U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan on Tuesday told a convention of mining executives that Minnesota can have both mining and a clean environment, and that he's working to make sure copper mining happens in the state.
Nolan, D-Crosby, who represents Northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range, was the opening speaker at the annual convention of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration Minnesota Section at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Nolan focused on the convention's theme of how global economics are affecting both Minnesota's longstanding iron mining industry and fledgling copper mining prospects - including foreign competition, global overcapacity and low prices.
But he also criticized opponents of potential copper mining projects - projects such as PolyMet and Twin Metals - for ignoring technological innovations that can mitigate mining's environmental footprint.
"The challenges are great. But the opportunities for mining (in Minnesota) are even greater," Nolan said.
Nolan chided environmental activists for saying mining is incompatible with northern Minnesota's pristine lakes and woods. But he also reminded the business leaders that it was their counterparts in industry in the 1970s who said U.S. businesses couldn't afford pollution regulations to clean up air and water. He reminded the mining crowd of how Duluthians were drinking bottled water for fear of cancer-causing fibers in Lake Superior from dumped taconite iron ore tailings at Reserve Mining in Silver Bay.
But the regulations came, the air and water got cleaner, and most businesses thrived, Nolan said.
"And it's a hell of a lot better than it was" 40 years ago, Nolan said.
Industry's sky-is-falling concerns were not warranted then much like environmental warnings of catastrophe are not warranted now, Nolan said to friendly applause
"They're saying we can't have mining because it hurts the environment," Nolan said. "It takes courage to stand up and say, no, we can do both... we're going to have both" copper mining and a clean environment in Minnesota.
Nolan took a shot at critics of the proposed Twin Metals project and its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Those critics include Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who last month said he opposes the Twin Metals project near Ely because it is too close to the BWCAW.
Nolan said the 1970s agreement creating the federal wilderness set aside 1.9 million acres of land for no mining but allowed for logging, mining and motorized use outside the formal wilderness.
"A deal is a deal," Nolan said.
Nolan said he intervened to get multiple regulatory agencies and PolyMet together for regular meetings that helped spur the completion of the environmental review process for that project.
"We got them all moving" Nolan said, adding that completion of the environmental review was a huge step toward an operating copper mine.
Company officials said Tuesday that they are now preparing applications for the two dozen state and federal permits needed before any construction can begin on the project near Hoyt Lakes, what would be Minnesota's first copper mine and processing center.
Brad Moore, PolyMet's executive vice president for government and regulatory affairs, said the company will submit nearly all those permit applications to regulatory agencies by the end of June.
The DNR is holding a public informational meeting ahead of the permit applications next Tuesday in Aurora.
On iron ore issues, Nolan said efforts by Minnesota's congressional delegation to get the White House involved in ongoing trade issues with steel-producing nations have helped reduce the glut of cheap, foreign steel being dumped into the U.S. That glut of steel had reduced demand for U.S.-made steel and for the basic raw material that goes into it - Minnesota taconite iron ore.
Pressing unfair trade cases and Obama administration enforcement of the trade rulings "is starting to produce good results," Nolan said, noting the price of iron ore is up from its December low and that at least one shuttered Minnesota operation, Northshore Mining, is set to reopen in May to provide more taconite pellets to U.S. steel mills.
Hundreds of geologists and mining company officials are gathered for the annual convention which runs through Wednesday in Duluth.