It was standing room only at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Thursday night as about 1,500 people packed the facility for the first of three public hearings on the controversial PolyMet copper-nickel mining project in northern Minnesota, the Duluth News Tribune reports.
The hearing was hosted by the Minnesota Department of Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service to get input from the public on a 2,200 page environmental impact statement that was released last month.
PolyMet wants to mine copper, nickel and precious metals over a 20-year period at a site north of Hoyt Lakes.
Proponents say the project would yield huge economic benefits in the region, since the Canadian company says it would invest $650 million and generate 300-360 jobs over 20 years.
Detractors, however, fear the negative impact the operation might have on the environment. They say the threat of acidic mine runoff, along with sulfate and heavy metal water pollution, is too great, and taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for cleanup.
Minnesota Public Radio said while the discussion was passionate, the crowd was civil and there were no shouting matches.
PolyMet's Minnesota head was confident in the company's responsibilities.
"We all use these metals. We use them every day – they have to come from somewhere," Jon Cherry told KARE 11. "Minnesota has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the United States."
After an informational presentation, the hearing opened up for public comment. MPR said of the 171 who requested to speak, 80 took the microphone.
"The lack of common sense and the stupidity of it all is breathtaking … that we could even think of fouling or water forever for 20 years’ of mining jobs," Duluth resident Jane Whitledge said.
Among the crowd was Justin Randall, a 19-year-old Macalester College student who was raised in a mining town in Montana. While he said such operations have benefits, the dangers outweigh them.
"Unfortunately, this is not the taconite mining that northern Minnesota has such a strong heritage of," Randall told MPR. "This is entirely different. This is poisonous."
On the other side, a mill worker from Barnum said, "It’s natural resources folks. God gave it to us for a reason. We’re going to use it."
The News Tribune estimated half in the crowd were for the project, and the other half against. KARE 11 said seven buses carrying 500 supporters came in from the Iron Range.
"This is a great project. It has so many possibilities of good things," Aurora City Council member Dave Lislegard, who helped organize the caravan, told MPR.
The Star Tribune says American Indian tribes from the area who have disputed conclusions by public regulators presented their views at an open house before the hearing. An environmentalist for the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa called the mining proposal "a sign of progress."
Similar hearings are set to take place in Aurora on Jan. 22 and St. Paul on Jan. 28.