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Continued: Divisive copper mine draws full house and strong views to first hearing

But so was the need for jobs.

“Ely can’t survive on tourism alone,” said Joe Baltich, the resort owner from Ely. “Another slice of the pie is mining.”

By the time the meeting concluded, about 80 people had had a chance to speak.

Next: Permits?

At issue Thursday was a DNR forecast — a dense, 2,200-page environmental impact statement released in December that took five years and cost PolyMet about $22 million — of the project’s effect on northeastern Minnesota.

That analysis, together with public comments, will lay the foundation for decisions by the DNR next year on whether to grant PolyMet the permits that would allow the project to proceed.

In an election year, there are strong political overtones as well, with Gov. Mark Dayton and other public officials trying to find a balance between the demands of environmentalists and those of the labor and industry communities.

Many environmentalists are alarmed about potential new risks. Unlike taconite, which has long been mined on the Iron Range, the precious metals of hard-rock mining are found in ore that contains sulfide. When exposed to air and water, sulfide can create acid drainage that leaches heavy metals and mercury from rock. The acidity can destroy aquatic life.

State officials and PolyMet executives say that only 30 percent of the ore that PolyMet would mine is high in sulfide and that there is reliable technology to prevent acid generation and protect the region’s natural assets.

But critics say that even the most-sophisticated mining and water-quality technologies can fail, and that large quantities of waste rock will generate additional pollutants such as heavy metals and sulfate, which is harmful to wild rice and other aquatic plants.

The DNR’s public comment period continues through March 13. The remaining hearings will be held at Mesabi East High School in Aurora on Jan. 22 and at the St. Paul RiverCentre on Jan. 28.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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