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Huge crowd in St. Paul hears impassioned speeches on PolyMet’s proposed mine

In a room of over 2,000 citizens, 59 of the 600-plus who signed up to speak got the chance to deliver a three-minute pitch.

Well over 2,000 people gathered for Tuesday evening's PolyMet hearing.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Even in fair weather, the crowd at Tuesday evening’s public hearing on the PolyMet mining project at the RiverCentre in St. Paul would have been impressive: at least 2,100 by the official count, in a mass no news photo can really convey, and more than the two earlier sessions in Duluth and Aurora combined.

Many hundreds had traveled a half-day, in temperatures that didn’t get above zero, to be felt if not heard: Organizers had made clear that getting a moment at the microphone would require winning a lottery. Of more than 600 who signed up to speak, only 59 got the chance to deliver a three-minute pitch.

For three solid, tightly paced hours, the speakers alternated almost perfectly between pro and con —  not only on whether PolyMet’s NorthMet project should go forward, but also on the actual subject of the hearing, which was whether the much-redone environmental review of NorthMet is now adequate.

  • 29 spoke out against the NorthMet project and/or the agencies’ review, with most  alleging deficiencies — some quite specific — in the current environmental impact statement prepared by the Minnesota DNR, the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. Nearly all of these focused on the problem of very long term and possibly perpetual acid drainage from sulfide ores.
  •  30 spoke in favor of the project, usually without much reference to particulars of the agencies’ regulatory review. Their consistent message: Northern Minnesota needs the economic boost of copper/nickel mining; the impact assessments have gone on long enough; PolyMet and its regulators can be trusted to ensure environmentally benign mining; it’s time to let the dirt fly.

The two sides differed strategically in one way that I found interesting — use of a procedural rule that allowed someone whose name had been drawn for a speaking spot to yield their time to another. This happened 31 times, by my count:

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PolyMet’s challengers used the option on 10 occasions, usually yielding time to a spouse, fellow student or technical expert on some portion of project review. Just once, this process brought up a speaker for whom the testimony was part of his job: Steve Morse, who heads the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Larry Long of Minneapolis sang an anti-mining song he dedicated to Pete Seeger.

(It also brought up the troubadour Larry Long, with guitar and harmonica, who managed to get out two minutes of a new anti-mining song for which he’d managed to work the phrase “acid rock” into the lyrics.)

PolyMet’s supporters, by contrast, used the option 21 times, and almost always the time was yielded to elected officials, business executives, union leaders and others you might consider as being paid in some way to be at the podium.

There were three current or former legislators in the bunch — Sen. David Tomassoni, former Sen. Ron Dicklich, former Rep. Tom Rukavina — and a string of mayors and county commissioners, past and present, from the Iron Range communities.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Former Sen. Ron Dicklich of Duluth said environmentalists are pursuing a shameful anti-mining agenda against the PolyMet project.

This was well within the rules, of course, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it.

But you couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration of the present state of this debate, in which serious and usually science-based environmental concerns typically are not actually answered but are merely rebutted with assertions of economic and political power.

Here are some of the comments from last night’s session that seemed to me to frame this divide most clearly, compellingly or both:

Rukavina, of  Virginia, who knows how to grab a headline as well as anyone, held up a grocery bag and suggested that everyone in the audience who opposes mining deposit, on their way out, their cell phones, iPads, car keys and other items that depend on metals PolyMet would mine.

“Everyone in this room uses the metals we’re talking about, so we’re all polluters. … This project — think about it —is the biggest recycling project in the history of Minnesota.

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“We’re not talking about pop cans and beer bottles on the curbs here, folks. We are talking about (re-using) crushers, concentrators, railroads, tailings ponds, haul roads — they’re all already there. “

Bob Tammen of Soudan, a retired electrician in the taconite mines, rebutted the notion that mining is a revenue stream for Minnesotans. Responding to the mayor of Hoyt Lakes, who had talked about tireless efforts by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to diversify the regional economy, Tammen said:

“I go to IRRRB meetings and I can assure you they work tirelessly to rebate tax dollars to right back to the mining companies — in the last 20 years, more than $200 million. They’ll do it again this year unless we embarrass them enough, and it takes a lot to embarrass a mining company.”

Tomassoni, of Chisholm, whose district includes five of the state’s six taconite mines, said “mining is our way of life.”

The impact assessment in its current form, “of approximately 2,200 pages, costing more than $65 million, eight years in the making, with seven agencies both state and federal involved … it’s hard to imagine that more can be done.”

“The agencies deserve a lot of credit for making sure it was done right. PolyMet will be done right, and jobs and the environment will co-exist for the benefit of everyone.”

Scott Helgeson of Bloomington, a self-described MBA who understands investment and business models, said the proposal to build a project that might require 500 years of expenditure on cleanup and containment is “insane.”

He had just come back from Utah, where “just up the road from Salt Lake City is a big mine, a copper mine. The people who live next to that copper mine are relying on reverse osmosis for their well water. They cannot drink it. The EPA says it’s just fine.

“What prevents [PolyMet] from going bankrupt 30 years from now and saying, guys, we just can’t pay the bills anymore. Are we insane?”

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Jason George, speaking for the International Union Operating Engineers Local 49, said “it’s hard for me to believe all these people who get up and say there’s no way we can do this [safely]. I’ve never heard so much negativity. This is America — we can do anything, right?”

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Jason George of the International Union Operating Engineers Local 49 said he has 3,000 Minnesota members working heavy construction in North Dakota, and “let’s bring ’em home.”

Referring to estimates that NorthMet would create more than 300 mining and processing jobs, he said, “Nobody’s talking about 2 million construction hours, which is what it’s gonna take to build this project. That’s about what it took to build Target Field. We’re talking about a stadium-sized project in northern Minnesota, which is desperate for jobs. 

“Right now there are 3,000 49ers who live in Minnesota but are working in North Dakota. Let’s bring ’em home.”

Morse, of St. Paul, noted that as a deputy commissioner of the DNR for four years earlier in his career, he oversaw environmental reviews — including PolyMet’s proposals. A chief concern about this review in its current form, he said, is that it is “completely lacking” in plans for accidents and emergencies “if something goes wrong with the tailings ponds, the pumps, the pipes, the filters of the water treatment system that need to operate for hundreds of years.”

“Surely we have learned something from the oil wells erupting in the Gulf of Mexico, chemical tanks contaminating drinking water in West Virginia, and oil-tanker trains exploding on the North Dakota prairies. None of this was supposed to happen, yet it did occur.”

Jeffrey Hanson, of Babbitt, impressed me with the complexity of his  testimony. With choking  emotion in his voice, he told of growing up on Birch Lake, which his bedroom window overlooked, and which is now “Ground Zero” for other copper/nickel mining that may lie beyond the PolyMet project.

“The deposits are under my lake, by the shores of my lake, and I’ve been passionately concerned about that since they first discovered copper and nickel back in 1964. Ever since then, I’ve known that, sometime, they’re going to mine around my lake.”

“We can’t exchange the environment for mining,” he said, but then surprised me by telling about his work over the past six years — with PolyMet — to mitigate acid drainage from old taconite operations, including the Dunka Pit near his lake. “We have to do it right,” he said, and he still thinks that’s possible.

But on the basis of sheer newsiness, the last word today goes to Ron Sternal of St. Louis Park, a retired Wall Street executive who has been looking at the PolyMet project from a different vantage point and made some points that you probably haven’t seen in media coverage thus far. Excerpts from the most informative three minutes in the hearing:

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You’ve all heard that northern Minnesota is home to one of largest copper deposits in the world. It’s not. It doesn’t even come close.

At peak production, this mine would produce 72 million pounds per year. The largest copper mine in the United States, which doesn’t even make the list of the top 10 mines in the world, is the Morenci mine in Arizona, which produces 1 billion pounds a year.

People ask, can we trust PolyMet? It’s not PolyMet we need to trust. It is Glencore Xstrata, the primary owner of PolyMet, which [reportedly] will buy the rest of PolyMet once all the permits are in place. So, who is Glencore Xstrata?

Glencore Xstrata is a Swiss-based firm known for its ruthlessness. It is the fourth-largest mining company in the world. It controls 50 percent of the world’s copper through its ownership of more than 100 mines around the world, and its commodities trading operations.

Glencore Xstrata has run up a long list of labor and environmental abuses, including 58 mining fatalities between 2008 and 2010, over twice the number reported by any other mining company over that period.

Just in 2012, their environmental and labor record includes dumping raw acid in waterways in the Congo, failure to provide a vapor barrier to keep an acid mist from descending on 3,000 people in Zambia, utilizing child labor as young as 10 years old in mines in Congo, and causing environmental damage at its McArthur River mine in Australia.

Can we trust these people to “do it right” in Minnesota? I think not.

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The DNR continues to take public comments on the Northmet project; information is available here.

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Join MinnPost for a substantive discussion of environmental risks and regulatory challenges presented by proposals to mine and process metals from sulfide ores. Monday, Feb. 10, 5:30 p.m. Click here for details and tickets.