Bogged Down in Duluth

By JT Haines – January 25, 2014

On January 16, I attended the 1300-person public hearing in Duluth on PolyMet Inc’s proposed nonferrous metal mine in northern Minnesota. The purpose of the public hearing (first of three) was to receive public comment on the proposal’s “NorthMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.”

I feel deeply about this moment, and have thoughts about it a mile long. Ian Kimmer of Friends of the Boundary Waters is calling this “the most critical conservation and economic decision of our generation,” and I agree. I’ve written on the subject several times and have co-directed a documentary about a similar project in Latin America, but I have to admit, when it came time to comment publicly in Duluth, I felt a little jammed up. Public speaking is just hard, so there’s that, but a few other things travelled through my mind that day.

We’re All Friends Here

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SDEIS Open House

First, walking into a room full of energized people wearing work boots, union tees, and “we support mining” stickers did – at least for me – have an impact. Frankly, I like these guys. I doubt many in the room know me from Adam, but I grew up a couple blocks from Minntac in Mt. Iron, and rooms like this remind me of a time and place not at all unpleasant. At the end of the day, we’re all friends here, and thankfully, pretty much everyone there seemed to have that firmly in mind.

But as I stood there feeling very strongly about the topic – me with my freshly minted “who will pay for pollution” sticker – the “we need jobs” thrust weighed heavily on my mind. Wait, how sure am I about all of this, again? I mean, I’m sure — to me, we absolutely need to identify better, more sustainable jobs than this new and dangerous type of mining — but all of a sudden I’m completely re-evaluating all three thousand thoughts I’ve had about this over the past couple of years. It’s not easy.

Kabuki Theater

Second, during the week leading up to the hearing, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr made a public effort to discourage people from comments not specifically about the SDEIS. “This is not a referendum on mining,” he said. The DNR’s printed materials and official media kits drove home the message. Fair enough, I guess.

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Duluth SDEIS Hearing

Except that, there I was again, re-evaluating the legitimacy of my own sentiments for this room. I have made some effort to review the SDEIS (it’s 2200 pages long), but I think my opposition ultimately comes from somewhere else. My observations have led me to the conclusion that allowing external corporate interests to extract public resources and ship them off to international markets does not generally work out well for communities. (Not really ever, nowhere, never.) What’s the plan here, one more boost? Then what? When does it stop? Why not now, rather than in 20 years when we come up against this again, but in a worse position? Why not now when our waters are reasonably clean, rather than later when they’re inevitably less so? And by the way, who really benefits?

And then…are these sentiments appropriately specific to the SDEIS?

To be fair, charged with evaluating this specific proposal, I imagine Commissioner Landwehr believes there’s a time and place for geopolitical economics, and that this hearing wasn’t it. Whether or not one agrees with that, it was at least enough to give me additional pause.

Conclusion

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Don Arnosti, Audubon MN

Thoroughly bogged down (or just a chicken with excuses, hard to say), I didn’t speak in Duluth. I’m glad to report, though, that a lot of others did, and with comments that were remarkably coherent and helpful. Many were specific to potential flaws in the SDEIS, the trigger for formal DNR review. (Just this week, in fact, the Ely Timberjay has reported that the DNR is considering whether the key water modeling in the report is flawed.) And others were respectfully from the heart, and absolutely effective in their own right. By the way, plenty of those were in the paper the next morning too.

So my hat’s off to Minnesotans commenting on this project. I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say on Tuesday.

The final of three public hearings is scheduled for this Tuesday, January 28, in Saint Paul. For my part, I hope to have decided by then whether “Glencore Schmencore” is specific enough to the SDEIS. (Glencore is the Swiss multinational Polymet investor, chaired by Tony Hayward of BP Deepwater Horizon infamy).

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