Close to 1,000 Iron Range residents filled the Mesabi East High School gym Wednesday night to learn more and to voice their support or concerns about the draft environmental impact statement on the …
Close to 1,000 Iron Range residents filled the Mesabi East High School gym Wednesday night to learn more and to voice their support or concerns about the draft environmental impact statement on the PolyMet mining project, near Hoyt Lakes.
The draft EIS was released last month after more than four years of effort identifying the environmental effects of the state’s first non-ferrous mining project. PolyMet’s planned NorthMet project is expected to primarily produce copper and nickel, but also significant amounts of platinum, palladium, cobalt, and gold.
The release of the draft EIS is a major step forward in the company’s efforts to open a mine, but it still remains unclear when that might happen. Public comment on the draft EIS runs through Feb. 3. After that, the DNR and Army Corps, which are overseeing the process, will have to respond to comments and possibly conduct additional research as a result. That typically can take 4-5 months, but officials indicated that time frame could be longer in this case due to the magnitude of the project. Once a final EIS is approved, PolyMet would then begin the permitting process, which is likely to take several months more.
While state regulators acknowledged the project will entail significant environment effects, many of the supporters of the project touted the environmental benefits as well. “The new green economy is about to explode,” said Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), addressing the crowd that turned out for the public presentation. Tomassoni and Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Pike), who also spoke, both noted that many of the metals that PolyMet would produce are needed in a wide range of green products, such as solar panels, hybrid cars, and wind turbines. “Whether you support this project or have concerns, no one will dispute that we need these metals,” said Rukavina.
Supporters argue that by taking advantage of the former LTV processing plant and tailings basin, the PolyMet project minimizes the need for disrupting undeveloped sites, as would likely be the case for mining operations elsewhere. “I say we should mine right here. Let’s not export our pollution,” said Rukavina. Both Rukavina and Tomassoni urged quick approval of the EIS, so mining can get underway.
On that point, Rukavina and Tomassoni not only spoke for many in the audience— they spoke for the entire Range legislative delegation as well as Congressman Jim Oberstar, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, all three of whom issued statements of support for the project.
While supporters touted the environmental pluses, the draft EIS itself does identify significant effects, including a sizable loss of wetlands. According to John Ahlness, with Army Corps of Engineers, the operation will directly impact about 850 acres of wetlands, mostly coniferous peatlands, and indirectly impact another 650 wetland acres.
“It would be the largest single wetlands impact that the St. Paul office (of the Army Corps) has permitted,” said Ahlness. As part of the EIS process, Ahlness said regulators and the company have developed some changes in the plan that help to reduce the impacts in some areas, but he said a significant amount of compensatory wetlands will need to be created elsewhere to make up for the losses. The company has proposed two sites for wetlands mitigation, including one in Aitkin County and one in Pine County.
Some opponents turn out
Even as supporters dominated Wednesday’s event, there were some local critics in the crowd. Bob Tammen, a retired electrical worker from Soudan, has followed the mining debate closely and he says he remains unconvinced by the arguments of supporters. “It’s too bad that we have a lot of smart people focused on developing a low grade mining operation rather than a high grade manufacturing sector,” he said. Tammen said automation has reduced the job-creating potential of resource extracting industries like mining. And Tammen questioned the ability of mining to build economically-viable communities. “If mining created healthy communities, we’d have some by now,” he said.
Comment process unusual
While Wednesday’s meeting was billed as both informational and to solicit public comment, some were not happy with the way that comment was gathered. Normally, the public is allowed to voice their views before an assembled audience, which gives those listening a chance to hear the views and arguments of their neighbors. But such “public” comments weren’t allowed during Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, anyone wishing to comment had to do so one-on-one with a stenographer, in isolation from others.
“That decision was a screw-up on somebody’s part,” said Rep. Rukavina during his comments to the crowd. “If I was governor, people would have been able to talk tonight,” he quipped.