There were sharply divided opinions among the three dozen people who spoke Wednesday evening in Duluth about whether the U.S. Forest Service should renew mineral leases for Twin Metals to explore a proposed copper mine next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

The speakers were divided about 40/60 for and against the lease renewal for the proposed $2.8 billion project on the Kawishiwi River that flows into the BWCA.

Some said the $2.8 billion project would provide desperately needed jobs for Iron Range communities; others said it wasn’t worth the risk of possibly polluting a state and national treasure.

Twin Metals, a joint venture of a Canadian firm called Duluth Metals Limited and the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta PLC, said in a recent report that it plans to start seeking regulatory approval in 2018. The mine would take about three years to build and eventually employ 850 people.

The Forest Service organized the listening session after it said in a news release in mid-June that it was “deeply concerned’’ about the project and might deny required federal mineral leases. While that announcement stunned some industry observers and many on Range, it was praised by Gov. Mark Dayton, who some months ago denied similar state leases.

Wednesday’s session before three Forest Service officials was part of a 30-day public comment period that ends Wednesday. Another session will be held Tuesday in Ely.

St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina of Ely spoke in support of the lease renewal. Tourism in the BWCA has been declining for a decade, he said, and is simply not sufficient to sustain jobs and the economy, he said.

“Those towns exist because they were created by mining,” he said. “For 135 years we’ve been mining sulfide [near the BWCA] and we’ve done such a good job, everybody thinks it’s wilderness.”

Rukavina told the officials, “You aren’t supposed to listen to emotions. You are supposed to be an unbiased group of people, bureaucrats who enforce the law and use science. I don’t know that you did that. ”

Nancy McReady, president of Conservationists with Common Sense, said Twin Metals simply wants to explore mineral deposits.

“They have no mine plan yet,” she said. Minnesota’s strict pollution regulations will insure water safety, she said. “Twin Metals can and will do this.”

Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich said about one-third of the town’s budget comes from taxes on mining operations.

“We rely on this money to provide basic life services,” she said. “We need these jobs in our town to survive. Mining lives matter as well.”

Those who spoke against renewing Twin Metals’ lease Wednesday didn’t dispute the area’s need for jobs and money, but said a copper mine isn’t the answer.

“Twin Metals does not care about the people of this area,” said Jane Koschak, owner of River Point Resort and Outfitting in Ely. “They will mine the [heck] out of it until nothing is left except barren wasteland.

“There simply are places on this earth too precious to allow this type of mining,” she said. “The Boundary Waters is a precious gem.”

Bob Tammen of Soudan said he worked in iron and taconite across the Upper Midwest during his career.

“The good old days are gone,” he said. “Mining is less than 1 percent of [Minnesota’s] economy. I don’t believe it justifies the destruction of our wetlands and natural resources.

“I’m a union member, and I care about clean water,” he said.

Others pointed out that there is no shortage of copper and no need for another potentially dangerous mine.

Compared to iron and taconite mining, long the economic backbone of the region, copper-nickel mining carries greater environmental risks to water. The ore is contained in sulfide-bearing rock, which can generate acid and heavy metals when exposed to air and water.

While the mining industry says modern techniques allow such mines to operate safely in wet environments like Minnesota, similar mines elsewhere have destroyed thousands of miles of streams and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions in cleanup costs nationally.

The Forest Service cited those concerns as the reasons behind its possible withholding of the leases.“ Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations,” the Forest Service said.

Erik Packard of Veterans for the Boundary Waters, said he served two tours of duty in Iraq and didn’t begin to heal from that experience until he went to the BWCA with a Voyageur Outward Bound program.

“Helicopters, explosions, drill sounds, those are not the sounds for the wilderness,” he said. “Those are not the sounds for healing. That’s why I speak today, that’s why I speak loudly for a quiet place.” 

Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this story.