VIRGINIA— It was friendly territory for supporters of copper-nickel mining near Ely, as a standing room only crowd packed the warm and stuffy high school auditorium in Virginia on Tuesday to …
VIRGINIA— It was friendly territory for supporters of copper-nickel mining near Ely, as a standing room only crowd packed the warm and stuffy high school auditorium in Virginia on Tuesday to weigh-in on a proposal to withdraw 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from the federal mineral leasing program.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had organized Tuesday’s public hearing to take input on the scoping process for a two-year study of the potential risks and rewards of copper-nickel mining within the Kawishiwi River watershed, which flows into the heart of the Boundary Waters. Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins said the agencies proposed the withdrawal “because we feel there are several still- unanswered questions associated with hardrock mining, particularly in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. “We’ll be using the best available science and public input to guide us, she said.”
A handful of speakers offered comments relevant to the scoping process, but the vast majority on both sides used the opportunity to sound familiar themes and voice their opposition or support for the proposed withdrawal.
Mining supporters, who had boycotted a hearing last week in St. Paul, organized in an effort to dominate the Iron Range hearing. At a rally on the shores of Virginia’s Silver Lake just ahead of the hearing, about five hundred mining supporters gathered to hear a handful of speakers and fortify themselves with free sandwiches and bottled water. Steve Giorgi, the director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, offered strategy to the assembled supporters as they prepared to march to the high school, urging everyone to sign up for the lottery that would determine who got to speak during the two and a half-hour long hearing. “We need to stuff the box!” said Giorgi, a theme that other speakers repeated time and again in hopes that mining supporters would dominate the commenting.
Their efforts paid off, as copper mining backers outnumbered opponents by just over two-to-one among speakers and overwhelmingly dominated the auditorium’s audience of several hundred.
Many mining supporters voiced their displeasure with what they see as outside interference into the region’s economy and mining heritage. “We know how to take care of our own backyard,” said state Sen. David Tomassoni at Tuesday’s rally. “We’re not about to let anyone screw up our water or our air.” Steelworkers union representative John Arbogast said he’s gotten angry in recent days as the hearing approached. “I’m sick of the Forest Service, the EPA, the MPC, or the Boundary Waters Business Coalition, who think we can’t mine these metals safely,” he said.
St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina happily needled environmentalists. “They always want to save the lynx and save the wolves. The only thing they don’t want to save is our way of life,” he said. “We’re proud of what we do!”
At the hearing, several speakers noted that northeastern Minnesota is home to the cleanest water in the state and said that is evidence that mining can be done without affecting the environment. State Rep. Jason Metsa recalled regularly fishing for trout in mine pit lakes as a kid— a theme mentioned by several speakers.
But other speakers, who favor the minerals withdrawal, said the experience of the taconite industry is not a useful yardstick for measuring the potential impact from large-scale mining of sulfide ore. “You will not be fishing for trout in these mine pits,” said Jane Reyer, advocacy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters, noting that acid drainage would make such pits toxic to most life.
Two northeastern Minnesota physicians reiterated that message, saying that doctors in the region are particularly alarmed by the potential impact to human health. “Never before have so many physicians joined together to advocate on an issue,” said Deb Allert, a family physician from Two Harbors, who is president of the Lake Superior Chapter of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. She said her organization voted unanimously for a human health study on the impact of sulfide-based mining, given the ability of acid runoff to release a number of toxic metals from the surrounding rock.
Mining supporters challenged the idea that mining would pose environmental risks. “Let’s tell the Forest Service that we can both mine and protect the environment,” said Jeff Anderson, an aide to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, reading a statement from the congressman. Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich agreed. “There are already strict standards in place,” she said. Rep. Rob Ecklund said minerals like copper and nickel are critical to the expansion of the green economy and said the minerals are best extracted where the oversight is strong. “The minerals have to come from somewhere,” he said. “They should come from where we have the strictest environmental laws.”
Others challenged the legitimacy of, and the need for, the study and the withdrawal process itself. “I think this is an illegitimate process,” said Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, noting the lack of a current mine plan. “What can you study?” he asked. Novak also accused copper mining opponents of making false claims about the risks and he urged federal officials to “fact check” opponents.
While copper mining supporters outnumbered opponents in the auditorium, Cook area farmer Kelly Dahl told the federal officials that recent polls have shown “70 percent support” for the study, and he raised doubts about claims that such mining could be done without significant environmental impact. “These mines always pollute,” he said. “They will leach sulfur and acids that will go right into the watershed.” He noted that the metals market is “boom and bust” and that when the bust happens and mining companies go bankrupt, the costs of environmental clean-up get shifted to the taxpayers. “And most of the money goes to foreign owners of the mine, not the workers,” he said.
Christopher Steel, who recently retired to the Ely area, challenged supporters who claim that new technology will allow the mining to be done safely. He cited similar claims made by British Petroleum before the Deepwater Horizon accident, which spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “Even proven technologies fail, sometimes catastrophically,” he added. Steel said the proximity of the Boundary Waters to Ely was the primary reason for his and his wife’s decision to relocate from Florida to Ely.
Wilderness guide Jason Zabokrtsky, of Ely, called for the study to include an examination of the potential downside economic risks from mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. “My guests view a trip to the Boundary Waters as the last great pure experience,” he said, and he added that he worries that luster would be tarnished quickly should word spread on social media about mining pollution, even in just a portion of the wilderness.
Supporters of copper mining commented on education and how the extra revenue to the state’s school trust would benefit students. “Take a good look at the schools on the Range,” said Gregg Allen, superintendent of the Mesabi East School District. “They were beautiful schools in their day,” he added, but noted how the mining companies are no longer assessed to pay for bond measures, making it difficult to upgrade facilities. He said the moratorium, if approved, could cost billions to the state’s school trust, which provides a small amount of operating funding for schools statewide. Ann Williamson, a Twin Metals employee, picked up on that point in her own comments. “We urge you to study the devastating impact of the loss of billions in revenues to schools,” she said.
But Bob Tammen, of Soudan, pushed back on the notion, noting that a significant portion of the current taconite production tax goes back to mining companies for reinvestment in plant upgrades. “Why is there no money for schools?” asked Tammen.” The IRRRB has given back $250 million to the mining industry. And now we’re spending $250 million for a new bridge for the mining companies. That’s a half billion dollars. That could build a lot of schools.”
Corky Eloranta, of Tower, whose husband has spent 40 years in the mining industry, spoke for many when she talked about her appreciation for the Boundary Waters and her desire to protect the area. “Our honeymoon was a trip in the Boundary Waters. I’ve made frequent use of the Boundary Waters and even guided trips there,” she said. “But when the Boundary Waters was created, the deal was that we could continue to mine outside the wilderness. The minerals that we need are there and our land use outside the Boundary Waters is imperative to our way of life.”