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Relatively few people know yet Poll shows copper mining support slipping in Minnesota

Opponents of copper mining in Minnesota might be winning over more state residents, according to a new poll that shows more people oppose the new kind of mining here than support it.

The poll, paid for by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and released Wednesday, found that 48 percent of state residents polled opposed copper mining while 39 percent favor the projects.

It’s the first time in five years the poll has been taken that more people opposed than supported copper mining. The coalition of 75 environmental groups conducts the survey annually to gauge public opinion on several key conservation issues.

The results show support for mining slipping from a high of 66 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2010, 52 percent in 2012 and 39 percent this year.

Statewide, opposition increased from 19 percent in 2009 to 48 percent this year.

The telephone poll was conducted Jan. 6-8 by the team of California-based Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates along with Alexandria, Va.-based Public Opinion Strategies. Of those people polled, 251 respondents answered the mining question. The margin of sampling error is 6.2 percent.

The question, which has been asked since 2008, was: “As you may know, new mines are being proposed near the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior. These are different from the traditional Minnesota iron ore mines. These new sulfide mining operations would be used to extract copper, nickel, and other precious metals from underground rock formations containing sulfur.

Based on this description, would you favor or oppose these new mines?”

It’s not clear what impact, if any, the poll would have on mining proposals as they advance through prospecting and regulatory stages. The issue is not expected to seriously surface during the current legislative session.

Mining supporters said they’ve seen just the opposite — growing support for the expansion into copper, nickel and other precious metals that have never been mined in the state.

“I’m not going to speak to their poll results. But everything we’ve seen as an industry, both formal and informal, shows continued strong to overwhelming support for mineral development in Minnesota,” Frank Ongaro, president of Mining Minnesota, a coalition of copper mining companies, told the News Tribune. “That public support is reflected at the local level, the state level and in elected officials at the federal level.”

But copper mining skeptics say a gradual increase in statewide news coverage and public discussion of copper mining has increased awareness of potential pollution problems.

“I think the change over the last few year shows that, the more people hear about it, the more information they get, the more questions they have,” said Steve Morse, executive director of Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “When we first started asking this question, very few people knew about the issue. Support grew a little at first, and then it’s been dropping as the state has more discussion on the potential dangers.”

Morse noted that other poll questions show strong support for strict regulations on copper mining, even among supporters.   The group has not yet release results on other issues covered in the poll.

Several companies are considering mining operations in Northeastern Minnesota to extract copper, nickel, gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals from the so-called Duluth complex of rock. Geologists say it’s among the largest untapped deposits of those minerals in the world.

Supporters say mining the minerals will be an economic boon for the region and the entire state, creating thousands of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into the economy and state tax coffers.

PolyMet, which plans a $600 million open pit mine and processing center near Hoyt Lakes employing 350 people for 20 years or more, is the closest to reality, with a combined state/federal environmental review set to conclude this year and permits possibly issued as early as next year.

Opponents say the long-term potential for acidic runoff from copper-bearing rock, and other water pollution problems, isn’t worth the relatively short-term benefit of jobs. They say the boom-and-bust cyclical nature of the mining industry is not sustainable for the region.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is a coalition of more than 75 environmental and conservation organizations in the state that focus on water, energy and land conservation issues.

The poll results come as the Lake Superior Binational Forum has a public meeting set for Friday afternoon at Mesabi Range Community College in Virginia to discuss the impact of copper mining in the Lake Superior region.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

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