Hundreds of Supporters Back Copper Mining at Public Hearing

Hundreds of Iron Range residents of all ages flooded into the next-to-last public hearing to support the state’s first copper nickel mine. They didn’t use a teleprompter or focus group-tested talking points. They spoke from the heart and the headline in the Duluth paper spoke for them: “On Range, ironclad support for copper mining.”

High school students pleaded for state regulators to do the right thing.

For Brandi Salmela, a senior at Mesabi East High School, Wednesday night’s public meeting on the PolyMet copper mine, proposed about 10 miles from her school, was a chance to talk about the future of her town and her family.

Salmela was among about 30 Mesabi East students wearing bright blue PolyMet T-shirts emblazoned with “Tomorrow is Mine” who came as a group to show support for the project that has been on the drawing board longer than they have been alive.

Salmela said the state’s first-ever copper mine can provide the kind of jobs that support families and schools on the Iron Rage, which she called a unique and special place in Minnesota.

“We have an appreciation for the great outdoors and small-town life,” she said. “Mining jobs and the wages they pay support that way of life.”

Residents who work in related industries also made the case for one of the biggest economic development projects ever proposed for the region.

For Stephanie Dickinson of Aurora, a Minnesota Power employee, the PolyMet copper-nickel mine would mean people could stay on the East Range, buy homes, raise kids and plan for a future in Northeastern Minnesota. Since 2000, when LTV Steel Mining shuttered its taconite mine and processing center in nearby Hoyt Lakes, she said that future has been in doubt.

Even as PolyMet has slowly advanced over the past decade, Dickinson noted, Aurora has contracted, recently losing a drug store and grocery store. She implored the state regulatory agencies to approve the final permits quickly and let the mine open “so that we will no longer be a dying town.”

Union members need the work to support their families and way of life. Local elected officials urged regulators not to stand in their way.

Dave Snidarich, business agent for Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said he has 529 unemployed members this winter “looking for something to build,” and called for fast action on the permits. “It’s time. It’s overdue.”

Dave Lislegard, the newly elected mayor of Aurora, agreed.

“The notion that we can’t have jobs and protect the environment is simply wrong,” Lislegard said. He praised agency officials, and PolyMet engineers who designed the project, for doing their jobs well. “Now please move the process forward so we can do our job.”

High school students, miners and mayors spoke with one voice to the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources officials on hand: Get ‘er done!