By Ron Brochu
It was a scene more likely to occur at a pep rally prior to a Duluth East vs. Hermantown hockey game
People waved signs to express their loyalty. They wore large, colorful buttons. They cheered. They jeered. They clapped. There was everything except a pep band.
Despite appearances, these folks were attending a formal public hearing on the contentious issue of mining copper, nickel and other precious minerals in Northeastern Minnesota. Two thousand seats were filled Thursday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, where people were invited to comment on a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) prepared by regulators for the proposed PolyMet nonferrous minerals mine.
Last week, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr asked Minnesotans not to treat Thursday’s session as a referendum, but rather to address scientific data within the SDEIS, which was prepared by the DNR, Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service. Some participants followed his advice but many others didn't.
Even before the public hearing, environmentalists expressed distrust of the system – questioning the work of everyone from regulators to college educators. Some argued the process is driven by capitalism.
“The money is really loud and the people are really quiet,” retired Duluth teacher Phyllis Mead said at a news conference held three hours prior to the official meeting.
“This is not jobs versus the environment, but rich versus poor,” said Mike Kuitu, who added that big corporations don’t care about Northeastern Minnesota or understand its unique environment.
More to the point, Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for WaterLegacy, said the SDEIS doesn’t address potential leaks or unusual weather events that might allow polluted water to leave a holding pond on the PolyMet site near Hoyt Lakes.
“It’s like a house of cards. Some of the assumptions are unjustified,” she said in an interview.
Like Landwehr, PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry said the hearing was not meant to be a straw poll.
“We’re not here to discuss whether or not we mine, but how we mine,” he told BusinessNorth. “We’ll follow the law,” added Bruce Richardson, vice president of corporate communications.
Many speakers, however, questioned whether existing environmental regulations are adequate. Some also contended a UMD economic impact study was flawed. Others took aim at the environmental review process. One of them, Ian Kimmer, area program director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said the review period for a 2,100-page S-DEIS is too short for a thorough analysis.
Proponents were equally strident, including former state legislator Joe Begich, 84, who said Minnesota’s environmental regulations are the toughest in the United States.
“There’s nothing wrong with mining if it’s done the right way,” he said.
PolyMet has been preparing environmental documents for 10 years, noted Phil Larson of Duluth. He said a growing national population is demanding more copper every year. Mining it in Minnesota would guarantee the process is done correctly, Larson said.
Two additional hearings will be held – one at Mesabi High School in Aurora on Jan. 22 and the other at the RiverCentre in St. Paul on Jan. 28.
Comments also may be submitted in writing until March 13. They can be e-mailed to NorthMetSDEIS.email@example.com. E-mail submissions should include a full name and legal mailing address.
Those who prefer to submit comments by mail should address their letter to Lisa Fay, EIS Project Manager, MDNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources Environmental Review Unit, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 25, St. Paul, MN 55155-4025.