In the decadeslong debate over copper mining in Minnesota, conventional political wisdom has been that the issue is an easy one for Republicans and a balancing act fraught with peril for Democrats.
The reasoning: The GOP can embrace the promise of new jobs while Democrats must balance the party base's environmental concerns with presumed support for mining among voters in northern Minnesota. "It's a nightmare for us," a congressional staffer confessed to an editorial writer years ago.
But new data from a recently conducted Minnesota Poll turns these staid assumptions on their head, suggesting that state politicians most at risk are those who don't do enough to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Twin Metals Minnesota, one of two major copper-nickel mines proposed in Minnesota, intends to operate on the beloved preserve's doorstep and is the only project within its watershed, putting the BWCA's fragile ecosystem downstream of potential mine pollution.
The new poll, conducted by the Star Tribune and MPR News, found that Minnesotans understand the risks and overwhelmingly want to protect the BWCA from an industry with an abysmal environmental track record. Sixty percent of those polled overall opposed building new mines near the BWCA. Just 22% support doing so.
Opposition to new mines near the BWCA was consistent across the state. While the highest percentage of those opposed live in urban Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, strong majorities in the rest of the state shared their concern. That includes northern Minnesota, where the new mines are proposed. Fifty-seven percent of those polled there opposed mining near the BWCA, with 56% opposed in the Twin Cities suburbs and 54% in southern Minnesota.
Notably, support did not top 26% anywhere in the state. The well-funded special interests promoting the industry here may be loud, but their message is falling short of representing what Minnesotans want. That reality ought to embolden Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota's congressional delegation.
The Twin Metals project is years away from operation, but it gained a powerful advocate when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. His administration has reversed an Obama administration effort to protect the BWCA watershed from copper mining and kept secret a scientific review of the industry's risks to the region.
Rep. Betty McCollum has introduced sensible legislation that would ban copper mining on 234,000 acres around the BWCA. Her bill, HR 5598, has 40 sponsors but regrettably only two from Minnesota's delegation. The state's two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, have not yet introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Hopefully, they'll pay attention to the new poll's findings.
Twin Metals Minnesota officials downplayed the results. "We've found that in conversations we have across the state, the more we are able to share the details of our project, the importance of the Duluth Complex as one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel deposits in the world, and the decade of work that went into the creation of the most sustainable, technologically advanced mine in this state's history, the more people understand how critical it is that our project moves forward," the company said in a statement.
The Chilean-owned company also said that it's possible to have environmental protections and jobs, and that the regulatory process ensures it's not an either-or situation. But the regulatory process doesn't merit Minnesotans' trust. The secrecy over the BWCA study is a serious red flag. So are recent revelations about state officials' efforts to keep under wraps data about a different copper mine — PolyMet.
Not even Twin Metals itself will rule out risk to the BWCA, as a previous Star Tribune special editorial report, "Not this mine, not this location," made clear. Minnesotans value the BWCA and want it protected. Listen to them, not pro-mining special interests.