Governor Dayton inserts gum back into any new mining projects

Photo Credit: Polymet

GOP leaders bragged about a win.  Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk let them.  Now Governor Dayton has outmaneuvered both with an Executive order that essentially reinstates the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board, now called the “Governor’s Committee to Advise the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.”

Photo Credit:  Polymet
Photo Credit: Polymet

The original citizens’ board, established in 1967, had been abolished during the final hours of the 2015 special legislative session.  The move was seen as one of the few wins for Republicans, who were assisted by Iron Range Democrats frustrated by the board’s hostility to mining projects.

The new board won’t have the same power to approve or overrule Pollution Control Agency (PCA) decisions, but it will act as an adviser to the the PCA Commissioner and be tasked with helping to review environmental impact statements as well as reviewing the issuance, modification, and revocation of permits.  Governor Dayton encouraged Minnesotans to apply for positions in his new Executive order.

The new board, like the old board, will consist of eight members, appointed by the Governor, and will be chaired by the PCA Commissioner with members serving 4-year staggered terms.  However, the old board required confirmation by the state senate. It also required that one member represent agriculture and one represent organized labor, although that position was vacant when the board was abolished.  Since the Republican House bill eliminated that language, the Governor’s executive action means no such senate confirmation will be required and agriculture and labor representation will be optional.

Chair of the GOP House Environment and Natural Resources committee, Rep Denny McNamara, R-Hastings told reporters he was “dumbfounded” by Dayton’s action, but he shouldn’t be.

Dayton made the announcement yesterday while speaking at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of over 70 environmental groups across the state.  Dayton’s chief campaign booster, his ex-wife Alida Rockefeller Messinger, is an ardent environmentalist as is Dayton. Messinger serves on the board of Conservation Minnesota which has been working against the Polymet mining project in northern Minnesota for years.

Dayton shared his rationale for creating the new board with reporters,  “I just know they are essential to protect the citizens from some of the excesses.”  The $650 million Polymet copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes is currently in the middle of its environmental review process, due to end early next year when the state will need to make a decision to either halt the project or move forward with permitting. Regulatory review of the Polymet proposal has been underway for ten years and as of October 2014, the company had spent nearly $82 million on environmental review and permitting.  Researchers in Duluth have called the geography  being considered “the largest untapped copper-nickel deposit in the world.”

In June, Bill Hanna, editor of the Mesabi Daily News, cheered the legislature’s elimination of the citizens’ board as being “vital to the Iron Range” and called the exiting board “hostile to nonferrous mining companies.”

Governor Dayton will tour four mines after Labor Day, to aid in his review of the Polymet project’s environmental impact statement. By circumventing the legislative process through executive order, he’s providing more cover for himself should he decide to reject the new mine proposal down the road.