State regulators unveiled their forecast Friday of the way Minnesota’s first copper mine would affect the air, water and lives of people in northeastern Minnesota, a document that is expected to escalate an already polarizing debate about what could be a new era of mining in the most beautiful and untouched part of the state.
The release of the environmental impact statement, a dense, 2,200-page document that took five years and cost $22 million, sets the stage for a 90-day public comment period starting Dec. 14 and, potentially, for a much larger debate over Minnesota’s future.
PolyMet Mining Corp., which promises a $650 million investment and 300 to 360 jobs over 20 years, is only the first of many companies lining up to tap one of the world’s largest untouched deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals lying beneath the forests and lakes of northeast Minnesota. Many on both sides of the issue say the debate in the coming months, which is expected to generate tens of thousands of public comments, will influence how and whether copper mining in the state becomes a reality.
The state’s lead regulator, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), took the unusual step of holding a news conference Friday to explain the project and present two fat volumes of paper that detail the environmental risks, how the company would minimize them, and what the economic impact of the project would be. The agency also announced three public hearings — in Duluth on Jan. 16, Aurora on Jan. 22 and St. Paul on Jan. 28.
Sometime next year, the DNR will issue a final environmental impact statement that could form the basis for planning the mine and issuing state permits if the project goes forward.
“We are asking Minnesotans to collectively and through their organizations look at this document and give us your insights,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
Those on both sides of the issue expressed relief that the formal public discussion would finally begin.
“I think that this is a healthy debate,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet’s chief executive officer. “It’s important for people to express their opinions.”
“It is really the main part in this process where the people of Minnesota can look at what’s being proposed and decide if it passes the smell test,” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, one of the state’s environmental advocacy groups that has been critical of the mining plans.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who may have to find a political balance between the demands of environmentalists and those of the labor movement, said he’s paying attention as well.
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