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Sled-dog trek highlights fight in DFL over Iron Range projects

A former DFL legislator will deliver petitions to the state Capitol calling for a moratorium on mineral mining on the Range.

Activists are on the verge of completing a 350-mile sled dog trek from Grand Marais to call for a moratorium on mineral mining.

For decades, the resource-rich acres of northeastern Minnesota have been a battleground over jobs versus the environment. The fight shows no signs of letting up as two companies proceed with plans to extract minerals such as copper, palladium and gold from mines on the Iron Range and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

On Thursday, environmental activist Frank Moe, a former DFL state representative from the Iron Range, will finish a 350-mile sled dog trek from Grand Marais on the steps of the state Capitol. He will bear petitions with thousands of signatures calling for a moratorium on mineral mining.

“We are against sulfide mining pollution,” said Moe, interviewed just before he set off from Duluth. “The issue is the threat to our clean water and all of the jobs dependent on this – recreation and tourism jobs, at least 30,000. We don’t want to lose those jobs chasing a few hundred jobs.”

Inside the Capitol, David Dill, Moe’s former colleague and now his DFL state representative from Hovland, is prepared to counter his arguments point by point.

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“One job is precious,” said Dill.  He cites the loss of 20,000 people in northeast Minnesota Senate districts. They moved elsewhere, he said, to find the jobs that technology took away in the timber and taconite business.

“If we can find a way to get one family back to work, that’s the key element to put northeast Minnesota back to work,” Dill said. 

Support from officials

The Iron Range delegation — along with labor unions and most local government officials from the area — support the most advanced of the projects: proposals from PolyMet Mining Corp. and Twin Metals. PolyMet, based in Vancouver, has an environmental impact statement for the project under review by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dill wants the review to proceed. “To say the PolyMet project will harm the tourist industry is completely premature,” he said.

He accuses Moe and other environmental activists of fear mongering. There are rules and regulations in place to govern these projects, he said. “Their claims are based on projects in states that don’t have the environmental regulations that Minnesota has.”

Moe says he doesn’t need to wait for EPA approval.  The “Sled Dog to St. Paul” coalition maintains the pollution potential is real and the environmental and safety records of the mining companies are troubling.

“The track record shows that this cannot be done safely,” he said. “Water and air when exposed to sulfur creates sulfuric acid that kills everything.”

Disagree over terms

Moe and Dill can’t even agree on what to call the mining ventures. Moe calls it “sulfide mining,” referring to the process that extracts precious metals, widely used in manufacturing electronics, from rocks that contain sulfides.

“There is no such thing as sulfide mining,” Dill responds. “The Range delegation takes great offense at people who call it that. It just so happens there are sulfides in those formations.”

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The back and forth is part of a larger debate within the DFL Party about the priority of environmental concerns over job-creation in a soft economy. For the moment, the environment has taken a back seat. In one of the first executive orders of his administration, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton moved to streamline the state’s environmental permitting process. 

Moe fires back: “I’m glad that the Minnesota Legislature and the governor care about jobs. The people whose jobs I want to protect are those that depend on the environment.”

For Dill, who invokes the DFL caucus platform of jobs, education and health care, mineral mining with its promise of employment and benefits “hits the DFL target straight in the eye.”    

He worries about political clashes. “When you have the fringes working against something, that’s not helpful,” he said.

The disagreements have time to simmer. The coalitions, for and against, have time to grow stronger. The Environmental Protection Agency has asked for more rigorous testing of environmental consequences, testing that PolyMet says is underway. The latest educated guess pushes approval or disapproval of an EIS into fall and construction, if at all, to 2014.