Two public meetings this week will give citizens one of their final chances to tell Minnesota officials what they think of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine.
The events are to gather feedback on the draft permit to mine and other key permits that the company needs before it starts digging. Signs increasingly point to PolyMet winning those approvals soon, and supporters are billing the meetings — Wednesday in Aurora and Thursday in Duluth — as a chance to finish the long process.
The project's critics acknowledge the stakes are high, and both sides plan rallies outside the Duluth event.
Canada-based PolyMet Mining Corp., part-owned by Anglo-Swiss commodities giant Glencore PLC, said it can mine safely while creating around 360 long-term jobs and hundreds of construction and other indirect jobs in a part of northeastern Minnesota long subject to the ups and downs of iron mining. The company also said it can guarantee to cover costs of shutting down and cleaning up the mine.
But critics point to the troubled environmental record of copper mining elsewhere.
Minnesota's as-yet untapped copper-nickel ore reserves contain sulfides that can leach acids and other pollutants in a wet environment. Nobody knows for sure how long wastewater from the site would need treatment. The critics have also raised safety fears about the dam that would contain the mine's waste, pointing to the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster in Canada.
Top DNR officials said at a conference last month that their job in deciding whether to approve the permits is just to determine whether PolyMet meets the legal standards and that proper procedures are followed — not whether opening a new era of mining is wise. Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the process is laid down in the law and he has to follow it.
"The reality of a regulator is that there are people on either side who will sue you if you get off that very narrow tightrope," he said.
One audience member told Landwehr that was a "cop-out." But Landwehr said state law is very clear: it's the policy of the state to exploit its mineral resources for the benefit of the state. It's a position that has frustrated environmentalists, who contend it's the DNR's job to decide if it's a good or bad project.
"Somebody has to make the determination if this poses unacceptable risks to Minnesota waters," said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Gov. Mark Dayton last fall said he thinks the risks are worth taking. And when Landwehr released the draft permit to mine and put it out for public comment last month, he said he would not have done so if he didn't believe that PolyMet had met all the requirements.
He said the comment process, including this week's meetings, are a good chance for citizens to raise any issues the agency has failed to consider.
The meetings will also cover draft air and water quality permits that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is considering. The DNR is also accepting written comments through March 6, while the MPCA is taking them through March 16. DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said the most effective comments for influencing decision-makers will deal with specifics about what's in or not in the draft permits, and say why that's important.
PolyMet's critics will have at least one more option besides litigation to stop or change the project. They can request a "contested case hearing ," a trial-like proceeding before an administrative law judge who will try to sort out the facts in dispute.
Klemz said he expects his group to do that and likely others, too.