As we report this week, officials from the Bureau of Land Management received a crash course in two very different visions of the future for the North Country during a recent visit to Ely. It probably won’t be the last such visit as the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service determine how to respond to a request by Twin Metals to renew the only two federal mineral leases that have ever been issued on the Superior National Forest.
Without a renewal of the permits, the company’s proposal to mine copper-nickel deposits south of Ely would hit a dead end, and so, not surprisingly, both sides in the debate had a lot to say to the federal officials. On the one side were Iron Range politicians, including a group of mayors from the Mesabi Range who see mining the Duluth Complex as the only way to keep their communities viable, as least for another generation or two. They complain their communities are suffering from the loss of mining jobs in recent years as they see projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet offering a new source of employment for residents of places like Aurora, Hoyt Lakes, and Virginia.
On the other side, were dozens of Ely area business owners, directors of area non-profit youth camps and museums, some who grew up in the area and others who moved here for the edge-of-the-wilderness lifestyle, who argued that Ely is already on a sustainable development path that could ensure economic vitality for many generations to come. They see that progress as threatened by the creation of a new industrialized mining district in the heart of the Superior National Forest, in some cases, literally, in their own backyards.
The recent release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement on PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet mine has given fresh urgency to both sides in what has become a pitched political battle. And while it was not specifically on the agenda during the BLM’s visit, it’s clear that many sulfide mining opponents see potential approval of PolyMet as the beginning of the end for a lifestyle that has drawn a remarkably diverse mix of people and talents to the Ely area in recent decades.
As the former head of the now-defunct Duluth Metals once put it, PolyMet is “the snowplow” that will clear the way for all of the other mines that mining advocates long to see.
Geologists already know of major deposits stretching nearly 40 miles in an almost continuous band from south of Aurora to the Spruce Road, southeast of Ely. And those are just the ones we know of today. Exploratory work is advancing eastward along the southern flank of the Boundary Waters wilderness. Based on the geology, mining of the Duluth Complex could eventually extend all the way to the Gunflint Trail.
This, without question, would fundamentally change the character of this region, taking what is today the crown jewel of the national forest system in the eastern two-thirds of the country, and converting its heart into an almost continuous industrialized zone. And this is, perhaps, the biggest flaw in the just-released FEIS on PolyMet. When the DNR opted not to examine the cumulative impacts of this scale of development on the Superior, they chose to ignore the elephant in the room. They opted not to take the hard, scientific look they promised and produced a political document, instead.
When mining supporters talk of the Duluth Complex as rivaling the Mesabi Iron Range, or employing thousands of miners, and generating billions in state and local revenues, they don’t mean PolyMet with its projected 350 workers, on its own. They mean a half dozen mines or more comprising 50-to-80 miles of open pits, wasterock piles, rail lines, roads, power corridors and concentrator plants cutting through the heart of the Superior.
The problem with an economic model based on mining, after all, is that it doesn’t work unless you keep on mining until every last ton of ore has been blasted, processed, and shipped out. That means once mining of the Duluth Complex begins, the pressure to keep mining will be intense, at least until the ore is all gone or is no longer valuable enough to extract.
And this may not just threaten the water quality of the Boundary Waters. It could well impact the boundaries of the wilderness itself. Never underestimate the change in the political dynamic on this issue that will come the moment copper-nickel mining begins. Today we’re arguing about potential jobs and potential revenues. Tomorrow, if mining commences, real, existing jobs will be on the line, and that’s why every economically feasible deposit will have to be mined, whether that means carving up the Boundary Waters or not.
In Minnesota, we move cities for mining. We move highways—at incredible expense— for mining. We aren’t going to think twice about moving a wilderness boundary for mining. And with the right crew in Washington, it could happen in a heartbeat.
I can hear the argument of the future already and it’s compelling. When NorthMet, Teck, Maturi, and Spruce Road are mined out forty or fifty years from now, we’ll need to find more copper and if that means deposits in the wilderness, are we really going to throw miners out of work and rob our schools and communities of badly needed revenues simply to protect a few lakes in the BW? Does anyone doubt how our local politicians would come down on that question?
That’s one reason why the federal involvement on the reissuance of permits could be pivotal. By saying no to permit renewal, the feds could essentially draw a line in the sand that could keep development of the Duluth Complex limited to the southwest end— PolyMet and Teck, but probably nothing beyond that. That’s why both sides see the decision as key to their economic vision of the future.
In the meantime, the wild card remains economics, which could be the ultimate arbiter of this debate. As it stands today, with metal prices where they are, PolyMet is a marginal project, and the governor’s planned financial review is likely to reveal that. At this point, an underground mine is little more than a pipe dream. The DNR concluded that an underground operation at NorthMet was not economically feasible, even assuming higher metal prices than we see today. And NorthMet’s initial capital investment, at around $650 million, is a small fraction of the initial investment required for an underground operation. Significantly higher metal prices could change this calculation, but that’s not in anyone’s forecast for the foreseeable future. At this point, copper and nickel prices just keep dropping.
And that’s one more downside to copper-nickel development on the Duluth Complex. While the metal reserves are potentially vast, the low grade ore involved means that mining companies will be relentlessly focused on keeping operational costs low, including the cost of environmental protections. As we discovered earlier this year, surrounding enforcement of the wild rice sulfate standard, when Minnesota state government is faced with the choice between protecting the environment, or protecting the economic model of mining companies, the environment loses every time.
The DNR made that perfectly clear, once again, in their NorthMet FEIS. They acknowledged that an underground mine was feasible and would have significantly fewer environmental impacts, but it was rejected as unprofitable. The DNR could have required PolyMet to undertake full reclamation of the site, but rejected that as well to reduce costs to the company. The environment in other words, was sacrificed to ensure corporate profits. Will federal officials make the same choice? Time will tell.