In first public meeting, jobs dominate mining debate

Mine supporters
Mine supporters, complete with "buy a bigger truck" sweatshirts.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources holds the second of two public meetings tonight to discuss plans for mining copper and nickel on the iron range.

Supporters of the project converged on the first meeting Wednesday night to address the environmental effects of the controversial plan.

The Iron Range turned out in force last night to demonstrate support for PolyMet corporation's proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. About one thousand people packed into the Mesabi East High School in Aurora to offer their comments on the huge draft environmental impact statement for what is called the NorthMet Project.

The $600 million project would create two open pit mines to recover copper and nickel, and platinum group metals like platinum, palladium and gold. The area's mining economy is still suffering from the recession; NorthMet would create 400 new jobs and an estimated 500 additional spin-off jobs.

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But the project does come with environmental consequences: increased regional air emissions, potential damage to wetlands, the risk of long-lasting water pollution. some fear.

Still, the mine's economic benefits would be a big plum for the Iron Range, big enough to bring Steve Ryan all the way from Grand Rapids on a cold Iron Range night, with wind chills well below zero.

"We need the jobs, and obviously, if they're going to do anything in the state of Minnesota, it will be environmentally correct, they'll take care of that so I guess I'm not even worried about that. I'm more worried about the jobs and getting everybody back to work," Ryan said.

Regional labor organizations trucked in scores of PolyMet supporters. Area communities and Chambers of Commerce sent delegations. There was clearly a big push for the project with supporting statements issued by Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Building Trades Council, and the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Many at the Aurora meeting were there to show support rather than offer specific comments on the environmental studies.

Roger Licari came from Biwabik, about six miles away, where he is on the City Council.

"I would like to see that this project moves right along, lickity split, so we can have jobs in our area," Licari said.

Licari also took a shot at people concerned about potential pollution from the mine.

"I dislike when we have people coming here, telling us that we're going to drink impure water. No one here's going to drink impure water," Licari said.

But that is exactly what Carla Arneson fears. Arneson lives on a lake near Ely. Her concern is sulfide minerals found in the ore with the precious metals. When exposed to air and water, sulfide minerals exposed by mining can create sulfuric acid, itself a pollutant, with the ability to leech additional pollutants into surface and groundwater.

Arenson said that potential pollution is too high a price for jobs.

"I just feel like sulfide mining is a mistake for the state of Minnesota. I think that our water has to come first, and I'm pro-water," Arenson said.

While the meeting was scheduled to gather public comment, the format kept much of that comment largely hidden. Instead of addressing the audience, people had to give their comments one-on-one to one of ten stenographers spread around a school gymnasium.

While that format drew fire from some environmentalists and even some supporters of the project, it was not a major issue during the meeting itself.

Tonight, the focus moves to Blaine, for the second and last public comment meeting on the project's draft environmental impact statement.

The Twin Cities meeting may not be stacked as solidly in favor of the project, but it's going to have plenty of supporters, with buses heading down from places including Hibbing, Aurora, and Duluth.

Tonight's meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the Schwan Center of the National Sports Complex.