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Copper-nickel mining shaping up as big issue for Dayton campaign, labor and environmentalists

The issue reportedly is prompting polling and energizing labor union lobbying efforts.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost file photo by James NordGov. Mark Dayton

Supporters of the Dayton for Governor campaign are believed to be polling on an issue critical to his re-election chances. No, it’s not the departure of MnSure Executive Director April Todd Malmov.


The polling focuses on the question of copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, according to two sources who have knowledge of the campaign and who are familiar with the efforts of PolyMet and Twin Metals to obtain state permits for their mining operations.

Dayton campaign director Katie Tinucci said the campaign itself currently is doing no polling and had conducted its last poll in September.

Jason George is political director for Operating Engineers Local 49, which represents heavy equipment operators, many of whom live the 8th Congressional District of northern Minnesota. He said his members are well aware of the political sensitivity of the mining debate, which places environmentalists and labor — both important to Dayton’s re-election chances — on opposing sides. 

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“This is a hugely important issue to us,” George said. “Our interest is the jobs aspect and the potential jobs that can be created if we can get this industry going.”

George and his colleagues are not afraid to get in the face of politicians whom they believe have made up their minds prematurely while the environmental review process is still under way.

In particular, Local 49 and other labor unions are rankled by the opposition of State Auditor Rebecca Otto.  During a recent meeting of the state executive council — a group composed of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general —only Otto voted against the expansion of mineral leases.  

That prompted George to ask for a meeting with Otto that he describes as “not acrimonious [but] we just disagree very strongly with her position.”

According to George, Dayton is handling the issue properly. “I think he believes in the process,” he said. “He trusts the DNR and the commissioner to follow the process and get it right.

“And if he’s polling, he’s going to find out that there’s overwhelming support for mining and overwhelming support, especially, where the mining takes place.”

During the 2014 legislative session, George said, labor is planning to lobby lawmakers as aggressively as environmental coalitions.

“We will be giving our members every tool so they can let their political leaders know how they feel,” he said “I hope the politicians listen. We are definitely going to weigh in.”