Updated: 01/29/2014 5:50 AM
Created: 01/28/2014 9:38 PM KSTP.com
By: Stephen Tellier
There was a massive turnout in St. Paul on Tuesday night as the public debated a first-of-its-kind mining project in one of the most pristine parts of Minnesota.
PolyMet Mining wants to develop a copper-nickel open pit mine in St. Louis County, in northeastern Minnesota.
More than 1,000 people came out to voice their support and concerns for the controversial project. There were so many people at the hearing that speakers during the public comment period had to be chosen at random. Everyone else had to submit comments in writing, or dictate them to a stenographer.
The issue is proving to be incredibly divisive, and could help determine the economic and environmental future of the state.
The proposal is for a copper-nickel mine -- on the edge of the Iron Range -- that would remove 533 million tons of rock over 20 years. No such mine has ever existed in Minnesota, and hundreds of Twin Cities residents are concerned that the state's environmental treasures would be at risk if it became a reality.
"I'm extremely concerned about water pollution," said Sue Grant of Eden Prairie.
"It's very concerning in terms of the possibility of totally messing up the environment up there," Kate Smith of Chaska said.
But Tuesday night's public hearing included many mine supporters as well.
"The Range is struggling with lack of economic development. We need jobs," said Gerald Tyler, who traveled to the hearing from Ely to show his support for the PolyMet project.
"This isn't a choice between jobs or the environment. You can have both. We can create jobs, we can produce these metals that are needed in society every day, and we can do it in a way that's safe and protective of the environment," said Jon Cherry, president and CEO of PolyMet.
Cherry said concerns about water quality and other environmental impacts are unfounded.
"The state of Minnesota has some of the strongest environmental mining laws in the United States, and we will not be given a permit until we receive that permit that says we can do it in a way that's safe and protective of the environment," Cherry said.
But Cherry has a lot of convincing left to do.
"This is a Pandora's box. Once it's open and all the crummy stuff comes out, you're not going to be able to put it back in," Smith said.
The proposal is incredibly complex -- the current report on the project totals more than 2,100 pages
The project is currently in the public comment period. If you couldn't make it to Tuesday's meeting, you can submit comments online until March 13.