The first public hearing on what could be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine drew some 1,300 people to Duluth on Thursday to rally for jobs, ask questions and poke holes in the 2,200-page environmental study that must pass muster before the project can go forward.
The discussion was passionate but remained civil. Only a few boos were heard along with the enthusiastic applause that followed speakers on both sides of the debate and there were no shouting matches. (Story continues below video.)
In the three hours allotted for public comments, 80 of the 171 people who requested to speak addressed the crowd. Each person was given three minutes, and many used their strongest speaking voices to express why the project should move forward or be halted over environmental concerns. Hundreds of others placed handwritten comments in boxes set on tables during an open house before the hearing.
The state Department of Natural Resources and the federal agencies overseeing the process must respond to each comment before issuing a final environmental impact statement, a requirement for PolyMet to obtain permits.
Public interest in the project has already surpassed what was seen four years ago when PolyMet's first draft environmental impact statement was up for public review. And the first hearing demonstrated that both supporters and opponents of copper-nickel mining in the state are willing to go beyond sending an e-mailed form letter to express their views.
"It's about people standing strong for their way of life," Aurora City Council member Dave Lislegard said as he welcomed mining supporters into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center who had arrived on seven buses traveling from the Iron Range and Ely.
"This is a great project. It has so many possibilities of good things," he said. Lislegard, who helped organize the bus trip, handed out blue "I Support Mining" stickers. Nearby, 19-year-old Macalester College student Justin Randall handed out "Protect Clean Water" stickers.
Randall said it was pretty easy to identify his target audience. "You know, there's people in suits and Carhartts, or there's people in Patagonia related outdoor gear," he said.
“This is a great project. It has so many possibilities of good things,”Aurora City Council member Dave Lislegard
Randall, a Sierra Club intern, was raised in a small mining town in Montana. He said the mine did good things for his town but also caused water pollution, and he said he's concerned PolyMet could do the same.
"Unfortunately, this is not the taconite mining that northern Minnesota has such a strong heritage of. This is entirely different. This is poisonous," he said.
PolyMet's proposed mine and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes would create 360 permanent jobs, but supporters emphasized the 1,000 construction jobs and hundreds of spin-off jobs that economists at the University of Minnesota-Duluth predicted the project would yield.
Labor unions rallied their members, who showed up in caps and jackets bearing their locals' names. That included dozens of young apprentices, some of whom said they hadn't yet formed strong opinions about the project.
"I wanted to hear what people have to say about it," said Tim Stalvig, a 25-year-old electrician who lives in Superior, Wis. Stalvig said he was still learning about the project but said the jobs sounded promising.
But a majority of the speakers raised concerns over or outright opposed PolyMet's plans. They brought up a litany of environmental concerns ranging from moose and wild rice habitat to water pollution to the destruction of wetlands. The environmental study predicts long-term water treatment will be needed at the mine and processing plant site to ensure pollutants won't leach into nearby rivers and streams that eventually flow into Lake Superior.
"Let's leave these minerals in the ground, they'll only grow in value over time. We need to learn to mine them responsibly," said Rich Staffon, of Cloquet. "The land on which this mine will be built is our land."
Some speakers cited specific sections of the environmental impact statement and offered highly technical comments on how the environmental study should be improved. But most of the speakers spoke in broader terms about what PolyMet's mine would mean for the region.
David Kane said his views about the project had changed. He said he used to support the proposal but then started looking into it and was left with too many concerns about clean water and public health.
"I also have a concern about who's going to be paying for perpetual water monitoring of this project," he said.
“Let's leave these minerals in the ground, they'll only grow in value over time.”Rich Staffon, of Cloquet
The prospect of what could be hundreds of years of water treatment was the most common theme. Early drafts of the environmental impact statement said water at the mine site would require treatment for 200 years, and for 500 years at the tailings basin. But the version released to the public says only that treatment will be long term, and that modeling shows that treatment will meet water quality standards for hundreds of years.
PolyMet officials have said the company will meet Minnesota's requirements of providing financial assurance up front to pay for any cleanup costs into the future.
But some of the speakers were dissatisfied with the level of detail the environmental impact statement included on financial assurance. DNR officials have said those details will be worked out in the permitting phase.
PolyMet's supporters argued Minnesota's environmental regulations are some of the most stringent in the world, and they pointed to examples of everyday items that contain copper. Some supporters wore stickers with a picture of wind turbines, which contain copper.
"Everyone who took a shower today used copper," said Brian Hanson, president and CEO of APEX, a northern Minnesota economic development agency. "Everyone who has a phone uses copper."
The crowd dwindled as the night wore on. The buses from the Iron Range left by 8:30 p.m., and by 9:30 p.m., some of those who had signed up to speak had already gone home.
A second hearing is set for next week in Aurora, and the St. Paul RiverCentre will host the third hearing the week after.