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Local View: After Summer Internship, I’m a Believer in PolyMet

The following article was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune. It is the story of Mikayla Mellesmoen, who is studying environmental science at Mankato State University. Ms. Mellesmoen had a summer internship with PolyMet, where she worked closely with the environmental compliance team taking water samples, monitor gas vents, and assess the water levels in the area surrounding the mine.

When you hear “PolyMet,” what comes to mind? Growing up in Embarrass, I heard the mining company’s name in conversation quite frequently but never beyond that it might open the first copper-nickel mine in Minnesota. With little foundational knowledge of the project, it was quite easy to be swayed by either side of the issue. As an environmental science student, I was naturally concerned about claims from environmental groups that the project poses major threats to the environment. Still, I tried to remain open-minded because of my lack of knowledge on the subject.

I applied for PolyMet’s “Mining for Excellence” scholarship in 2019, which is geared toward STEM students. Later that year, my scholarship application was accepted, and I had the chance to interview with the committee. This was my first interaction with the company, and its representatives were genuine and kind. Shortly after, the company notified me it was awarding me a scholarship and invited me to the Minnesota high school hockey tournament to receive it — a true Minnesotan gesture.

The PolyMet scholarship formed the base of my knowledge on the project. Finally, I could put faces to the company name and better describe its values and the project. After getting to know the welcoming and honest team and learning more about the project, the claims of environmental destruction from opposition groups did not seem so intriguing anymore — or accurate.

Touring the mine site in the fall before starting college, I was fascinated by the rich history of the former LTV Mining Company’s buildings and facilities there and PolyMet’s plans for reusing and remediating the property.

The experiences from the tour and the scholarship event stayed with me through my first year at Minnesota State University Mankato. There, many people have a hard time locating the Iron Range on a map. I often mention mining when describing my hometown because mining plays such an important role in our lives up north. While I didn’t think much of the industry growing up, I realized while living away from home how connected I was to it.

I reached out to PolyMet this spring because the environmental team had two summer internships available. My environmental science major requires an internship or research project, and being able to fill that credit while working close to home would be a unique opportunity. I was elated to be selected.

Working side by side with PolyMet’s environmental team allowed me to apply my college knowledge to a real-world experience. The department has many elements that are intertwined and complicated. I learned about the rigorous environmental permitting process, the countless monitoring and compliance requirements, and the major agencies and independent consultants involved.

I helped consultants take water samples, monitor gas vents, and take static water level measurements. These actions are among thousands of permit requirements that are used to monitor the site and its environment and ultimately protect it.

A highlight was assisting in a field study for macro-invertebrate and fisheries that assessed stream quality. It wasn’t until developing a spreadsheet of all 120 groundwater monitoring wells that I truly understood the magnitude of the monitoring program. PolyMet has more monitoring wells than all of the taconite mines on the Iron Range combined!

The company was open and honest with me from day one. They answered my questions and helped me understand the permitting process. PolyMet employees are real people who live in the area. They’re dedicated to the project’s success and to protecting our environment. The two go hand in hand.

Understanding the PolyMet project and the history behind it allowed me to connect with members of my family and community as they shared memories of the LTV operation and expressed their hope for the future generation of mining. My family lives just two miles from the north entrance of the PolyMet project. Its success is important to me and to the region.

Consider me now a true believer in the project and in its ability to produce copper, nickel, and other important metals in a responsible and environmentally sound manner.

Mikayla Mellesmoen of Embarrass is a student at Minnesota State University Mankato and was an intern this summer for PolyMet Mining in Hoyt Lakes as part of the requirements for her environmental science degree. She wrote this commentary exclusively for the News Tribune.