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On Range, ironclad support for copper mining

AURORA -- For Brandi Salmela, a senior at Mesabi East High School, Wednesday night's public meeting on the PolyMet copper mine, proposed about 10 miles from her school, was a chance to talk about the future of her town and her family. Salmela was...

Members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 wear shirts supporting the PolyMet project Wednesday evening during a public hearing at Mesabi East High School in Aurora on the last three major permits needed to start the project. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 wear shirts supporting the PolyMet project Wednesday evening during a public hearing at Mesabi East High School in Aurora on the last three major permits needed to start the project. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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AURORA - For Brandi Salmela, a senior at Mesabi East High School, Wednesday night's public meeting on the PolyMet copper mine, proposed about 10 miles from her school, was a chance to talk about the future of her town and her family.

Salmela was among about 30 Mesabi East students wearing bright blue PolyMet T-shirts emblazoned with "Tomorrow is Mine" who came as a group to show support for the project that has been on the drawing board longer than they have been alive.

Salmela said the state's first-ever copper mine can provide the kind of jobs that support families and schools on the Iron Rage, which she called a unique and special place in Minnesota.

"We have an appreciation for the great outdoors and small-town life," she said. "Mining jobs and the wages they pay support that way of life."

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For Stephanie Dickinson of Aurora, a Minnesota Power employee, the PolyMet copper-nickel mine would mean people could stay on the East Range, buy homes, raise kids and plan for a future in Northeastern Minnesota. Since 2000, when LTV Steel Mining shuttered its taconite mine and processing center in nearby Hoyt Lakes, she said that future has been in doubt.

Even as PolyMet has slowly advanced over the past decade, Dickinson noted, Aurora has contracted, recently losing a drug store and grocery store. She implored the state regulatory agencies to approve the final permits quickly and let the mine open "so that we will no longer be a dying town."

Salmela and Dickinson were among about 450 people who attended the meeting - most wearing a Go PolyMet hat or button - sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency, the first of two open-house and public input sessions to take comments on draft operating permits they have released for PolyMet Mining Corp.

The primary DNR permit would govern PolyMet's plan to mine the land, process the ore and ultimately reclaim the site. The PCA permits dictate how the company will control air and water pollution at the proposed open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes.

The agencies released the draft permits last month, signaling the company's plans appeared to comply with state and federal regulations.

After the agencies review public comments this spring, final permits for the projected $650 million project could be issued later this year, with construction set to follow. The company hopes to be mining and processing copper, nickel, platinum and other valuable metals by 2020.

Supporters say the PolyMet project, which will mine 32,000 tons of rock daily and employ about 300 people, will help diversify a regional economy that has been tied the cyclical iron mining industry for a century. The project will require an estimated 2 million construction hours.

Dave Snidarich, business agent for Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said he has 529 unemployed members this winter "looking for something to build," and called for fast action on the permits. "It's time. It's overdue."

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Dave Lislegard, the newly elected mayor of Aurora, agreed.

"The notion that we can't have jobs and protect the environment is simply wrong," Lislegard said. He praised agency officials, and PolyMet engineers who designed the project, for doing their jobs well. "Now please move the process forward so we can do our job."

Critics say that, unlike iron ore mining, the higher-sulfur rock that holds the copper - when exposed to air and water - poses too high a risk of acidic runoff that could spur heavy-metal pollution and other problems in downstream waterways, including the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.

Paul Renneisen of Schroeder, one of just a few PolyMet critics who spoke Wednesday said there's a very real possibility the PolyMet project will pollute air and water in the region. And he warned supporters that the rapidly automating mining industry will soon replace humans with robots in Minnesota mines as is happening in mines worldwide.

The state permits have no contracts mandating human employment numbers, he noted, adding that robots can drive trucks and trains "but they don't buy groceries and they don't pay union dues."

The second and final DNR/PCA public input meeting on the draft permits will be held today at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, 350 Harbor Drive, with an open house from 1-9 p.m. and public comments accepted from 6-9 p.m.

For more information, to see the draft permits and for links on how to comment, go to polymet.mn.gov.

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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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