August 12, 2013
Dear Mom and Dad,
It felt so good to graduate (hmmmm…what will I do with that political science degree?) and then to pack into the Boundary Waters for a week of paddling and camping in that August paradise. Saw a moose and her calf, fried our fish catch every night, and were stuck in camp for only one day of rain and wind. We came off the lake Saturday exhausted, happy, and ready for a hot shower and a couple of rare steaks.
Ely is as nice as I remembered it from when we came up north with you both five years ago. It was interesting to me that here, like in so many other places, people are hassling with development-vs-environment issues. If it’s not fracking or tar sands, the XL Pipeline or urban sprawl, it’s mining issues, like in Ely.
It could have blown up into one of those old Boundary Waters conflicts (remember when you were here in the 70’s, how ugly it was then?), but the town has really grown up.
We hit one of the bars Saturday night and sat next to some construction workers from Ely who said that things started to get cantankerous in spring when a group that opposed copper-nickel mining in the area opened a shop called Sustainable Ely to lobby about their point of view on the city’s main drag.
The mining company had come to town and was in the process of seeking permits to operate mines about 15 miles southeast of Ely and 10 miles east of nearby Babbitt. They had been exploring and found copper, nickel, palladium, platinum and gold that they estimated to be in the billions of pounds—the biggest deposits this side of South Africa. They’ve invested more than $160 million in the project so far. And talk about jobs! They say there’ll be 5,000 in construction, alone. And then in the mines, think 1,300 workers if they are operating at full steam. Then, imagine the potential for new service and retail jobs in the nearby towns.
But (and there’s always a but) this is sulfide ore, and if drainage from the rock is not contained, it can result in sulfide and metal poisoning in the watershed of the nearby Kawishiwi River and right on into the Boundary Waters. Folks at the coffee shop in town the next morning filled us in on their worry, which is that this kind of mining has never yet been done safely for the environment. It has left behind dead zones in rivers. And mining companies involved have gone bankrupt, leaving states and the feds (taxpayers) holding the bag for gazillions of dollars in clean-up costs.
So, once again, two good things—economic development and the health of the environment—are in conflict. But something amazing happened over the last couple of months in Ely. The mining company had been doing lots of community-based public relations. They gave donations to local non-profits like the food shelf and ran paid PR pieces in the local press. Their public statements were measured and positive. When Sustainable Ely opened its doors, they didn’t overreact. In fact, spokespeople said they welcomed the dialogue. When a few folks tried bratty name-calling in Letters to the Editor pages in the papers, the mining folks asked them to stop.
A local businessman who was heading up Sustainable Ely received a few shots, but others, including his daughter, stood up for him. And pretty soon it became clear that the rackin-frackin, poop-head, school-yard epithets were just not going to be tolerated. It was also pretty silly when the Sustainable Ely guy was called a carpetbagger, having moved to Ely decades ago, when the mining companies could hardly be considered local. Neither of the major players in this debate had grandparents buried in the Ely cemetery.
Folks on the sidelines also tried trashing each other’s motives at first. “You’re just making that donation to soften up the community.” “Well, you’re just bringing up controversy to recruit members and donors.”
That strategy didn’t last long either. It was easy for people to see the true values of saving the environment and the legitimate values of economic development. My old philosophy prof was right when he said that the toughest conflicts are between two positive things.
And a brilliant thing happened in Ely. People on both sides of the issue worked to claim the moral high ground. Neither group wanted to get a reputation for fighting dirty after it became evident that the community just wouldn’t stand for it!
I loved that thing Mahatma Gandhi said. It was something like, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
So, anyhow, both sides kept doing PR, talking with folks, making their best cases. You could see “Mining Supports Us” and “Clean Water Supports Us” all over town. Sure, there might have still been emotions boiling beneath the surface, but the pros and cons of both sides were the focus of lively public discussion.
The local newspapers took on the job of fact-checking, running regular columns that clearly explained the issues, and rating statements by both sides as true, mostly true, half true, mostly false and “pants on fire.”
And folks who had been worried about the conflict boiling up and scalding the visitors to Ely with bile were able to relax. Tourism is doing just fine this summer. If anything, the adult way people in Ely have been handling this conflict makes me proud to be a Minnesotan. I’d come back here for a visit any time. It’s August, and I’m thinking about winter already.
Want to go on a dogsled trip in January? Think about it. We are.