Battle brews over proposed copper mine in Minnesota’s Iron Range

But will Gov. Dayton hold off until after the 2014 elections to decide up or down for the mine?

After decades of high unemployment and declining population, Minnesota’s storied Iron Range may be on the brink of a dramatic comeback.  The region’s turnaround hinges on whether the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton (D) gives its approval to a proposed copper and nickel mine in the Iron Range.

PolyMet Mining Corp. is prepared to make an initial investment of $650 million and to spend an additional $500 million over the expected 20-year life of the mine.  Once in operation, the mine would provide 360 well-paying jobs, and its approval could spur other ventures in the area.

MobilephonetechMinnesota’s Iron Range is located in the northeastern part of the state and covers most of an area that also is known as the Arrowhead, due to its peculiar Shape.  It has been mined since the late 19th century, but exploration and extraction have declined in recent decades.  However, soaring demand for precious metals in smartphones, hybrid cars, home appliances, sophisticated military hardware, and manufacturing processes – just to name a few – is focusing increased attention on the Iron Range.

“They are hitting the mother lode on every single drilling hole,” State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL) said of the exploration going on in the Iron Range.  “Your little cellphone has something like 39 metals in it, and not one of them fell out of the sky.”  (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, December 15)

Dividing the DFL

The proposed copper mine threatens to divide Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).  Blue-collar DFL members from the Iron Range are among the project’s biggest supporters.  They are encountering stiff opposition from environmental factions of the DFL, most of whom hale from areas outside the Iron Range.   Opponents of the mine say the project will do severe environmental damage that will take “centuries” to clean up.

Caught in the middle is Gov. Dayton, who is up for re-election in 2014 and who is not eager to antagonize either group within his party. Dayton was recently handed a 2,200-page environmental review of the project, and a final decision on the mine is not expected for several months.

In a related development that is raising hackles in Minnesota, the U.S Export-Import Bank recently granted a $694 million loan to a giant mining project in Australia, known as the Roy Hill Mine.  The money will go to purchase U.S.-made bulldozers and trucks from Caterpillar, locomotives from General Electric, and drilling rigs from Copco.  Several members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation bitterly opposed the deal, arguing that it would hurt mining in the Iron Range.  The Export-Import Bank was unpersuaded and granted the loan anyway.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.