Duluth council declines to call for PolyMet hearings

Supporters, opponents of the proposed mine
Supporters and opponents of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine packed the Duluth City Council's chambers Monday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

After two and a half hours of passionate testimony, the Duluth City Council voted down a resolution Monday night that would have called for another step in the regulatory process for a proposed copper-nickel mine.

The City Council vote was strictly advisory. The proposal would have pushed for so-called "evidentiary hearings" in front of an administrative law judge before the Minnesota DNR decides whether to approve the PolyMet mine.

But the advisory nature of the vote didn't stop more than 100 residents of Duluth and northeast Minnesota from packing the stuffy council chambers.

David Ross, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, called the resolution a last-minute effort to block PolyMet.

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"It is disappointing to witness council members overstepping their authority, to forward an action that is outside of your jurisdiction," he said. "It is concerning to witness you occupy yourselves with a matter outside of your control while Duluth is facing many immediate challenges."

Citizens silently wait their turn in line
Residents silently wait their turn in line to speak Monday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But others argued that it was appropriate for Duluth to have a voice on the issue. Realtor John Doberstein, of a new group called Duluth for Clean Water, which pushed for the resolution, said the city has a growing silent majority of people who are very concerned about PolyMet.

"This is our business," Dobertsein said. "We are downstream from this. We are economically and environmentally tied to this project."

The debate highlighted just how polarizing the issue of copper-nickel mining has become in northeast Minnesota.

And it's a tricky political issue for Duluth's city councilors. The city's active environmental community is skeptical that this kind of mining can be done without damaging the region's water resources, including Lake Superior, which is downstream from the proposed mine. But Duluth also has longstanding economic ties to mining and the Iron Range and a strong labor community that supports the project.

Residents rally
A group of residents rally outside Duluth City Hall in support of a resolution asking the DNR to hold a public hearing in front of an administrative law judge to determine the risks and benefits of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Mike Syversrud drove down from the Iron Range to testify. He's President of the Iron Range Building Trades. And he points out PolyMet has already gone through more than 10 years of environmental review.

"They've proved time and time again, that this is the time to do this. They've done everything," Syversrud said. "Why put another hurdle in front of them. It's time to move. We have a lot of families moving out of the area."

Backers of the proposal argued that a contested case hearing — as this process is also known — would add something new to the regulatory process. J.T. Haines of Duluth said such a hearing would weigh competing claims of whether PolyMet can mine safely.

"Unlike public meetings ... where much of the time people simply state their opinion without scrutiny, a contested case hearing would provide a more rigorous forum, including subjecting testimony to cross-examination, a key distinction," Haines said. "That's something both sides should welcome."

But after lengthy debate, the City Council voted against the resolution. Councilor Barb Russ said it was the job of the Minnesota DNR to decide whether evidentiary hearings on PolyMet are needed.

"That's how the process works," she said. "I really strongly believe it's not the role of the city to even vote on this."

The Minnesota DNR has said it's premature to decide whether to order a contested case hearing on PolyMet until the company applies for a permit to mine. That application is expected soon.