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‘I think we can do things right. It’s my job to make sure we do’: a Q&A with Gov. Tim Walz on PolyMet, Twin Metals and the DFL’s mining rift

In a wide-ranging interview, the DFL governor talked about his support for PolyMet, his skepticism of Glencore, and his questions about Twin Metals, which wants to build a mine just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz on Glencore: "Skepticism in any endeavor is healthy. Skepticism in this type of mining certainly is warranted. And I think that was my question to them. I said public perception is not good towards them."
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine received its major permits from state regulators in 2018, shortly before Gov. Tim Walz took office. But that hasn’t stopped new hurdles, opposition and controversy around PolyMet from bubbling up during Walz’s tenure.

Last week, a judge temporarily suspended a critical PolyMet water permit granted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency while a district court investigates whether the agency worked to keep concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency out of the public eye. (The MPCA says it hasn’t.)

The Court of Appeals upheld Minnesota’s rules governing hard rock mining — a win for regulators and PolyMet. The Department of Natural Resources also announced it would not reconsider a permit for PolyMet’s tailings dam even though environmental groups said the dam was similar to one that collapsed in Brazil and killed hundreds of people earlier this year. The DNR said the two dams had significant differences and PolyMet’s is safe.

Lastly, in recent weeks lawmakers have sent dueling letters over whether PolyMet can operate without polluting Lake Superior’s watershed. The latest letter — signed by 70 lawmakers, mostly Republicans — said PolyMet should go forward. “We do not appreciate last-ditch efforts meant to throw sand in the gears of an already state-and-federally approved project vital to the future of the Iron Range and Minnesota.”

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Walz has stayed relatively quiet on the subject. But in a wide-ranging interview with MinnPost at the Capitol on Thursday, the DFLer talked about his support for PolyMet, and his skepticism of Glencore — the company’s new majority shareholder. Among other things, Walz said he’d prefer to name Glencore on permits to make sure the Swiss mining behemoth is financially liable should cleanup be required. “I don’t think it’s just a formality,” he said. “I think it sets a precedent and a tone.”

The governor also talked about Twin Metals, a separate company hoping to build a copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota. The company, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, is expected to submit a mine plan to state and federal regulators this year for a project south of Ely, just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

PolyMet says it expects to create 360 jobs and another 1,000 spinoff jobs over the course of the mine’s life. But copper-nickel mining carries risk that iron ore mining does not. The extraction process can create an acidic runoff and leach heavy metals into nearby waters. The company plans to build an open-pit mine and repurpose an old LTV Steel taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes, and its tailings dam. After a 14-year permitting process, PolyMet says it can use modern mining technology and water treatment to prevent pollution.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

MinnPost: You met with Glencore [Thursday] morning. What did you ask them about and what did you learn?

Gov. Tim Walz: We’ve been asking to set this up once it became apparent… they had [a] controlling share because we’ve been dealing with basically a Minnesota-based company, if you will, with PolyMet working on the NorthMet project. And I wanted them to come in and to be very clear about answering some questions.

Certainly first and foremost, my message to them was: “The only way this gets built [is] if it gets built right.” And my assumption is that they would agree. They said, “That’s right.” And I said when we talk about being built right, accountability both on engineering and accountability on financial assurances. Because the fact is that I think many people knew that Glencore would be a major backer, but PolyMet is on the permits. And our philosophy is that the parent [company] should be on the permit. 

And that is something that they were pretty candid about in terms of “that is somewhat in flux” because they’re doing the financing piece … But I wanted to make it clear to them and spoke very candidly and openly and said, “This project has been 14 years in the making. I trust my agencies’ oversight and Minnesota’s oversight because we want to make sure — we’re proud that we have some of the most stringent environmental concerns.” But I was very honest with them. I said, “Your reputation is different than PolyMet’s. And how do we address this?”

We had a long conversation on that … I think it was a beginning conversation in terms of the accountability piece. Then I talked about labor, my expectations of good wages, about project labor agreements and card-check requirements being honored.

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MP: A lot of people have said Glencore brings a lot of mining savvy and is a positive for the project. A lot of people have pointed out some of their problems. They’ve faced investigation for corruption and money laundering; there’s been some issues with pollution. The United Steelworkers gave them a “silver medal” in “corporate irresponsibility” in 2015. What would you say to Minnesotans who are concerned about those things?

TW: I would say I share those concerns and I brought those up this morning. I think in a large corporation they obviously feel like they’re going to be somewhat misrepresented, that you’re going to pick the bad with the amount [of] good they do. They do bring probably the highest level of sophistication on modern mining practices. … 

On the Steelworkers, PolyMet just has met with Leo Gerard and the Steelworkers. It was my expectation that Glencore will meet with the Steelworkers. And I said, I need to hear from [the Steelworkers] that they’re comfortable with this. … I asked them, they said, “We have union and non-union.” I said, “No. I want to see a positive message towards labor and a positive message towards worker and environmental safety.” And so they took that back with them. 

Skepticism in any endeavor is healthy. Skepticism in this type of mining certainly is warranted. And I think that was my question to them. I said public perception is not good towards them. And that’s the issue about whose name is going to be on there. I said, “People here are fairly sophisticated. They know that Glencore is running this operation.” So my question is what does that mean to Glencore to run it? What does that mean for labor standards? What does that mean for environmental standards? Who’s in charge and who’s the point person? I kept asking who can answer those questions. And so I think that’s what they’re taking back.

Glencore's corporate offices in Switzerland
Courtesy of Glencore
Glencore's corporate offices in Switzerland
MP: How do you feel about our state’s environmental standards when it comes to mining? Are they appropriate? Are they too strict? Are they not strict enough?

TW: I think they’re appropriate, but I think what we’re seeing, even over a 14 year period, I think everything evolves as technology and better monitoring and better processes come online. I think we need to continue to modernize them as new forms of mining or new techniques or even other economic activities. We need to continue to modernize those. 

Minnesota’s process, I’m proud that it is stringent. But I do think we need to — you know, 14 years of process [for PolyMet] — we’ve got to give some more certainty. I don’t think you cut any corners. … Those who say it’s just not worth it, I hear them. I think that is an equation that I have to balance. Is the economic and the environmental benefit outweighed by the environmental risk or the change that could happen to groundwater and everything else? Those are things we’re trying to figure out.

Both the science as it evolves, the law and the process, we have to implement that fairly and with a critical eye. And what I think we need to continue to strengthen is so there’s not the variable of whoever sits in this office says “Yay” or “nay” or moves things around. That the people have to know that the process is solid, verifiable, and trustworthy. And I think that’s what we’re continuing to try and strengthen. So I think Minnesota laws are as good as any place in the country, but can they be better? Yes. 

I think the incidents with the stay on the discharge permit shows that there’s at least a question of how that would happen. I am confident that that we did that correctly, I am confident that it did not compromise a permit. But I am also very cognizant from the perception of it that people are frustrated by that.

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MP: Some environmental groups have called for PolyMet to use “dry stack” technology to store its tailings. Twin Metals recently announced it would use this method and called it “best available technology.” There has been a bill at the Legislature to put new restrictions on tailings dams and designate “dry stack” as the best standard in the industry. What are your thoughts on dry stacking?

TW: I think it’s a technology that makes sense. But each of these mines is different and each of these proposals is different. And I think what we know is the environmental footprint on the NorthMet project being run by PolyMet, and of course Glencore being the main backer, it’s an existing mine with an existing pit. And the reason for that is it’s less environmental impact, less movement around, less impact on wetland. And the determination was made, and still supported by DNR in the permitting process, that in this instance in this piece of land, it makes more sense to use the tailings dam the way it is.

MP: Moving on to the MPCA and the water permit that we talked about, now there are several investigations, the court has put a stay on that permit and sent the issue back to district court. They seem concerned about it. Are you concerned about the MPCA and its process in awarding that permit?

TW: I’m confident the MPCA did it right. As I said, certainly I think those perceptions as it came to, even though they were accepted practices on a [Memorandum of Understanding] with the federal folks, it gave the perception that all concerns weren’t being heard. Those who dug into it know … they were just being conferred verbally in many cases. …

At this point in time, I still feel that the highest best practices were followed that the permits do what they’re supposed to do, protect our environment, protect Minnesotans and I think the courts will they make that determination. If the courts believes there’s gonna be a different determination, they ask for something different to happen, we of course will certainly honor that.

MP: There’s a rift in the DFL party right now. You’ve got a group of legislators, a lot of them from the Twin Cities metro area, who are very concerned about PolyMet and they see this as a threat to clean water. You also see DFLers from rural areas and the Iron Range who see this as an economic lifeline and a new mining boom for the region. You’re the party leader here at the Capitol, how do you go forward knowing there’s a split over this?

TW: First of all, I’m proud that there’s not a rigid ideology that dictates folks, that they’re sent to represent the people that you see. I think Democrats being concerned with the environment and Democrats being concerned with job creation, especially labor — those are things that we’re proud of. I’ve always made the case that you don’t have to choose one over the other. That we should be able to do viable economic activities that provide quality of life while at the same time protecting environmental standards. That that should be the standard where we’re at. 

I think certainly, in our politics, we’re moving more towards a rigidness in positions. We’re moving more towards things that sometimes become litmus tests. I think there’s a great deal of frustration in the Democratic Party about Republicans’ total rejection of climate, environmental concerns. And I think that bleeds over in frustration of people feel the need to say, “You know what? I don’t want to be complacent in any of this of what they’re doing.”

I think it’s my responsibility to say if you want to see us move — as I put forward — to a carbon free future, there’s 5.5 tons of copper in every megawatt of solar, and it comes from somewhere. And I’m not going to source it from a place that uses child labor or has horrible environmental standards. So I feel a sense of responsibility to see if that can be done. 

I’m not just the party leader, I’m the state’s leader on these issues. In this case, the strange irony of it was that it was Republican legislators who tried to set the record straight on some of the concerns that were there. Probably not an unhealthy position for us to be where we’re seeing some of these not traditional alignments, but all looking for that common goal.

MP: Can you say you broadly support PolyMet right now as a project? Also, Gov. Mark Dayton went out to visit mines in South Dakota and Michigan as he had a public reckoning with this issue. In the end he said he thought PolyMet was a “risk worth taking.” He also opposed Twin Metals. What’s been your journey on this? 

TW: I have been to some [mines] and I spent, of course, time in Congress and looked at different things. The [state] permits for this NorthMet project run by PolyMet were all issued by the time I took office. I understand I accept the responsibility as a state’s governor to get this done right. I do support responsible usage of minerals, especially ones that will lead us to a clean energy economy. But I take each one of these as an individual and I do think you have to do the risk analysis on if it can be done. 

There are those, and I respect them, who say there is nothing that can come out of this that’s good enough to merit the risk. There are others that say we can alleviate that risk and we can do this better than anybody else can and we can use these minerals not just to create jobs, but to create a cleaner energy future. And I come down on the side that I think we can do things right. It’s my job to make sure we do. 

We’re not going to cut any corners. This has been the most vetted project in Minnesota’s history. And apparently there’s more, a little bit more to vet on this. …

What I would say on this, totally different animal in Twin Metals. … I think it was a huge mistake for the Trump administration to short-circuit the environmental impact statement. Because I’ve already told people: if you’re a supporter of these projects then you’re responsible for making sure they’re absolutely vetted and that the public feels trust in them.

And right now the public doesn’t feel a total trust in certainly in the Twin Metals because they don’t know enough about it. But I certainly acknowledge there’s concerns and I need to do everything to alleviate their concerns. And they’ve entrusted with me to do the things they cannot have the time or the authority to do. And at this point in time, I have got the best people at MPCA and DNR doing the best work they can. …

But I’ll also say I sat at this very table with folks from the Boundary Waters, who I consider dear friends. And they know for me, having the site of my brother’s death in the Boundary Waters while he was canoeing is something I don’t talk about a lot, but I think they know weighs pretty heavy on me because it’s pretty special place for our family.