a cleanup fund of a still-undetermined amount at the ready in case of an accident.

(credit; CBS)

“I believe it can be operated safely and provide a real economic boon to northeastern Minnesota,” Dayton said.

The governor says he is still opposed to a larger mining project known as the Twin Metals Mine, which is proposed near Ely. That mine has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists because of its location near the Boundary Waters.

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The PolyMet mine site is in the Lake Superior Watershed.

“It’s a different watershed, it’s the St Louis River, winds its way down and eventually goes into Lake Superior, not to say that any damage wouldn’t be very serious and problematic,” he said.

Environmentalists like Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, are angry that the governor seems less concerned about preserving Lake Superior’s water.

“This watershed the PolyMet is situated in is an incredibly-significant world resource,” Morse said. “It drains into the St. Louis River, which drains into Lake Superior, which is 10 percent of the world’s surface fresh water supply.”

Politically, the mining issue has cost the Minnesota DFL key support in northern Minnesota from voters who feel the party cares more about the environment and less about jobs.

“Mark Dayton took one for the DFL team today,” said political analyst Larry Jacobs. “The DFL is getting destroyed up north in the Iron Range, which used to be its stronghold.”

The PolyMet proposal still must go through getting the necessary permits, and then must get approval from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

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But with the governor now on board, Jacobs says the PolyMet mine is likely a done deal.

Esme Murphy