Published January 13, 2014, 12:00 AM
Our view: Insist on civility at PolyMet hearingsThe coming chaos, fueled by years of pent-up emotions and expected to feature busloads of high-volume opposition, has been fully expected, ever since the trio of public hearings was announced to gather comments on the environmental review of a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine on the Minnesota Iron Range.
So who could blame Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr for making the rounds last week to urge civility and calm and to try to set a positive, productive tone for the meetings, the first of which is scheduled Thursday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center? Landwehr and staffers met with MPR, TV news reporters, Iron Range editors, the News Tribune and anyone else, it seemed, who’d listed to a plea for peace.
“The thing I want people to understand is this is not a referendum on mining. If you want to make your opinion known about mining, the capitol is the right place to do that. This is an analysis of the project, and what we’re looking for are people’s thoughts on the analysis,” Landwehr said during his meeting with the News Tribune, including members of the editorial board. “If you want to bring a bunch of people here to get up and say, ‘I hate mining,’ it’s not really going to help the process. … We want people to understand what the project is. I would argue that’s the primary purpose of these meetings, just to educate people on what the project is.”
So go get educated with information straight from the company about its plans. And ask all the questions you want during an opening two-hour open house. DNR, Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other experts and scientists closely scrutinizing the project will be there with answers.
But think twice about just venting or spouting special-interest buzz phrases during the three-hour public-comment period.
“There’s a lot of misinformation being thrown around, which I think is unfortunate,” Commissioner Landwehr said. “We will benefit most if we have an informed, honest discussion about this and what’s in the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).”
An example of misinformation is a charge that PolyMet will produce polluting acid mine drainage. But 70 percent of the rock being mined is low in sulfate, Landwehr said, and can’t produce the pollution. And the rest of the rock will be placed on a lined area where anything that runs off it can be collected and treated. This rock then will be dumped back into the mine and covered by water. Underwater, without air to mix with the water and sulfate, acid can’t be produced.
Another example is that waste from the PolyMet project will have to be treated forever. The EIS used 200-year and 500-year models. That doesn’t mean the site will pollute that long, according to company officials. Also, PolyMet will be required to set aside an adequate amount of money, upfront, to pay for any long-term cleanup. How much will be set aside will be determined during the permitting process. That’s still to come. Right now, the project is in the environmental-review process. The amount will be reevaluated every year and adjusted as necessary.
“If we ever get to a point in time where (pollution from the PolyMet site) can’t be handled, (it’ll be) because humanity changed, because World War Z came along and zombies took over. As long as there are people, there’ll be people to fix it,” Landwehr said.
Minnesota has some of the nation’s strongest environmental laws and financial-assurance regulations. With more than a century of experience, Northeastern Minnesotans know how to mine in a way that’s sensitive to the environment. The lengthy, thorough, years-long environmental-review process is assuring that copper-nickel mining will be done right here.
“There are a lot of people more interested in no mine than in a safe mine,” PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry told the News Tribune editorial board last week. “People don’t stop to think about, ‘Where does the metal come from that’s in my car?’ Do they think, ‘How’s electricity generated; how does the electricity get to the light switch when the lights come on?’ They don’t think about the copper wire. They don’t think about the power plants. They don’t think about the generators. And I think what they think more about is, ‘I don’t want this in my backyard.’ Well, that’s a different argument than, ‘Can this be done in an environmentally responsible manner?' "
The latter question is the question at the center of Thursday’s public hearing and the two hearings that’ll follow on Jan. 22 at Mesabi East High School and on Jan. 28 at St. Paul RiverCentre. Not whether there should be copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. It’s a legal activity. But how will it be done right. Let’s weigh in on that — even if by the busloads.
“It’s very important that everyone gets to express their view,” Cherry said of the upcoming meetings. “But just a reminder: It needs to be done civilly and respectfully. It doesn’t do either side any good to be obnoxious or over-the-top.”