It’s time for a debate on the effects of non-ferrous mining
Marshall Helmberger

Finally, it appears that our region is going to have a serious discussion about the pros and cons of copper-nickel mining— and that’s a good thing. That discussion is long overdue.

For years, the political powers-that-be up here have lined up in pretty much full support of plans to develop non-ferrous mines across a wide swath of the Duluth Complex, a geological formation that runs in an arc roughly from Duluth into northwestern Ontario.

Local politicians are rightly focused on job creation and many have touted copper-nickel mining as an economic renaissance for the region, one that will usher in a new era of prosperity. Mining companies have encouraged such claims with each press release touting newly discovered reserves, new partnerships with major foreign firms, or the dollars invested in exploration and modern, new headquarters.

At the state level, support for mining at the Legislature and in the administrations of governors Tim Pawlenty and Mark Dayton, has been strong. Earlier this year, Gov. Dayton signed legislation to streamline environmental regulations and more recently promised to designate a point person to help speed up the permitting process for new mines. Many have pointed to the royalties the state would receive from new mining, which are significant.

While the political backing for new mining is real and substantial, there’s a growing sense of concern by many residents in our region, particularly those living in the bull’s eye of mining activity, that a way of life they once took for granted may be threatened. And they’re starting to speak up more forcefully than ever before.

They’ve stood up before the state’s Executive Council, which has now twice delayed action on proposed state leases for mineral prospecting and mining over legitimate concerns about the rights of property owners. We saw it last month in Stony River Township, where the local town board passed a resolution asking for a moratorium on the issuance of new leases until property rights can be ensured. This week, officials in Eagles Nest Township followed suit. While the focus of concern in these townships is currently on the property rights implications of mineral leasing, there’s a much broader concern as well over the effects of large scale mining.

This has the potential to change the dynamics of the debate considerably. While the political support for mining in our region has been significant to date, such support has long been the default position up here. For most, it’s a position arrived at with little critical analysis of the claims of the industry.

I’ve learned over the years not to put much stock in the claims of big corporations looking to strike it rich in our region, whether it’s a domestic corporation that stands to make millions off of a school facilities plan, or a foreign corporation hoping to make billions selling off northeastern Minnesota’s mineral wealth to China.

If local residents begin asking serious questions and considering the very real tradeoffs that would come with a new “Copper Range” in northeastern Minnesota, the politics of this issue could change significantly.

Consider just two of the most important issues and arguments:

• Economics—There is no doubt that opening new mines in our region will create direct jobs, many of them good-paying jobs. Mining will also create spin-off jobs in support industries.

But when you scratch below the surface, you quickly realize that the economic renaissance touted by many mining boosters is likely little more than wishful thinking. Just consider the numbers. Add up all the proposed copper mines together and they don’t add up to the 1,200 jobs that were lost on the East Range with the closure of LTV Mining back in 2001. And nobody would legitimately argue that the East Range economy was healthy even when LTV was operating at full capacity. The region’s population was declining and school enrollments were falling, just as they are now. Don’t think that a new Copper Range is going to change any of that. The economic hype that has accompanied the push for mining is seriously over-rated.

And the economic tradeoffs are potentially real, especially as mining moves closer to the Ely area. It’s no surprise that some of the early warnings have been sounded by resort owners or outfitters, who rightfully worry that the encroachment of a major mining district into the heart of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters could fundamentally alter the tourism industry up here.

Tourism has its own problems, to be sure. It’s no get rich quick scheme, but it’s dependable, unlike the boom and bust of mining, which guarantees an economy that lurches from crisis to crisis. Tourism is also sustainable for the long term, but only if we protect the assets that bring visitors here.

• The Environment— It’s become a mantra of mining boosters that by mining these minerals here in Minnesota, it’s better for the environment. But do those claims withstand much critical examination?

It’s true that Minnesota has tougher laws on the books than many other places where copper-nickel is being mined, or may be mined in the future. But the impact of a mine, particularly a sulfide mine, isn’t determined primarily by environmental rules.

Other factors, like climate and nearby assets that could be impacted by pollution, play a much bigger role. The largest copper producing region in the world is in Chile, and much of that region is far drier than here in northeastern Minnesota. That reduces the risk of acid drainage from sulfide-containing waste rock—since exposure to air and water is what creates the acid in the first place. It also means that the impact from pollution that does exist is largely limited to little-utilized desert regions.

In our case, we’re looking at mining operations in a much wetter region located (with the exception of PolyMet) at the headwaters of a key watershed for the world’s most popular canoe country wilderness. In terms of environmental risk, you could easily argue this is one of the worst places on the planet for a sulfide mine. If things go wrong, as they usually do with sulfide mines, the asset we damage is a pretty precious one to many people.

And politics being what they are, environmental laws here in Minnesota won’t be worth much once mines are permitted. After all, having laws on the books is one thing. Finding the political and bureaucratic will to enforce them is something else entirely.

If new mines are permitted, the state won’t be able to shut them down even if the worst fears of opponents are realized. No politician or bureaucrat is going to want to be responsible for throwing hundreds of miners out of work, no matter what. Once the state pulls the trigger on copper-nickel mining, we’re stuck with it, for good or ill.

All of which argues for having a real debate on the tradeoffs of mining before it’s too late.

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6 comments on this item

This is the most complete discussion of the pros and cons of sulfide ore mining I've read anywhere. The descriptions of economic gains and risks, environmental risks, and the reality of "tough laws/rollover politics" are right on. Good job distilling the essence of the choice facing this region and all of Minnesota.

Don Arnosti

I was at the Executive Hearing in St. Paul, and the Lt Governor brought up jobs. If it was only about jobs, it would be a much easier discussion. But there are too many things, and it is not as easy as just jobs. Why is the area so willing to try an experiment here that will probably fail.

They also brough up having minerals being a part of national security. When I can watch a home remodeling show on TV and they put copper gutters and all stainless steel appliances (stainless steel witch uses nickel) in a million dollar house. If having enough copper and nickel is a part of national security, Why is this allowed? So rich people can have copper gutters?

I'm totally willing to be a part of discussion, but I think just "trusting" that a foreign funded coporation will do the right thing when it comes to the big picture for the next 20 years, to me is suspect, and not sustainable. Do you remember what happened when they "trusted" BP to do the right thing?

Corporations are out to make money, and they are not out to do anything else. My hope is that a more reasonable conversation starts, and all the propaganda that mining interests is actually looked at to see if it viable.

A "pro clean water" resident of Isabella.

Kaci444-with all due respect corporations make most of the things you use in your daily life. From how you get to work to the computer you wrote your post with. Every business is in business to make money. The statement that "they are not out to do anything else" makes me wonder where you went to school. I work in a taconite mine. It is a dirty business. But it is a lot cleaner mining here than it would be in China. We all eventually share the same air and water. Most people work for corporations. Not all as as ethical as we would like, but changes are happening for the better. Why don't you like people that make money????

I think that your comment, Mr. miner, that "changes are happening for the better" is what the previous writer was questioning. There is much evidence that in their efforts to make that money, that too many corners are cut.

To compare to China offers something ... but to compare where we are to where we have been AND TO WHERE WE ARE GOING is certainly fair ... and needed.

One could offer many many examples of mining shame in this country ... and in the mining wishes of some in political power. But the lesson is better learned if YOU do your own research.

Oh, and your last question ... where does that come from? Did I miss something in the previous writing? Your question is no more valid, meaningful and realistic than if I were to ask "why DO you like people that make money".

While an interesting read I wouldn't necessarily say this was "the most complete discussion of the pros and cons" of mining in the area. While Mr. Helmberger's discussion gave the pros a glancing blow, the focus (slant) was obviously towards the cons.

I have asked the question before and I will ask it again, for those who don't want mining of these metals, what are you willing to give up? How are you going to cut your comsumption? A lot of us have to have the new iPhone the minute it comes out even though our current mobile communications device works just as well. We drive new cars and trucks and want those vehicles to have all the latest safety features while polluting less. We have our computers, televisions and other electronic gadgets. Possibly not realizing all the while, we are creating the demand for the very substances we are in such opposition towards acquiring.

I am not saying people shouldn't be advocating for protection of the area's natural resources. I am saying we should all look to ourselves for solutions first, and unless we are willing to change we should check the NIMBY attitude at the door.

I grew up in southern Minnesota"s farm country, productive farms, good businesses and schools for the most part.at least until the past 15 years or so. Many Minnesotans have lost their jobs since then. But, I have always loved northern Minnespta's pristine lakes,streams and forests always looking forward to escaping to there on camping and fishing trips or just to visit relatives and always sad to leave and return to the metro.I worked at a place called Sandoz in St. Loius Park as an electrician for 6 years in the late 70's right after one of the mining busts in northern Minnesota. Sandoz, under a state work progra employed many displaced rangers. At first, I was alarmed at how direct and blunt thet were, but I grew to really appreciate their fiesty nature. They were competent, good workers that had lost good jobs and a way of life.Some, later returned despite the flagging economy and I understood why. Northern Minnesota is special but..I feel sulfide mining like mining in general will inevitably go bust but unlike iron mining , will leave poisonous legacy. A legacy that will change northern Minnesota forever. And, there will be restoring it and no returning home to those pristine lakes and streams beccuse they will not be there, for my grandkids or yours for mitigating sulfide tailings and run off would be prohibitively costly if not impossible, like trying to hold water in your hand.So, I know it's hard up there but nothing worth having is ever easy. One last thought, an old Cree saying I believe that says "Only when man has poisoned the last river and stream, cut down the last tree and caught the last fish , will he relalize that he can't eat money."

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