Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday heard from supporters and critics of proposed copper mine projects in the state even though no legislation is proposed on the issue.
The Mining & Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee in the Minnesota House heard nearly two hours of testimony from mining companies, Iron Range officials and opponents of copper mine projects such as PolyMet and Twin Metals.
PolyMet officials reiterated their hope that state and federal officials will finish the environmental review sometime this spring, with a final decision later in the year on mining permits for the proposed open-pit mine near Hoyt Lakes — what would be Minnesota’s first-ever copper mine.
Twin Metals said their new owners, Chilean-based Antofagasta, bring to Minnesota “a very strong balance sheet” that will help move the underground project near Ely forward in coming years, although the project still has not yet applied for formal environmental review.
Supporters — including elected officials from Iron Range towns, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and union leaders — continued to express their hope that copper mines will help diversify the region’s economy and add high-paying jobs for decades to come.
Critics noted that the recent Mt. Polley copper mine disaster in Canada, where a tailings basin dike collapsed and sent billions of gallons of contaminated water downstream, shows that even modern mines can cause massive environmental damage, especially in a water-rich environment like Northeastern Minnesota.
Others said adding massive mining projects adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will diminish the pristine nature of the region, damaging the tourism-based economy even if waters aren’t polluted.
But Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, argued back at critics who say copper mining can’t work in the region, noting iron ore mining has been underway for more than a century.
“Know that this is where we live. We want it done right,’’ Metsa said. But “mining is being unfairly isolated out as an industry that pollutes. It’s hard to dig a hole and not get dirty.”
Lawmakers and mining company officials said they expected no legislation this year directly related to copper mining.
Duluth New Tribune