When Gov. Tim Walz met last week with business leaders trying to build Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine, he was reminded of his initial visit to the Iron Range during the 2018 primary campaign, when the PolyMet project was still a simmering issue among members of the DFL party.
Then a congressman from Mankato, he was advised by some in the DFL to side-step the hot-button issue that roiled the party two years earlier. But ignoring the problem wasn’t going to make it go away.
His predecessor, former Gov. Mark Dayton, profoundly supported the project. As he retired from political office, opening PolyMet was intended to be the exclamation point on his legacy with the Range and organized labor.
As the battle between mining supporters and environmental groups has recently escalated, Walz is approaching the inherited PolyMet project with a steady-as-he-goes demeanor — one that in the middle of a storm of court decisions, letters and press statements — stands out in his adeptness to avoid the dramatics.
“If it’s done and done right, that’s a legacy I want. It creates jobs on the Range, it holds true to our mining tradition, it helps fuel the clean energy economy that I strongly believe in,” Walz said in a phone interview Monday. “And that’s how I think it will get done. It’s my job and my reputation as someone who is no drama, but just gets things done.”
His subtle support is something the mine’s enthusiasts are also feeling. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said Monday he believes Walz is heading in the right direction. PolyMet spokesperson Bruce Richardson also indicated the same following the hour-long meeting with project leaders and the governor.
“No question he wants to see this project succeed,” Richardson said. “I think he has some ideas in his own way on what that success looks like, but no indication there is anything other than a desire to have this done and done right.”
Winning over Greater Minnesota through a moderate approach
The governor's approach is part of a continued lesson for Democrats after the 2016 election. Walz won his own re-election bid to Congress that year as a rural Democrat, but Greater Minnesota, fueled by the election of President Donald Trump, presented a new landscape for DFLers to operate on in the elections that followed.
That was especially true on the Range, where Trump won in 2016 by an average of four points in House Districts 6A and 6B, which together represent mining’s core base in Minnesota. In 2012, President Barack Obama won those districts by almost 20 points each.
What DFLers learned was that middle class voters, worried about the economy, turned away from the party, even in the labor bastion of the Range.
Helping drive them was a number of factors. An effort by the party’s environmental wing, known as Resolution 54, sought to put the party on record against copper-nickel mining. It failed in a DFL Central Committee vote weeks after the election.
Despite ironclad support for PolyMet, the Dayton administration was strongly opposed to the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. There was also a lingering fear that national Democrats would block Twin Metals from accessing federal land, a move Obama made during his final weeks in office.
Support for new mining projects swayed decisions at the ballot box in 2016, and was poised to do the same in 2018 if the DFL continued to pull to the political left on the topic.
When Walz announced he was running for governor, he presented a more moderate option for the DFL, and was quickly urged by labor Democrats on the Range to address PolyMet head-on to stand out as the best candidate for Greater Minnesota. Others told him to avoid the issue altogether in order to win more liberal voters over.
Walz and running mate Peggy Flannagan didn’t win the DFL endorsement, but mounted a primary challenge where they eventually won the nomination by nine points over the duo of Erin Murphy and Erin Maye-Quade.
“I thought it was important that this was a big issue,” Walz said. “It had been around for over a decade. And what I told PolyMet, was that more than likely — we do this and we do this right — this will happen under me being governor.”
Today, his decision to dive into the copper-nickel topic is proving advantageous.
In the past week, the fracas over PolyMet and its permits came to a head after the Minnesota Court Appeals denied an effort to nullify the state’s nonferrous mining rules, only to turn around the next day and deliver environmental groups challenging the project a key victory by staying a water permit and kicking it down to the district court level for investigation.
The issue is whether the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency mishandled comments from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in regards to concerns over the project. The appeals court found potential “irregularities” that it said warranted a further look.
Late last week, the state Department of Natural Resources said it would not reconsider the project’s permit to mine or tailings basin permit, a decision that can also be appealed.
In the midst of those actions, 18 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Walz asking him to put all permits for the project on hold, which faced swift rebuke from Iron Range lawmakers, and later in the week by 70 members of the Legislature, mostly Republican.
Walz has stayed above the fray, expressing his trust in the agencies and the process now guiding the permits, something he looks to continue to do even as both sides of the issue tug on his sleeves. That includes honoring the court decision on the water permit, no matter the outcome or his belief that the permits will be upheld.
“I think it’s important to stay true to your morals and values,” he said. “I think I have been very clear that we follow science, we follow process, we follow the law. The court case is part of the process. For me, it’s always been about staying consistent to make sure that we’re following those things.”
PolyMet isn’t the first thorny issue that’s tested the new governor’s consistency. When the Dayton administration challenged its own agency’s permits for the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, the decision to continue it fell on Walz’s lap. The project was ultimately delayed though approved by state regulators, and a court has ordered additional environmental review.
His decision to follow a process that didn’t clear the way for Line 3 was widely criticized by the Range and labor unions, many of whom supported Walz through his election campaign.
“Governor Walz is our friend and we support him. However, real friends will tell you when they think you are wrong, and on this issue, we have respectfully let the governor know we strongly disagree with his decision,” wrote Jason George, business manager of Local 49, in February.
But part of politics and leadership means not pleasing everyone, another issue the governor is embracing as PolyMet gets closer to becoming reality.
“I understand it, people are deeply passionate on both sides of this issue,” Walz said. “I don’t even know if there is a ‘both sides’ because I understand that people are deeply concerned on the environmental side because they don’t believe you can do copper-nickel mining safely. I think it’s wrong to accuse them that they don’t care about the workers and the people that are there. The same way, those who are passionate about getting this project up and running, getting the jobs created, I’ve always said it’s incredibly disrespectful to think they don’t want this to be perfect either. They’re actually living right on top of it.”
Walz described his meeting with Glencore and PolyMet last week as a “good initial meeting,” and one where he pressed the new owner on environmental and labor concerns, financial assurance and whether the Glencore will put its name on the permits.
The meeting was setup before the appeals court stayed the water permit and was the first between Walz and project leaders since Glencore took over 70 percent ownership of PolyMet following a June stock offering.
Walz said he encouraged Glencore to honor a 2007 project labor agreement to use union workers to build the mine and also expects them to meet with the United Steelworkers. He added that PolyMet is a known entity to the state, and Glencore’s role in the project enhances the negative narrative surrounding it, citing regulatory issues across the globe and the fact it’s under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I think, fairly enough, that the Glencore leadership listened, but has to go back and take back to everyone else what they heard,” Walz said. “They’re in a unique position where they’re starting to raise the financial resources necessary, but they’re still waiting for the final clarity on the permit.”
Attending the meeting for Glencore were Helen Harper, an asset manager for the company’s North American copper operations, as well as Stephen Rowland, managing director for copper. Both are on the PolyMet board of directors.
Also in attendance were PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry; MPCA’s Commissioner Laura Bishop, Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester and Assistant Commissioner Craig McDonnell; and DNR’s Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore and Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards.
“It was a very constructive meeting, said Richardson, the PolyMet spokesperson. “It gave us a chance to understand the governor’s priorities. We reaffirmed our commitment to building a responsible mine that is going to employ a lot of people.”