Supporters of the proposed PolyMet project won the field Wednesday night in Aurora on the Iron Range, but on Thursday evening in Duluth opponents of Minnesota's first-ever copper mine made their case.
About 1,500 people attended the public meeting on permits for the proposed mine - about two-to-one against the project - with dozens on both sides speaking at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
It was the second of two meetings held to take public comments on the most important of 21 permits PolyMet needs in hand before it can begin to mine copper, nickel and other valuable metals near Babbitt and process them in an old taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency released the draft permits last month and will take comments into March. They'll then weight the public reaction and determine if any changes are needed. If not, the final permits could be in PolyMet's hands late this year.
Opponents of copper mining and its potential of acidic runoff have pledged that, if major changes aren't made in the permit conditions, they'll demand contested case hearings, file lawsuits to stop the permits, or both. Many opponents in the crowd Thursday wore or waved orange bandanas, a silent sign of protest against the mine, they said, and for clean water.
The PolyMet proposal and supposed safeguards "do not protect the public's interest," said Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson, urging the agencies to deny the permits. "It puts people downstream at risk and does not protect taxpayers."
Supporters this week mostly talked about the economic benefits of the mine and its 300 jobs, repeatedly saying the 13-year regulatory process has taken too long, and urging the agencies to approve the final permits quickly.
"There's no better time or place to build a mine," said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Association, noting that building the mine would put hundreds of union construction workers to work and create jobs for hundreds of mine workers.
Olson noted that the mine would be located amid current and past iron ore mines, and that the site is already served by roads, railroads and utilities and is in an already developed area.
Jim Snaffer of Prior Lake, Minn., said the U.S. needs the valuable metals locked in the Duluth Complex of rock where PolyMet plans to mine so the nation is not dependent on foreign countries.
"We have it here, let's use it," he said.
But critics offered more detailed and often scathing analysis of the permits, saying they are long on promises but short on protections. Many PolyMet opponents said they have pored over the thousands of pages of conditions on the the Toronto-based company's plans to mine and process the ore, keep any reactive rock from spurring acidic runoff into the environment and keep air pollution from becoming an issue. Several said Thursday that they don't like what they have found.
"The risk is too great," said Michael Pfau of Duluth, who said the state, in an era of diminishing global water supplies, should aggressively protect its increasingly valuable abundance of unspoiled lakes and rivers that make Minnesota "the Saudi Arabia of water."
Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, said it makes no sense for taxpayers and the state and federal governments to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the lower St. Louis River from past centuries of industrial waste "then issue issue a permit to create an industrial wasteland in the river's headwaters." Water leaving the PolyMet mine and processing area would flow into the Partridge River, a tributary to the St. Louis River that flows into Lake Superior in the Twin Ports.
"Leave the metals in the ground" until technology develops to mine them safely, Staffon concluded.
For more information, to see the draft permits and for links on how to comment, go to polymet.mn.gov.