Emotions ran high Wednesday evening as several hundred people packed the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center auditorium to demonstrate support or opposition for a federal minerals lease renewal proposed by Twin Metals.

The leases - which would allow exploratory drilling and subsequent mining at a proposed underground copper-nickel mine to continue near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - inspired community members, from small-business owners to local officials, to raise voices and concerns over local job opportunities and water quality during a public listening session held by the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday.

The Forest Service, which has been charged by the federal Bureau of Land Management to give - or not give - consent for the leases, will take public input until July 20. Wednesday’s public meeting was the first of two such sessions; the second will take place Tuesday at Ely High School.

People who wanted to speak at the listening session entered their name in a drawing for a chance to be heard for three minutes. If their name was drawn, they could also cede their time to someone else. After the first few speakers, Nancy Larson, one of the Forest Service moderators for the event, had to ask the audience to keep clapping and verbal support to a minimum so the hearing could continue at a faster pace.

Erik Packard, who received a particularly loud audience response after speaking during the session, said the BWCAW saved his life. After serving two tours in Iraq, Packard said he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide in 2012. Packard said a dog-sledding experience in the BWCAW provided by the Voyageur Outward Bound School offered him and other veterans an opportunity a chance to heal.

“You learn that you’re not as broken as you think you are,” Packard said of his experience in the BWCAW.

Packard said it is not uncommon for people, specifically veterans, to retreat to the BWCAW for spiritual healing. He said the presence of drilling already has had an impact on other groups of veterans who have gone on the same trip. The noise from the drilling changed the character of the wilderness, he said.

“In Iraq, water was everything. … When you think of these places like the Boundary Waters, where you can drink right out of it, why risk that?”

Though many speakers raised concerns of environmental conservation and water quality, as many community members spoke of the area’s desperate need for jobs to support the local economy - jobs that could be created by Twin Metals in the future if the leases are renewed.

Bernice Norregaard of Babbitt worked in taconite mines from 1974 to 2010. She said her mining job helped her raise her kids and put them through college.

“To close the door before you even open it is wrong,” Norregaard said of the potential for the Forest Service to decline consent for lease renewal. “These are good jobs that would be created.”

During the public hearing, Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich said the city receives more than one-third of its annual budget, about $600,000, from the taconite mine tax. She said money brought in the area by BWCAW tourism is not enough to support the local economy.

“Our local businesses struggle on a daily basis,” she said. “We need these jobs.”

Gary Anderson, Duluth City Council member, said many jobs in Minnesota rely on the health of the ecosystem and the availability of natural resources.

“If there’s pollution upstream, it will affect those of us downstream,”said Anderson, who is opposed to a Twin Metals lease renewal.

Although a lease renewal would allow further exploratory drilling near Ely, it could also create a window for another mine in the area, which could cause damage to the area’s water quality, Anderson said.

“This is just one step, but it’s a critical step,” he said. “We all benefit from the Boundary Waters.”

Scot Bol of Duluth said the community should protect water quality as well as create jobs by devising a “green new deal.” He said the jobs created in the area should be both economically and environmentally sustainable.

“Let’s start creating some alternative energy jobs,” Bol said. “This idea of mining sulfide - it hasn’t been done safely, ever.”

Bill Whiteside of Hibbing said Minnesota has the Legislature to regulate environmental issues so that mining and BWCAW conservation do not have to be mutually exclusive.

“We’ve got the right laws in Minnesota to take care of these problems that would otherwise occur,” Whiteside said.

Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals government affair adviser, said Twin Metals is seeking a fair process in its lease renewal. He said he hopes the Forest Service listens to community concerns and makes a decision based on science, not emotion.

“It shouldn’t be dictated by fear or pressure from activist organizations that oppose mining,” he said.

In a media-only news conference before the hearing, Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson said the Forest Service is concerned about water quality, location of the leases within the BWCAW watershed and the ability to mitigate potential water contamination. She said the Forest Service will use science and public input to decide whether to consent to the lease renewal.

“We take our role in providing consent very seriously,” she said.

If you go

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  • Twin Metals Lease Renewal Public Listening Session
  • Ely High School 
  • 5-7:30 p.m. July 19. Doors will open at 4 p.m.

Written, mailed and emailed comments will carry just as much weight as verbal comments. Comments are due by July 20 to: Twin Metals Lease Input, Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Ave. Place, Duluth, MN 55808 or emailed to TwinMetalsLeaseInput@fs.fed.us.