DULUTH, Minn. - The first formal public hearing on a proposed copper nickel mine in northeast Minnesota drew throngs of people, some of them who arrived by the bus load and poured into the DECC convention center Thursday night.
As it turned out the hottest ticket in town wasn't a show, but a showdown over the pros and cons of mining, good jobs versus the long term effects of the operation on wetlands and groundwater. More than 1,500 people representing all sides of the debate crowded into a ballroom, to weigh in Polymet Mining's proposed operation near Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
" It's not something our passions can make happen either way. Science is gonna solve this problem, and we have to trust science," Roger Skraba, the former mayor of Ely, told the crowd at one point.
"But as a wilderness fishing guide, I am not concerned. I trust that the mining, when it happens. it's going to be done properly."
The hearing is one of three scheduled as part of the lengthy process of creating a revised version of the Environmental Impact Statement, which is a threshold the mining plan must cross before reaching the permitting process. The Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources and US Forest Service are the lead agencies involved in overseeing this phase of the study.
"All you need to know about this plan is what Polymet wrote, that once the mining is done the water will have to be treated for at least 200 years," Jane Whitledge of Duluth remarked.
"The lack of common sense and the stupidity of it all is breathtaking! That we want to fowl our water for the sake of these mining jobs."
Most of those who spoke in favor of the mine cited the company's projections, that the operation will create 300 jobs during it's 20-year life. They also pointed to a study by the University of Minnesota Duluth that the mine would have a $515 million per year positive impact on the economy of St. Louis County.
Joe Begich, an 83-year-old former state senator from the iron mining town of Eveleth, said he trusted that Polymet would take care of the groundwater at the site.
"Nine feet from my driveway is Eveleth Taconite. I don't have a problem!" he declared.
"They live by their good rules. I live by my rules. There is not a problem!"
One of the most common environmental concerns about the proposed open pit mine is that the sulfide ore, once exposed to air, will create caustic acid that will pollute the groundwater, and eventually flow through aquifers into nearby rivers.
"With iron mining when we get water and oxygen we get rust, but when we've got sulfide mining we get acid," Mike Link, a former Northland College and Audubon Center professor, told KARE.
"Our lakes, our trout fishing, our swimming, our recreation, our livelihoods are more important than the short-term gain and the profit that will go to Canada."
But the company has insisted that acid leaching is not a major risk at the site. They've proposed a complex system for recycling water used at the site, and containing leaching of chemicals from the tailings, or waste rock, stored on site.
"The discussion really isn't about whether we should mine or not. The discussion is about mining in a way that's safe an appropriate, and doing it right, and we will," Jon Cherry, who heads Polymet Mining's Minnesota operations, told KARE.
He said Minnesota's financial assurance regulations ensure that the company will set aside enough money to offset the cost of a cleanup, in the event those environmental impact predictions turn out to be wrong.
"We all use these metals and we use them every day, and they have to come from somewhere," Cherry added.
"And Minnesota has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the United States. This doesn't have to be a choice between jobs and the environment."
Similar meetings are set for Aurora January 22nd and St. Paul January 28th.