Senator Smith supportive of PolyMet: Franken’s replacement meets with Range officials, says she’ll back key land exchange

by Tom Coombe -

Iron Range leaders appear to have secured another ally in their quest to see the region’s first copper-nickel mining project come to reality.
Both during and after a Friday meeting with nearly 20 regional elected officials, newly-appointed U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D) said she’d work to advance land exchange legislation critical to the proposed PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes.
“I think there was common agreement and consensus in the room that this land exchange is important for the economy on the Range,” said Smith, who met for nearly an hour in Mt. Iron at a meeting convened by the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.
She later acknowledged party opposition to copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range but said, “I really believe we can be pro-good jobs on Minnesota’s Iron Range and also pro-environment and pro-water quality.”
Smith, who was tapped by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Al Franken, endorsed a land exchange bill that was steered through the U.S. House by retiring Rep. Rick Nolan (D).
RAMS officials said they were disappointed and frustrated that the Senate failed to follow suit in a massive spending bill, but Smith vowed to work on several fronts to move it forward.
“We very much want to get this done this year, and the sooner the better,” said Smith.
The exchange of thousands of acres in national forest land is one of several hurdles still facing PolyMet, which has worked for more than a decade to permit a copper-nickel mining operation on the old LTV mine site near Hoyt Lakes.
“The reality is we need this to move forward,” said RAMS President and Aurora Mayor Dave Lislegard, in a press conference following the meeting.
PolyMet has made significant progress in its bid to ignite a project that could employ over 350 people.
It’s inching closer to final permitting and has gained support of officials including Gov. Mark Dayton (D), but the project still faces questions about financing as well as opposition from environmental groups who have filed suit to derail the project.
Smith stopped short of giving PolyMet a blanket endorsement, but said “assuming the permit to mine is granted and financial assurance is done as it looks like it will then I’ll be fully supportive of that project.”
After the meeting, Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said he was satisfied with Smith’s support.
Smith indicated she would work with fellow Democrat and Minnesotan, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to support the land exchange.
“The Senate process is complicated but the long and short of it is there are several ways we could get this done and we agreed to look at all of the options and not just one path to get this accomplished,” said Smith.
Smith said “it was really a frustration” that the exchange has not yet been approved and both Lislegard and RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi shared similar sentiments during the press conference.
“We thought it was going to happen, and we’re here because it didn’t,” said Lislegard.
Lislegard said it will take bipartisan support to move the project forward.
“We need Democrats and Republicans to work hand-in-hand to get this to the finish line,” he said.
Smith did not address another copper-nickel mining project in the works - the proposed Twin Metals initiative near Ely.
Lislegard said Twin Metals project “was not discussed” during the closed-door session with Range officials other than a brief mention by Novak.
Smith told a small group of media members that she’s “respectful of the differences of opinion that exist” over copper-nickel mining.
“I would point out that we have some of the cleanest, most pristine water in northern Minnesota that you can find anywhere on this earth,” said Smith.
Supporters say the project will usher in a new era of mining in northeastern Minnesota and PolyMet is supported by most regional elected officials.
Environmental groups are pushing back, however, and contend that the project runs the risk of pollution and perpetual, expensive clean-up.