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First PolyMet hearing tonight in Duluth, but do comments matter?

Elizabeth Dunbar

MPR News 91.5 FM

DULUTH — When hundreds of people show up at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center tonight to speak out about PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine, many of them will be doing so for the second time.

Four years ago, the Department of Natural Resources organized a similar process for an earlier environmental study. That comment period generated 3,800 postcards, e-mails, letters and statements that yielded about 10,000 different claims regarding water quality, mining economics and myriad other topics that the DNR is still working to respond to as part of its legal obligation.

The comments gathered in the next couple of months could easily eclipse those numbers — already the DNR has heard from more people than it did four years ago. DNR officials have said in recent days that they prefer substantive, technical comments on the environmental study rather than statements of support or opposition.

That view raises questions about just how important public comments are in PolyMet’s quest to build a mine and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes.

The comments do matter, said Steve Colvin, deputy director of the DNR’s Division of Ecological and Water Resources. He said both PolyMet’s proposal and some of the ways experts have analyzed its impact on the environment have changed from four years ago, in part because of public comments.

“We’re looking forward to a good, robust presentation of people’s thoughts,” said Colvin, who has been overseeing PolyMet’s environmental review. “Every comment is read and every comment is considered.”

DNR officials have noted the 2,200-page environmental impact statement isn’t a decision-making document, so messages like “bring on the jobs” or “protect our lakes and keep mining out” don’t hold much water.

Some environmental groups have taken issue with those instructions.

“The regulating agencies will say all they consider is the science, but they know the day after comments close the question is what’s the count,” said Bob Tammen, a retired electrician who opposes copper-nickel mining and plans to attend the Duluth public meeting.

“Not only do our agencies look at the science, they look at how much people care,” said Tammen, who once worked for the iron mining industry. “I think it’s important that all of us who care comment on this EIS. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

“It’s our values,” Tammen said. “Do we value clean water in Minnesota? Have mining companies historically degraded clean water in a copper mining industry? They always have.”

At the last public meetings, held during the height of the recession, mining supporters’ calls for more jobs on the Iron Range dominated the oral comments delivered to a stenographer.

An MPR News analysis of the 3,800 pieces of correspondence the DNR collected during that first public comment period shows three-quarters of those who showed up to speak supported PolyMet. But two-thirds of those who submitted written comments expressed concerns about the project, and many outright opposed it.

How those comments will stack up this time remains to be seen.

Those who have observed the public comment process for controversial environmental studies say public comments almost always result in modifications to a proposal.

“Certainly if the public raises concerns about environmental impacts that weren’t properly addressed in the environmental review document, the agency is going to have to address those comments,” said Alexandra Klass, a University of Minnesota law professor who has expertise in environmental review.

Klass said although the environmental review isn’t a final decision, it becomes the basis for permitting decisions.

“If enough pressure is put on an agency or the governor who is in charge of the agency, maybe a permit isn’t granted,” she said.

But Klass agrees with University of Pennsylvania law professor Cary Coglianese that the facts that come out as part of an environmental review are what have legal bearing.

“If the agency puts out for public comment a particular federal action and gets thousands upon thousands of letters or emails or faxes that oppose the action under consideration, it can still go forward with it,” Coglianese said. “As a legal matter, the fact that there were thousands of people opposed to the action doesn’t make any difference. It’s not an election.”

That may be true, but it is an election year for Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, members of Congress and members of the Minnesota House. Dayton, for one, has said he will remain neutral on the PolyMet question until he reviews the environmental study and the public’s response to it.

Mark Resch, an electrician who grew up on the Iron Range but now lives on Coon Rapids, is among those who plan to again express support for PolyMet. If mining expands in northern Minnesota, Resch thinks he and his wife LaDonna, a bank manager, could find jobs there and raise their 4-year-old son Matthew, who loves snowmobiling and waterskiing.

“Every time we go up it’s like ahhh. It’s nice to be able to go out and see the stars and night and just have that quiet,” Resch said. “The more people from up north that you can get working there, they’re going to feel more accountable and make sure things are being done the way they’re supposed to.”