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Duluth councilors want PolyMet hearings

Three Duluth city councilors have thrown their names behind an effort calling for administrative law judge hearings on state permits for the proposed PolyMet copper mine project.

Councilors Gary Anderson, Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund held a media event Tuesday to announce their support for so-called evidentiary hearings.

Several Duluth-area residents last month called for the hearings which they say would allow a neutral, third-party decide if the state permits proposed — especially the permit to mine — are proper under state laws.

PolyMet already has applied for wetlands, water use, dam and other permits this summer, with several more applications expected in coming months, including the permit to mine application. The company hopes to have all the permits approved and work started in 2017, along with securing financing to pay for the project, and then start mining about 18 months after construction begins.

Critics of the project say the administrative law judge process, rather than simply an agency decision, would make sure all viewpoints are aired and on the record before any permits are issued.

Anderson said it's his goal to pass a City Council resolution as early as next week asking the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to use an administrative law judge to hear testimony on the permits. The resolution would be entirely advisory and has no power over the state agency.

"The citizens of Duluth I've talked to want to make sure that this is a very public and transparent process, and this is a good step to do that," Anderson said. "It's a good step for the city of Duluth because we are downstream of this project and because we rely on natural resources for so much of our economy."

DNR officials, who will decide many of the most critical of the nearly two-dozen permits PolyMet will need to start mining, have said it is too early to decide if administrative law judge hearings should be called. The DNR said it will make that decision once permit applications have been submitted and found to be in order.

Mining industry officials say the DNR has already pledged to accept public comments on the proposed permits and that any administrative law judge hearings would be unnecessary, redundant and only meant to further delay the project.

Meanwhile Tuesday, copper mining opponents released the results of a public-opinion poll taken recently by Public Policy Polling and paid for by Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness that found that 70 percent of Duluth residents agree "the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources should hold a hearing run by an impartial judge where all sides can present evidence before making a decision on permits for PolyMet." Only 22 percent of those surveyed disagreed with this statement.

The poll found Duluth residents divided on whether they support or oppose the PolyMet mine proposal 41 percent to 41 percent, with 18 percent of those surveyed "not sure."

The project, estimated at $650 million to build, would employ 300 workers for about 20 years. Supporters say the jobs would help diversify the Iron Range economy that is tied to the cyclical iron ore mining industry.

But critics say the copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and other valuable metals that PolyMet plans to mine and process are locked inside rock that is high in sulfide. When that rock is unearthed and exposed to air and water, it creates acidic runoff that can pull heavy metals and other contaminants out of the rock and into nearby waterways.