The message many Iron Range community leaders and residents brought to a public hearing Wednesday night on PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine was clear: We want this project in our backyard.
The second of three scheduled hearings was held at Mesabi East High School in Aurora, a town of 1,600 that has become a hotbed of support for the proposal. A banner on the way into town proclaims "We Support Mining," and many of the approximately 650 people who braved frigid temperatures to attend the hearing donned blue stickers bearing the same phrase.
The vast majority of the more than 60 people who spoke said PolyMet's mine should move forward.
"It's time to do this project right, it's time to do this project now, and it's time to do this project here," said Mark Skelton, mayor of nearby Hoyt Lakes, located just south of the old LTV Steel taconite plant that PolyMet wants to repurpose to process copper, nickel and precious metals. The plant closed in 2001, causing more than 1,000 employees to lose their jobs.
"It's time to turn this around," Brian Maki, of Aurora, said. "We have the opportunity to revitalize northern Minnesota with the promise of good paying jobs."
Supporters cited the hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue that the PolyMet environmental impact statement predicts the project would generate. PolyMet has said the project would create more than 1,000 construction jobs, followed by 360 permanent jobs. And a University of Minnesota-Duluth study predicted those permanent jobs would have a ripple effect on the local economy.
And if Polymet is allowed to proceed, other copper-nickel mine developers are expected to follow.
But the environmental impact statement on the proposal must first pass muster. State and federal regulators, along with the company, have been refining that document for the past eight years. A similar public comment period was held four years ago on the study, leading to the latest version of the study. The current document could still need additional work before PolyMet is able to apply and receive permits from the state to begin mining.
Project opponents who spoke at the Aurora meeting said the study describes impacts that give a clear enough reason for state officials to stop it.
"For me, this is a poor tradeoff for the people of Minnesota," said Walt Moe, of Tower, who argued that short-term economic benefits from the mine's 20-year lifespan aren't worth the long-term water treatment the environmental study says the mine would likely require.
Skepticism surrounding that long-term water treatment dominated the first public hearing in Duluth last week, where a majority of the speakers opposed the mine proposal. The latest draft of the study does not predict how many years water treatment would be required, but the document's analysis of the mining plan suggests it could continue for hundreds of years.
"Who will pay this?" asked Susan Schurke, of Ely. "What is the amount they could possibly put forward to replace something that can never be replaced — our clean water that we desperately need?"
PolyMet has said it will provide financial guarantees to pay for water treatment as long as it's needed, but mining opponents argue those assurances should be detailed in the environmental study rather than the permitting phase of the project. A legislative committee will hear testimony from the DNR and others next month on the issue.
The level of public interest in the proposal has surpassed what was seen four years ago. The DNR collected more comments in the first month of the current comment period than it received during the entire comment period four years ago.
The crowd in Aurora was about half the size of the crowd at the Duluth meeting last week, yet roughly the same number of people — 176 — filled out cards to request to speak.
PolyMet's supporters went beyond the argument for jobs to point out the state's relatively strict environmental regulations, saying the metals would be mined more safely in Minnesota than elsewhere. Some also argued that they, too, care deeply about the environment, and that mining can coexist with hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.
"We don't care only for jobs," Jay Lehman, of Aurora, said. "This is our backyard. We don't want to damage it. Those saying we have to choose between jobs and the environment are presenting a false choice. We can have both."
"Like many of my neighbors, I own a snowmobile and a canoe," added Jim Hoolihan, a former mayor of Grand Rapids.
Several speakers in Aurora said they trusted the regulators — the Minnesota DNR, Superior National Forest and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to ensure that if PolyMet's plans include enough environmental protections.
State Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said that's the only way the Iron Range delegation will support the project.
"We are confident, all of us, that this process will move forward based on data driven outcomes, and that the emotions will be set aside so that those outcomes will prevail and lead this project to either happen or not happen," he said.
But opponents say regulatory agencies have not always enforced the state's water quality standards on taconite mines. And Scott Bol, of Duluth, said Minnesota should reflect on the recent chemical spill in West Virginia when making decisions about PolyMet.
"People came here saying they trust the agencies," Bol said. "Things go wrong. They trusted the agencies in West Virginia, and Freedom Industries found the freedom to declare bankruptcy. So let's be careful here."
The third and final PolyMet public hearing is set for Tuesday in St. Paul, the home turf of many of the environmental groups that have raised questions about the project. The public comment period is expected to conclude March 13, unless the Minnesota DNR accedes to a request from some environmental groups to extend the comment period another 90 days.
MPR News' Elizabeth Dunbar reported from St. Paul.