About 120 environmentalists and others staged a protest in St. Paul Tuesday against the company planning to mine copper, nickel and other metals in northeastern Minnesota.
At about the same time, supporters of PolyMet and mining rallied on the Iron Range, including people who have lost jobs recently as a result of slowdown in the U.S. steel industry. PolyMet would create around 360 jobs if the mine proposed for Hoyt Lakes, Minn., moves forward.
The groups, including Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Friends of the Boundary Waters and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, delivered a large banner with comments against the proposal to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, saying mining would threaten water quality.
PolyMet has been working for the past decade to get approval for an open pit copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The company would extract the metals from sulfide ore. The Minnesota DNR, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are all looking at the potential impact on the environment, from air quality to wetlands to endangered species. An environmental impact statement is expected to be released next month.
Environmentalists say sulfide interacts with mercury in the water and poses contamination risks to fish, drinking water and wild rice fields in the Mesabi iron range. They also question whether PolyMet's plans to keep pollutants contained go far enough.
Minnesota Environmental Partnership Director Steve Morse, a former DNR deputy commissioner, spoke at the rally held at Weida Park before the group marched about a mile to the DNR offices. He said sulfide mining has never been done anywhere without contaminating nearby waters.
"It's a risky proposition," he said. "Let's not be transferring this risk to our families and our state, kicking the can down the road to future generations."
But supporters of copper nickel mining in Aurora, Minn., say the region needs jobs and the economic benefits from higher employment.
"We are hurting, I don't think people know how bad we are hurting," Aurora Mayor Mary Hess said. "I guess this is the time we need to stand united, our voices need to be heard."
The DNR has received 58,000 comments on the project. Officials said they will share them with the final environmental impact statement in early November.
DNR officials are working with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finalize a 3,000 page report that looks at the potential environmental impact of the project and how the company is proposing to mitigate them.
"We understand that Minnesotans have diverse and strongly held perspectives on PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine," spokesperson Chris Niskanen said. "As always, the DNR values public input as it carries out its environmental review responsibilities."
MPR News' Dan Kraker contributed to this report.
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