Thousands Pack Final Hearing for Proposed PolyMet Mine

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Minnesota

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The

public’s last chance to speak in front of hundreds about why they

like or loathe PolyMet’s plan to mine copper and nickel in

northeastern Minnesota went out with a bang.

More

than 2,100 people packed a Saint Paul RiverCentre ballroom, matching

in size but surpassing in feistiness the combined 2,000 or so people

who attended two earlier meetings in Duluth and Aurora. There were

standing ovations, boos, laughs and even a guy with a guitar and

harmonica who sang out his fears for Minnesota if the state embraces

PolyMet, which would be the state’s first copper-nickel mine.

Moderator

Aimee Gourlay asked the crowd on several occasions to avoid

interrupting the speakers with applause so they could maximize their

three-minute time limit to speak. Those requests mostly went

unheeded.

One of

the loudest moments came late in the evening, when former DFL Rep.

Tom Rukavina challenged mining opponents to leave their cell phones

and iPads containing the debated metals in paper bags at the door.

Mining supporters at the back of the vast room held up paper bags and

shook them in the air.

"All

these little gadgets that you have are made from minerals," he

said. "You can export your pollution to China, or you can have

slave labor in Africa, but right here you can have good union mining

jobs in the state of Minnesota."

Besides

a plea for jobs on the Iron Range, the need for metals was a major

talking point among mining supporters, as it had been at the other

two hearings. Overall, the nature of the arguments both for and

against the proposal had not changed much. Many mining opponents

argued that allowing PolyMet to mine would put the Lake Superior

watershed too much at risk.

"The

rest of the world is looking for fresh water, and we’re looking to

throw ours away. Don’t throw this precious gift away," said Hope

Flanagan, of Minneapolis, who began her remarks in Ojibwe and brought

dozens of people to their feet. "We’re water. We’re walking skin

with water."

The

hearing was part of a 90-day public comment period on the

environmental impact statement for PolyMet’s proposed mine and

processing facility. The issue could break state records in terms of

public interest. Already the Minnesota Department of Natural

Resources has received 10,000 comments, and people have until March

13 to submit them.

About 60

of the 640 people who signed up to speak were chosen at random to

take the microphone. Both the crowd and speakers were split roughly

evenly; some union members supporting the proposal wore hard hats and

neon construction vests to the hearing, and opponents sported bright

blue "protect clean water" stickers.

The DNR

will have to go through all of the comments, and it’s possible some

of the comments could lead to changes or additions to the draft EIS.

"We’re collecting information, doing analyses that will

hopefully inform the 20 or so regulatory decisions that would follow

the completion of this process," said Steve Colvin, the DNR’s

deputy director of ecological and water resources. "There is

still a lot of work ahead for PolyMet before they get to mining

potentially."

The DNR

asked the crowd to comment specifically on ways the agency could

improve the 2,200-page environmental analysis of the project. Many

supporters thanked the agency and its federal partners for what they

called a thorough document. They asked for science to prevail over

emotion.

"When

we come to the end of the process and there’s a decision, we need to

respect that," said union organizer Jason George. "I

believe we can get this right. We can have these jobs and protect the

environment. … This is America. We can do everything."

Besides

describing potential impacts on water, wetlands and air, the

environmental study cites the 360 permanent jobs PolyMet plans to

create, along with more than 1,000 construction jobs.

"Let’s

not blow a chance to establish globally what good clean copper mining

looks like," said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota

Building and Construction Trades Council. "Mining and Minnesota

has been a tradition for over 100 years. Our members benefit from it,

everyone in this room depends upon it."

Opponents

poked holes in the analysis, calling part of the water modeling

inadequate and calling for more planning for accidents and

emergencies. The EIS concludes long-term water treatment will be

needed at both the mine and processing site.

"What

is going to prevent this company from going belly up 300 years from

now, declaring bankruptcy, and saying, gee, we can’t pay the bills,

guys. What assurances are we going to have … for 500 years? Are we

insane?" asked Scott Helgeson of Bloomington.

PolyMet

has said it will offer financial guarantees to clean up and treat

water for as long as necessary after the company is done mining, but

opponents have argued the environmental study should offer more

details.

After

publishing the final EIS, there would be another public comment

period. Then the DNR and the federal lead agencies would have to sign

off on the document before PolyMet can begin to acquire the more than

20 local, state and federal permits it will need to mine.

Steve

Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership,

said the EIS is complex enough that the DNR should extend the comment

period for another 90 days, and he said the document leaves too many

unanswered questions.

"In

the end it is the leaders of these agencies before us that will be

faced with a judgment call if this EIS is adequate," he said.

"And yes, there may be loud political voices urging you to forge

ahead and move the project to the next stage, but most Minnesotans

aren’t ready to go there."