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Tonight: Public meeting to talk about next steps in controversial mine project

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There's a big meeting Tuesday night on the Iron Range.

It's about the NorthMet Project – a copper-nickel mine proposed by PolyMet that has turned into a controversial, hot-button issue in Minnesota.

Here's a look at what exactly is happening, what to expect, and where the project is right now.

What's happening tonight?

It's a public meeting, open to anyone who wants to come, to talk about the copper-nickel mine operation PolyMet wants to build in Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt (more on the specifics below).

The meeting is being held at Mesabi East High School in Aurora, so local governments who would be affected can participate. The open house starts at 6 p.m., with a presentation at 6:30 p.m. It'll stay open until 8:30 p.m.

The presentation, and other documents, are available on this website right now.

What can I expect at this meeting?

The DNR has this meeting preview on its site – and specifically says this is an informational meeting about the licensing steps, not a chance for the public to offer comments on the project or go over the environmental review. (There will be periods for that type of input later.)

They'll walk people through the permitting process – what PolyMet still would need to do, and which hurdles (including obtaining other state permits) they would need to clear, before the NorthMet project is actually ready to get started.

Representatives from PolyMet and the DNR will be at the meeting to answer questions.

Also, an indication they're expecting protesters and strong supporters: There are specific rules for the meeting about what signs you can bring. So read those if you're going to be pulling out some poster board.

Back up a second ��� what is the mine project?

PolyMet's NorthMet project would include an open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, making up the first copper-nickel mine in the state.

After years of back-and-forth between the company and state regulators, as well as plenty of political sniping over the proposal, the project is at the point where it could apply for a "permit to mine" application with the state.

A permit to mine is required for any mining operation in the state – PolyMet would need to apply for nonferrous metallic minerals permit to mine, the DNR says, which requires a $50,000 application fee.

The state also recently launched a website dedicated to giving updates on the PolyMet licensing process. Here's the site.

So what's the big deal?

The project is incredibly divisive. Meetings and hearings in recent years have drawn hundreds of people, packed into small rooms.

The region needs an economic shot in the arm, something that proponents of the mine (PolyMet says it would employ about 360) argue could be a huge benefit.

“I don’t think people realize that we are fighting for our lives up here,” Mary Skelton, mayor of Hoyt Lakes, told Forum News Service last fall.

But environmental concerns hang over the the project, with opponents arguing the risks aren't worth the possible damage to the northern Minnesota waters – especially being so close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

“PolyMet is extreme mining just as deep sea drilling is extreme, desperate drilling,” Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth said at a rally in October, according to the Minnesota Green Party. “Real jobs would fix our cities and repair our aging infrastructure, not destroy our water for 500 years.”

It's worth noting, though, that the DNR determined in its 3,500-page review of an environmental impact statement that it wouldn’t cause undue damage to the Boundary Waters and the surrounding environment if something went wrong. The DNR did, however, note the wastewater would have to be treated indefinitely.

What does the public think?

The most recent poll we have is a Star Tribune survey from September of 2014.

At that point, 40 percent of respondents thought the mine should be approved, while 23 percent thought it should be rejected.

Break off and just look at northern Minnesota, and support jumps up to 52 percent – with only 10 percent voting for it to be denied.

Broadly, 48 percent of people who took the survey thought environmental protection should be prioritized over the new mining jobs. About 32 percent sided with the mining jobs, and 20 percent said they weren't sure, according to the poll.

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