Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
New polling of Minnesotans released on Tuesday shows that while Minnesotans aren’t settled one way or another about the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine project near Hoyt Lakes, they tend to turn against it when presented with the scientific and legal facts about PolyMet and its backers. This polling is a positive sign that if state regulators act responsibly to hold PolyMet accountable, rather than treating it as a client, Minnesotans will back them up.
The State of the Environment poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by MEP partner organization Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. It polled 662 Minnesota voters across the state and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8%. The full demographic breakdowns of the respondents is available here.
The baseline question of the survey showed that Minnesotans are divided roughly into thirds into PolyMet right now. Based on the information they had without being given more by the interviewer, 36% of Minnesotans said they support PolyMet, 33% said they oppose it, and 31% weren’t sure. But that changed when the facts were made clear.
One of the topline questions addressed the key issue raised by the Move on from PolyMet campaign, of which MEP is a member: PolyMet has had all four of its major state permits rejected or suspended in court or by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This includes its permit to mine, its permit to pollute water, its permit to dredge (destroy) wetlands, its permit to emit air pollution. The courts, siding with environmental advocates and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have repeatedly found that the permits did not adequately address the harms that PolyMet is likely to cause.
When informed about the facts on the overturning of these permits, 51% of respondents said that Governor Tim Walz should move on from PolyMet and chart a different course for economic development in the area, 29% were still unsure, and only 21% still believed his administration should stay the course on approving PolyMet’s permits. Broken down by party, those who agreed that the Governor should move on included 69% of DFLers and pluralities of Independents and Republicans – 47% and 35% respectively.
An even steeper result emerged when the interviewers asked about corruption at Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss conglomerate that purchased PolyMet in 2019 and has been a financial and technical backer of the project for years. Glencore employees have been convicted of corruption and bribery in the course of their operations, and the corporation has a history of abusive labor practices and environmental disasters.
The survey question asked – in general terms, without naming PolyMet specifically – how Minnesotans would feel about a proposed copper-nickel mine operating in our state under a global corporation with a history of corruption and bribery on other projects. A whopping 67% of respondents were opposed, compared with only 14% who still supported it and 19% who weren’t sure. This lopsided response may indicate that many Minnesotans aren’t aware of Glencore’s history of illegal business practices, or may not connect it to PolyMet.
Two further questions addressed the environmental impacts of the practices PolyMet intends to use. The first asked about upstream tailings dams, the method that PolyMet intends to use to store its toxic waste. After catastrophic collapses of similar dams in South America killed hundreds of people, these dams have been banned in Brazil, Chile, and Peru. If the PolyMet tailings dam were to collapse – an event that becomes more likely as climate change leads to more unpredictable storm surges – it would cause devastation to downstream resources and communities in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds. Without addressing PolyMet specifically, the question asked whether Minnesota should enact a ban on these dams: 44% agreed that the state should do so, while only 22% disagreed.
Finally, the survey asked about a copper-nickel mine that will only operate for 20 years but would require hundreds of years of treatment and maintenance to prevent further pollution afterward, again leaving out the PolyMet name. This is not a speculative scenario. Using a tailings dam to store waste will certainly require indefinite maintenance; the question is whether PolyMet and Glencore will pay for it or leave Minnesotans on the hook. While the baseline level of support stayed roughly the same as the initial PolyMet question at 34%, opposition to the mine grew to 44%, while only 22% remained unsure.
PolyMet has been controversial since the proposal was first brought to the state more than 15 years ago, and Minnesotans can be forgiven for feeling like the facts are lost in the fog. PolyMet, Glencore, and their backers have ample resources to flood the web and airwaves with ads touting the jobs involved, the safe new technology the mine will use, and the need for copper and nickel, especially in clean energy. They neglect to acknowledge, of course, that the jobs will be temporary and few in number due to automation, no sulfide ore mine has operated in the United States without polluting the surrounding environment, and increasing recycling and recovery in the United States is a far more fruitful and sustainable solution to acquire the metals we need. PolyMet would have a harmful, permanent impact on our climate and ecosystems through its emissions and destruction of wetlands, and it threatens the water resources of an Indigenous community.
Those of us who care about Minnesota’s long-term future have work to do to show Minnesotans that this unproven copper-nickel sulfide mining proposal is wrong for our state. It will help for our state leaders to move on from PolyMet, rather than putting the profits of Glencore above the needs of our people and planet.
What you can do: If you haven’t already, you can add your name to the Move on from PolyMet website and petition to Governor Walz, and call the Governor at 651-201-3400.
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