Lake County residents turn out for PolyMet hearing last week
John Myers and LaReesa Sandretsky
Over 1,000 people filled the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s main ballroom last Thursday for a public hearing on the PolyMet copper mine project – and plenty of Lake Countians were among them. A number of county residents spoke before the crowd, articulating their opinions about the Supplemental Joint Environmental Impact Statement, the environmental review document for the PolyMet mine.
The hearing, the first of three, was hosted by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service — the regulatory agencies that will ultimately decide if the environmental review is officially “adequate” or not.
The audience appeared to be evenly divided, with half saying the science is sound and the project is ready to go ahead, and the other half saying that too many questions remain unanswered.
PolyMet wants to build Minnesota’s first copper mining operation just north of Hoyt Lakes. The open pit mine and processing center would also produce nickel, gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals. PolyMet says that the project would create about 300 jobs, lasting approximately 20 years, with the possibility of another 60 jobs if a secondary processing plant is built in the future.
But critics say the threats posed by acidic mine runoff, and sulfate and heavy metal water pollution are too great. They say the project could require water treatment for centuries after the mine is played out, spoiling local waters and leaving taxpayers to pay for the cleanup.
Knife River resident Gene Betts was at the hearing. He has been following the project for years, reading through documents released by government agencies and comparing the mine to other projects in the news, like the proposed taconite mine in northern Wisconsin. He supports the PolyMet project.
“I don’t trust PolyMet,” he told the News-Chronicle on Wednesday, adding that they haven’t yet proven themselves. “But I do trust all the regulatory agencies. I believe they will be monitoring this thing continuously in real time.”
He pointed out that lots of mining companies are watching the PolyMet project, like Twin Metals, a St. Paul-based company hoping to build a copper mine in northern Lake County near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. PolyMet has the burden of setting the copper mining standard in Minnesota, he said. If the project ends badly, it will cast a shadow on the other proposed ventures.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on PolyMet to perform,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure for them to do what they’ve promised to do.”
Not all area residents are in support of the mine, however. Larry Ronning of Two Harbors also attended the hearing. He said he’s concerned that there won’t be enough money available to handle a potential breakdown of the man-made systems designed to keep polluted water from running off the site.
“I’m obviously concerned about the pollution. Freshwater is the most important thing in the world today,” he told the News-Chronicle. “Mining is a part of this area. But not this kind of mining.”
He said the cost of treating the pollutants is incalculable and the taxpayers will likely be left holding the bill after the mine closes.
“Quite frankly, it’s going to have to be dealt with forever,” he said.
About 80 speakers were randomly selected to address the room. That’s about half of the total number who wanted to speak. The event continued longer than originally planned, extending past 10 p.m.
Two hours before opening the floor for public comment, the regulatory agencies set up a dozen stations to provide information on a number of project-related topics, such as the U.S Forest Service land exchange, the loss of wetlands in the project area and how groundwater is expected to move through the mine site. Last week, DNR commissioner Landwehr said he was hoping for a big turnout of people “who want to learn more about the project” and learn more about the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement out for public review through March 13.
“This is not a referendum on mining,” said Landwehr. It’s not a contest, Landwehr noted, to see which side has more supporters or who is the loudest, instead, the public hearing is part of the official process of government agencies .
In 2010, just such comments informed the decision of regulatory agencies to determine that the review of the project was inadequate, a decision that forced the project back to the drawing board for major changes that took more than three years to iron out.
Those changes now are open for review in Round 2. But any approval of the mine, including permits to begin work, is still many months, perhaps more than a year away.
“Regardless of what side you’re on, we need to really be concerned about it. We are the stewards of this area,” Ronning said.
The entire document, along with fact sheets and tips on navigating the 2,100 pages, can be found at mndnr.gov/ polymet . Another meeting was held at Mesabi East High School in Aurora on Wednesday. A final meeting will be held in St. Paul on Jan. 28.
Comments on the project will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. on March 13.
Submit comments to NorthMetSDEIS.firstname.lastname@example.org. Email submissions should include a full name and legal mailing address. Written comments may also be submitted to: Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager MDNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources Environmental Review Unit, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 25, St. Paul, MN 55155-4025.