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Environmentalists outline political priorities

By Don Davis, Forum Communications

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota environmentalists are concentrating their political efforts this year on continuing state bans on nuclear and coal-fired power plants and seeking financial deposits from companies before starting a new type of mining.

Executive Director Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an umbrella organization for more than 80 outdoor and environmental groups, on Tuesday briefed legislators and reporters about his members' legislative priorities. The legislative session begins Feb. 4 and is expected to center on the state's financial woes.

Morse said his members fear a "potential threat" from a new type of mine that may open in northeastern Minnesota.

Non-ferrous mining for copper and nickel creates sulfuric acid, he said, which environmentalists fear would be left after a mine plays out, and taxpayers could be forced to pay clean-up costs.

"Mining is very important to Minnesota's economy," Morse said, but the environmental partnership wants lawmakers to approve a proposal to require a mining company to pay a deposit before mining begins so there is clean-up funding available once mining ends.

Morse said the proposal is much like a landlord requiring a tenant to pay a deposit before moving in.

The proposal would not list a specific amount a mine would be forced to pay; that would be decided by state officials on a case-by-case basis.

A plan by PolyMet Corp. to open a non-ferrous mine is in front of regulators. Others also are interested in mining for copper and nickel.

Mine companies say they can mine safely.

While existing law requires mine land reclamation, Morse said environmentalists fear mining companies might disappear before paying for that work.

Some environmental groups prefer a stronger law, which they call "prove-it-first." The Save Lake Superior Association, Sierra Club and Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest want a law like Wisconsin's, which prohibits metallic sulfide mining until the process has been proven safe elsewhere. However, Morse's group does not go that far.

The environmental partnership also calls for improved care of Lake Superior.

One issue the group promotes is prevention of invasive species from entering Superior. Many species are carried by ships from other areas, and once released in Superior they spread to other rivers and inland lakes.

The coalition also seeks to reduce industrial water pollution at the mouth of the St. Louis River and reverse the degradation of Superior shoreline due to residential development.

New coal and nuclear power plants are not allowed in Minnesota, and Morse's coalition wants to keep it that way.

Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, said he prefers a state position to allow new-technology power plants, but only on the condition that plants running on older technology, which produce more pollution, be closed.

"I always look for common ground," the senator said.

Morse said his organization could reconsider the stand, but not until the state draws up a comprehensive clean-energy plan.

Jungbauer suggested promoting nuclear plants that reuse waste fuel, found elsewhere in the world and use 70 percent to 90 percent less nuclear matter. Rep. Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, joined the senator in recommending that waste nuclear fuel be reused.

Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League said there is no nuclear plant being considered in the Upper Midwest.

The environmental partnership also plans to work to keep environment and outdoors funding flowing despite a state budget crisis, and wants programs to improve the safety of the state's streets and highways.