The main ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center had 1,500 chairs set up Thursday night for the public hearing on the PolyMet copper mine project, and nearly all of them were taken.
Another 100 or so people stood along the back wall for more than two hours of public testimony on the so-called Supplemental Joint Environmental Impact Statement, the environmental review document.
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 ultimately will decide if the environmental review is officially “adequate” or not.
The audience appeared roughly split evenly, with half saying the science is sound and the project is ready to go ahead but half saying that too many questions loom unanswered.
PolyMet wants to build Minnesota’s first copper mining operation just north of Hoyt Lakes, an open pit mine and processing center that also would produce nickel, gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable minerals. The project would create about 300 jobs for about 20 years with the possibility of another 60 jobs if a secondary processing plant is built in the future.
But critics say the threat of acidic mine runoff, along with sulfate and heavy metal water pollution, is 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.
“The lack of common sense and the stupidity of it all is breathtaking … that we could even think of fouling our water forever for 20 years of mining jobs,” said Jane Whitledge of Duluth.
Supporters say the new jobs will help bolster the eastern Iron Range, where jobs have been scarce since the LTV taconite plant shuttered in 2001, putting 1,100 people out of work. They say the new kind of mining will help diversify the Range economy, spur spinoff jobs across the region and pump millions of dollars of taxes and royalties into local, state and federal coffers.
“It’s natural resources, folks. God gave it to us for a reason. We’re going to use it,” said Dean Halverson, who described himself as a millworker from Barnum.
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