ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday gave assurances that “… neither I nor anyone in my administration will act to impede or delay the environmental or financial reviews of the PolyMet project, if the Final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is determined to be adequate.”
The governor’s statement was made in a letter to GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt in an attempt to clear the way for a special session on an extension of unemployment benefits soon to expire for laid off Iron Range steelworkers and also to address financial disparities in the state’s black communities.
It was the strongest position yet taken by the governor to let science and state regulators determine the future of the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes.
The Final EIS was released by the Department of Natural Resources on Nov. 6 and is currently in a review process before the state Determination of Adequacy is resolved. If approved, it would then trigger the permitting process. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has said his agency would not have posted the EIS if it wouldn’t be deemed adequate.
The PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals venture, which has received more than 10 years of environmental review, will create 350 permanent positions, hundreds more spin-off jobs and more than 2 million hours of construction.
A special session was initially considered by the governor and DFL leaders to extend jobless benefits for laid off steelworkers. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook added a condition of some state aid to financially-troubled metropolitan black communities. The governor signed on to Bakk’s proposal.
Speaker Daudt then added his conditions: No interference by the governor on the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals project or the Enbridge Sandpiper Pipeline through Minnesota to transport oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to Superior, Wis.
In his letter to Daudt, Dayton said he has been a supporter of the pipeline and wants it approved and routed as soon as possible to reduce the “even greater risks to our citizens and to our environment from the rail transport of Bakken oil.”
But he said review of the Sandpiper project rests solely with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which, by statute, is independent of the governor’s office.
Dayton also said in his letter to Daudt that he has not tried to obstruct the PolyMet process, but volunteered his assurances on the issue anyway to “clear the slate for your agreement to a special session.”
But while Dayton has not specifically said he would try to block PolyMet, he has made statements that left the door open to interference.
In an interview with the Mesabi Daily News during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, he said there was no hurry on the project because the minerals “aren’t going anywhere.” And recently, he reminded reporters that even though the final decision on PolyMet rests with the DNR and Commissioner Landwehr, he’s “Landwehr’s boss.”
Dayton, in his letter to Daudt, cited statistics to back up the urgent need for a special session.
He said mine workers on the Range “are facing significant economic hardship as a result of the global steel market and depressed prices as a result of steel dumping.”
Dayton said 1,433 workers have been affected by mining layoffs on the Range and applied for unemployment insurance benefits, with the majority of those applications filed between May and August.
There was hope they would be recalled to their jobs in the fall. But that has not happened, and more layoffs have since been announced at area mines.
“As you know, unemployment benefits for hundreds of mine workers, through no fault or choice of their own, will exhaust before the 2016 legislative session,” Dayton wrote.
Regarding the economic disparities for people of color in Minnesota, the governor cited statistics pointing a drop in median income and an increase in the poverty rate for black Minnesotans.
“I have added reducing Minnesota’s racial disparities to my proposed special session agenda, because we cannot ignore these problems any longer,” Dayton wrote.
The governor wants a special session to include a $15 million investment to improve economic conditions in communities of color.