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Meeting in PolyMet's backyard packed with mine supporters

AURORA -- Most communities across the Iron Range sprouted a century or more ago to support the mining industry, and this town of 1,682 people was no exception.

PolyMet hearing
Brian Nelson of Cloquet fills out a written comment in support of the PolyMet copper mine project at Wednesday night's public hearing in Aurora. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

AURORA -- Most communities across the Iron Range sprouted a century or more ago to support the mining industry, and this town of 1,682 people was no exception.

So when the nearby LTV Steel Mining taconite operations closed for good in January 2001, it was no surprise that Aurora and neighboring Hoyt Lakes were hit hard. Businesses closed. Families moved away to find work. Fewer kids filled the schools.

The population peaked here in about 1960 at more than 2,800 people, as taconite production soared. Now, with no mine operating nearby, there are 40 percent fewer residents. The Mesabi East school district lost a fourth of its students after LTV closed, dropping from 1,303 to about 940 today.

So, at Mesabi East High School on Wednesday night, it also was no surprise that the second of three public hearings on the PolyMet project was filled with folks from the eastern Iron Range who say a copper mine is a pretty good idea.

The school's gym was packed with nearly 700 people, the vast majority telling the regulatory agencies involved -- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service -- that the environmental review is sound, and the project should move forward.

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That the PolyMet operations would sprout on the shuttered LTV property is not lost on eastern Rangers. Just about every business in town Wednesday had a sign in the window proclaiming, "We Support Mining." Far from being leery of putting more of their economic future back in the hands of a mining company, most people here said they think PolyMet will help stabilize their communities.

Scott Smolich of Aurora said his class of 1979 had more than 200 graduates. Now, he said, the school has fewer than 50 per year. Smolich, an Aurora city councilor and retired worker from the mine explosives industry, said PolyMet could be the impetus for economic stability if not a resurgence to the heyday of taconite in the 1970s.

Justin Mattson of Biwabik, just down the road from Aurora, brought his wife and two young children to the meeting to show their support. Mattson is a chemistry teacher at Mesabi East and said he understands the concerns people have about copper mining. But he said any risk is worth the reward.

"It's not just that this would be great for the community economically,'' Mattson said while holding 1-year-old son, Gustaf. "But we all use these materials (PolyMet would mine.) Let's harvest them here. We can do it right in Minnesota."

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 or, worse, breach controls and spoil local waters, leaving taxpayers to pay for the cleanup.

Geologists say the so-called Duluth Complex of rock in the area is one of the largest untapped copper-nickel deposits in the world. If PolyMet is successful at clearing the regulatory process several other copper mining projects are waiting in the wings.

Supporters 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.

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"I'm not just supporting this because it will provide good jobs for labor. I believe in this process. I believe PolyMet can do this right, that they will do this right,'' said Brian Nelson of Cloquet, a member of the Ironworkers Union. "This has the potential to be a big deal for all of this part of Minnesota."

Brian Maki, president of Lakehead Constructors construction company who grew up in Hoyt Lakes and who has a home in Aurora, agreed.

"We have done our homework. And the science is on the side of progress," said Maki, one of more than 40 people who spoke publicly at the meeting. "Every job is a man. Every job is a family."

But not everyone who spoke Wednesday night is satisfied with the environmental review. Paul Schurke, an Ely tourist outfitter, said the document under review markedly underestimated stream flows of the Partridge River, into which water from the PolyMet operation would flow. He said that miscalculation has likely skewed many of the computer models used to conclude the project won't harm the environment.

Upcoming meeting
One more PolyMet copper mine public hearing is set to take comments and provide information on the project's environmental review: Jan. 28 at the RiverCentre in St. Paul. The event will have the same format as Wednesday night's event in Aurora, with a 5 p.m. open house and public comments at 7 p.m. For more information, including how to submit comments, go to mndnr.gov/polymet . Public comments will be accepted until March 13.

PolyMet hearing
Edith and Mike Tappa of Grand Portage show their support for the proposed PolyMet copper mine project at Wednesday night's public hearing at Mesabi East High School in Aurora. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Related Topics: IRON RANGEMINING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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