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Copper mining resolution exposes rift among DFL members

By John Meyers

Just when it seemed 1,200 DFL delegates might roll in and out of Duluth this weekend without disagreeing on much of anything, along comes an issue controversial enough to upset even this year’s love fest of a state party convention.

Copper mining.

A resolution on the list of proposed changes in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor platform has some environmentalists in the party up in arms. The resolution was supposed to strike a delicate balance between DFLers who support mining and especially starting a new copper mining industry in northern Minnesota, and those who say the danger of copper mining to the environment may be too high.

But Duluth’s Richard Edwards, 7th Senate District DFL party chairman and a delegate to the convention, said the wording goes too far in endorsing potential copper mining in Northeastern Minnesota, such as the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes.

The proposed resolution states that the DFL party “support the creation of jobs through responsible mining in Minnesota.

"All kinds of mining are different and require specific safeguards. Each kind of mining must meet strong environmental standards including state and federal environmental agency approval, high safety and labor standards for miners, and use of new and proven technology to prevent environmental damage."

Of 72 proposed platform changes, the mining resolution is second-highest on the list, behind only support for a single-payer health care system.

Edwards and others contend that the copper mining issue remains unresolved in the regulatory process and that there is no clear consensus within the DFL. He says the resolution being proposed for convention approval lacks key points, such as resolving that any mine be represented by union labor. He said the wording also lacks any recognition that a large number of DFLers stand opposed to the new kind of mining in Minnesota.

“It doesn’t define what ‘responsible’ is. What is responsible mining?’’ Edwards asked.

The resolution could end up dropped, amended or approved, but likely will spur some sort of floor fight at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Several of the delegates criticizing the resolution are active in environmental groups that are the most critical of copper mining.

“I think the priority for this convention should be coming out with party unity, and having this resolution in there is not going to accomplish that,’’ Edwards said. “Obviously, people support mining, iron ore mining. But we also have a lot of people who see this (copper mining) as a completely separate issue.

“The DFL platform is a place for the policies and values that party members agree on, not controversial issues.”

Ken Martin, state DFL party chairman, said Friday that he expects a spirited debate on the resolution during Sunday’s platform discussion. But he said he expects the resolution to easily receive the 60 percent of delegates’ votes needed to pass.

“There’s going to be a debate on it ... but I don’t see a problem getting this resolution through,’’ Martin said. “It’s neither pro-mining nor pro-environment. … All it says is that the DFL supports mining if it’s done in an environmentally responsible way. And I think that’s where the vast majority of Minnesotans are on this issue.’’

The controversial sentences are an amalgam of various resolutions passed in DFL precinct caucuses and local conventions across the state earlier this year. Several pro-mining resolutions came from the Iron Range, while urban areas produced several resolutions opposing what is sometimes called sulfide or non-ferrous mining. The party’s state platform commission was charged with melding all of the mining opinions into a few sentences.

But opponents of copper mining say multiple anti-copper mining resolutions percolated from districts representing more than 2 million people, while resolutions supporting copper mining came from districts totaling 130,000 people.

The final resolution doesn’t reflect those numbers, Edwards notes. The rift isn’t just north vs. south, he added, noting there are anti-copper mining DFLers in Duluth and even on the Iron Range.

The rift has surfaced often in the last few years as the PolyMet plan and others move closer to reality. The DFL has long had a large and vocal environmental element within its ranks. But they often butt heads with Iron Range and other rural DFLers who back copper mining as a way to diversify the economy, stabilize the rural population and create high-paying jobs. Much of the DFL’s powerful labor wing also has solidly backed copper mining.

In November some northern DFLers threatened to “dump” Rebecca Otto, the state’s usually quiet DFL auditor, after she voted against allowing the Department of Natural Resources to lease exploration rights to mining companies, mostly in Lake County. Otto said the system is stacked against home and cabin owners who don’t own the mineral rights under their land, and she said the system should be reworked.

That vote angered mining supporters who erected “Dump Otto’’ signs and threatened to find someone to challenge Otto for the party endorsement.

That threat didn’t pan out, but the issue continues to resurface. Earlier this month, several Iron Range lawmakers, all DFLers, sent letters to DFL U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar asking them to more strongly support copper mining and to oppose any effort to add a new federal environmental review to the mining process, as some anti-mining groups have requested. (DFL U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan already has opposed an additional federal review.)

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton also is under pressure to endorse the PolyMet plan, although he continues to say he’s waiting for the regulatory process to play out before endorsing the project.

Dayton, Klobuchar and especially Franken, who like Dayton faces voters in November, must walk a fine line of supporting mining in the traditional Northeastern Minnesota DFL hotbed but also appease a large environmental contingent in the party.

Party chairman Martin says the DFL has always been a “big tent party’’ with ample internal differences between diverse coalitions. This year is no different, he said, and certainly not any worse.

Meanwhile, Republicans already are salivating over the idea of a DFL rift, such as the one in 1978 when DFL chasms over abortion and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness helped spur a Republican landslide victory in all major state and federal races.

Republicans say they stand fully in support of copper mining and are ready to welcome disgruntled pro-mining DFLers with open arms.

“The Republican Party of Minnesota pledged their support to Minnesota mining’’ as among its highest priorities, the party’s website notes. “… but what about Al Franken? Franken relies on classic politician doublespeak to make it look like he favors mining, but he does absolutely nothing! It’s no coincidence he’s raising so much money from liberal extremists out of state.

“Republicans say yes to mining, yes to quality jobs, and yes to thriving communities,’’ the party’s website notes. “Join us and donate today!”

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