Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mark Dayton, Then and Now

Common Loon
Loon and human adults and babies require clean water and air. 

In the fall of 1982, during Minnesota’s Congress and Senate races, I wrote to each candidate asking what his stand was on several issues that would affect my new baby’s future. The one of highest importance to me then and now was the environment. All but one of the politicians responded with a form letter. The exception was Mark Dayton, who sent me not just one but two letters.

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton
My scanner isn't working, so these are photographs of Dayton's letters.

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton

Both letters addressed each of my concerns, and Dayton’s positions were stated forthrightly.

 He wrote, “Like you, I am very concerned about the quality of our country’s natural environment. Clean air and water are the foundation for the Minnesota way of life. We must make sure to protect it.” In one letter, he expressed concern about “cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget,” noting “We need senators and congressmen representing this state who will commit themselves to strong enforcement efforts by the EPA."

In the other letter, he wrote, “I support immediate reauthorization of the clean air and water acts. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget must be increased.”

How things have changed! Two weeks ago, when speaking to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce regarding PolyMet Mining Corporation’s proposed copper-nickel mining project in northeastern Minnesota, Mark Dayton said he wished he could abolish the EPA. And when speaking at a town hall meeting in Duluth on March 20, he affirmed his statement, griping that the permit process was too slow.

Dayton now wants to streamline the process so permits can be issued within 150 days of a proposal. This would be fine for simple projects not likely to have serious environmental impacts, but the permitting process is designed so objective reviewers can evaluate complex projects and deny permits or require modifications when a proposed project’s potential dangers are greater than its potential advantages.

Heavy metal mining is fraught with environmental dangers—some projects have devastated major waterways and groundwater supplies, leading to major bird die-offs and soil and water too toxic for human use. The permitting process isn’t supposed to be like getting a new drivers license or passport—the EPA isn’t supposed to rubber stamp each and every proposal on a simple timeline. PolyMet’s original environmental impact statement was rejected because it contained insufficient data to establish that impacts from the proposed mine would be less harmful than impacts from similar mines have been. Should this project be approved before PolyMet submits an acceptable environmental impact statement and the EPA has time to review it?

PolyMet, with corporate headquarters in Canada and wealthy shareholders around the world, plans to extract Minnesota’s valuable minerals for profit, without paying the state or its people any royalties. That is an exceptional privilege, which should come with reasonable responsibilities to ensure that we the people of Minnesota are not losing more than just our state’s geologic treasure.

Our people up here certainly need jobs, and any of us who use electricity depend on copper mining. But those of us who live right here have a right to ensure that any mining is done in an environmentally responsible way.

Dayton said it was wrong to “expect some group of people who work down in Chicago to have any real motivation to make the changes necessary to allow us to move forward and create jobs here in Minnesota.” But the scientists and regulators working at the EPA offices in Chicago are far more likely to be both knowledgeable and objective about potential environmental hazards of a mining project than politicians and state agencies that are being strong-armed by multi-national corporations with an agenda. The EPA process is only supposed to approve any project after being given all the information they need to be sure it will not irreparably harm our air and water.

Right now we’re watching the climate change before our very eyes. Monarch butterfly numbers are in a tailspin because of lax enforcement of pesticide laws here and habitat destruction in Mexico. Do we need to kill our rivers and lakes before people will once again understand that the EPA exists to protect us, the people and wildlife of America, not to rubberstamp every project that comes down the pike?