About 400 people attended a public meeting on the Iron Range Tuesday night on the proposed PolyMet mine, an event the company's CEO called a major milestone in its more than decade-long effort to open the state's first copper-nickel mine.
The state's Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency hosted the event at Mesabi East High School in Aurora, which was crowded largely by PolyMet supporters sporting blue "We Support Mining" stickers.
The public meeting paves the way for PolyMet to apply for the more than 20 federal, state and local permits it will need to build the mine near the small towns of Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes in far northeast Minnesota.
"We've been working very hard to get to this point for a number of years," said PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry. He said the company's permit applications are already "fairly well developed," and said he anticipated those would be filed "in a matter of months," likely by the end of June.
The project promises 360 full-time jobs in a portion of the state reeling from thousands of layoffs in the iron mining industry, as well as hundreds more construction and spin-off jobs.
"Up here, people are down in the dumps, feeling pretty low," Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton said during the public open house. "We need something. Don't get me wrong, we want the environment clean too, and we feel that we can do both. We're confident we can do that."
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But project critics are skeptical of the Minnesota DNR's predictions that the proposed $600 million project can meet state water quality standards. The DNR approved the project's environmental review in early March.
Elanne Palcich of Hibbing, one of a few project opponents at the meeting, said she does not believe the project's environmental review is adequate.
"There's no way they're going to stop the pollution," she said. "It's immoral to be putting this kind of a burden on future generations."
PolyMet proposes to process 32,000 tons of rock every to extract valuable minerals that are bound in ore containing sulfide, which when it's dug up and exposed to air and water, can create acid mine drainage that can leach heavy metals into waterways.
Sally Munger of Duluth said she feared the mine could damage the St. Louis River.
"We are known for pristine beautiful lakes and water, and we want to continue that, and I'm afraid copper-nickel mining is not going to make that happen," she said.
PolyMet has proposed a host of features at the mine and processing plant to capture and treat water pollution. Because the DNR in the environmental review process already said the project as proposed will meet state water standards, PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said he doesn't foresee any hurdles in the permitting process.
"I'd be surprised if we came up with anything that would be a fatal flaw at this point," he said. He said the permit applications will provide more detail to back up the environmental review.
PolyMet's Permit to Mine application will include details on financial assurance, essentially a damage deposit the company must post up front to cover mine reclamation costs in case PolyMet declares bankruptcy or abandons the project.
The DNR has pledged to post that application on its website as soon as it's received. Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said she'll have a better idea how long it will take the agency to decide on permit applications once the agency receives them. But she said it will be a matter of months, not weeks.
"We understand that this is a project that people feel very strongly about on both sides," she said. "Our goal is to run a transparent and rigorous process."