There was a sigh of relief from the business community Thursday at the final public hearing in PolyMet’s 14-year process to obtain nonferrous mining permits.
The session in Duluth followed the introduction of draft permits by two state agencies. Those drafts typically foretell the final permits that will be issued unless important new scientific information is brought forward, which wasn't the case Thursday.
Participants, some of whom were bused in from metro Minnesota, were greeted by an unusually strong law enforcement presence. Although past hearings had been contentious, a protest that halted an unrelated pipeline hearing last fall prompted a massive show of force before and during Thursday’s public meeting at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Those who entered had to leave their signs behind, empty their beverage containers and undergo a pat-down. Inside the DECC, Duluth police officers, St. Louis County deputies and Minnesota state troopers patrolled the halls and meeting spaces.
At a 5 p.m. rally hosted by Jobs for Minnesotans, pro-mining signs were distributed to participants, but they were told to return them before leaving the room. Nancy Norr, master of ceremonies for the rally, asked those in the packed room to maintain a respectful demeanor during the formal session, in which the public provided input on PolyMet’s draft permit to mine, its draft air and water permits and its draft wetlands permit.
While at the rally, however, mining supporters loudly endorsed PolyMet’s plan to mine copper, nickel and precious metals near Hoyt Lakes.
“We’re here with smiling faces for the first time in a number of years, because we’re in total agreement with our two most high level, qualified environmental regulatory agencies – the Minnesota DNR and MPCA. They have issued permits to allow this project to move forward,” said Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. “This is a positive, positive night.”
With equal enthusiasm, Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President David Ross endorsed the project.
“We recognize how important this project is, not only to the Range, but to Duluth. We are an industrial port city and we depend on the Range. How well you do there has a direct impact on us in Duluth. We stand in unwavering support with our brothers and sisters at PolyMet and from the Range and from the labor community. So, let’s go forward and get this approved and get this done,” Ross said.
Labor also endorsed the project. Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Construction and Trades Council, said the project will create two million hours of work for those in the skilled crafts.
“We’re with PolyMet, and we’re ready to go to work,” he said.
In a letter, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan said PolyMet has met the requirements of an extensive environmental review process. Mining the minerals in Minnesota, he wrote, is more ethical than importing them from foreign countries that have few, if any, environmental regulations and workers face unparalleled exploitation.
“Right here in Minnesota, we have the ability, better than perhaps anywhere in the world, to mine and to do it in a way that protects both the environment and our workers,” Nolan said in a statement read by Jeff Anderson, his Congressional aide.
State Sen. David Tomassoni called Minnesota’s environmental review process “the gold standard.”
“This has been a long process. We’ve checked every box. Every box has been rechecked. The people of Northern Minnesota are ready to go to work. It’s time to mine,” he said.
A relatively new group called “Better in Our Backyard” said numerous green projects need “clean copper” that is mined in Minnesota.
“We are closer than ever to getting this project done. The PolyMet project … will produce a $500 million impact in Northern Minnesota every year for 20 years,” said representative Arik Forsman.
The minerals not only are needed for everyday life but also to maintain national security, said St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.
“This issue has divided our community and now it’s time to come together and support this environmentally sound project,” he said.
Duluthians understand that if mining stops, so does the city’s future, County Commissioner Tom Rukavina added. He noted that maritime ore vessels aren’t traveling to Duluth to see tourists – the tourists are visiting Duluth to see those ships.
“After 14 years, we’re here tonight hopefully for the last time. PolyMet has met every current rule, law and statute to mine non-ferrous ore. There’s never been any doubt we can do this right. We all use these products, so let’s start working together,” he said.
During the hearing, non-ferrous mining opponents were equally vocal.
Tom Thompson of Duluth argued the world faces no shortage of copper and suggested it be recycled more vigorously rather than mined.
Tonia Kittelson of Duluth called for dry stacking of tailings. “Earthen dams are old technology,” she said.
Paula Maccabee, advocacy director of Water Legacy, contended both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency use policies that are too weak to protect the public and the environment. Jan Kehoe, who said she’s a wetlands scientist, said the loss of wetland acreage has been significantly underestimated.
In an interview, PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry said that despite the criticism his company has faced, the hearing process has been important.
“Based on comments we’ve received, we have modified the project along the way and because of that, it is a better project,” he said.
PolyMet currently is pursuing project financing. Cherry anticipates capital will be in place when final permits are issued so pre-mining construction work can begin immediately.
For those who prefer a less theatrical venue to raise their concerns, written comments will continue to be received until March 6 for the permit to mine. They will be accepted until March 16 for the other three permits. Details can be found at http://polymet.mn.gov/