EVELETH – Gov. Mark Dayton defended his decision to halt development of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely before an Iron Range delegation that included the Ely City Council and …
EVELETH – Gov. Mark Dayton defended his decision to halt development of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely before an Iron Range delegation that included the Ely City Council and representatives of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.
The governor, who has come under fire from mining advocates for his position, initiated Friday’s meeting, which was held at the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board office.
A standing-room-only audience crowded the conference room and overflowed into a second room where the three-hour meeting could be viewed on close-circuit TV. Some wore hard hats and stickers declaring their support for mining. But others held up signs in support of the governor’s actions.
At Friday’s meeting, Dayton called Twin Metals’ plan to construct an underground mine, roughly the size of the west wing of the Mall of America, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness “fanciful and farcical.”
As governor, Dayton said it was his responsibility to ensure the BWCAW is protected. Although he alone did not have the power to kill the project, Dayton said he has his own carefully determined view that this was “a bad project for Ely, a bad project for Minnesota and a bad project for the Boundary Waters.”
Dayton said he found it hard to believe construction of a massive underground mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters would go unnoticed, saying the noise, dust, contamination and construction-related traffic would disrupt the lives of Ely residents as well as threatening the watershed.
“I personally object to some company coming in from Chile and putting this in the face of all of you who want jobs,” Dayton said, adding that it was a familiar scenario on the Range. Twin Metals’ parent company Antofagasta PLC was “dangling jobs” to lure the region to approve its plan just as other companies had promised jobs that failed to materialize. He counted India’s Essar Steel in that company.
Essar’s proposed $1.9 billion taconite plant is currently in limbo due to a lack of funds, and the company had to be pressured by the governor until a repayment plan for $66 million in infrastructure grants was negotiated.
But opponents called the governor’s action on Twin Metals premature, saying further study was needed to assess the risks before stalling the project.
“The work hasn’t been done to identify the risks,” said Ely Councilor and RAMS President Paul Kess. “Some in this room will say the science has been settled, that we know the risks and that there will be pollution. I’m not there. I haven’t seen that. I think we owe it to our citizens that we make good decisions” based on evaluations by state and federal agencies.
Others claimed that advances in technology had reduced the risks and said they were committed to ensuring the Boundary Waters environment would be safeguarded.
“No one has more invested than the people who live here, work here and raise their families here. The environment is critical to us all…there is no chance that we would allow an operation to come in our back yard and destroy the place where we choose to live,“ Chisholm Mayor Michael Jugovich said.
“Mining is in our blood,” he continued. “We do it better and we do it safer.”
But Ely business Paul Schurke said the risks associated with copper-nickel were already established.
“Each and every time copper-nickel mining has been attempted anywhere on the planet, acid mine rains have resulted,” said Schurke. “And that’s not even taking into account the prospects for accidents and the likelihood of that happening.”
Schurke added the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) ranks hard-rock mining, which includes nickel mining, as one of the most toxic, polluting industries.
Much of Friday’s discussion focused on the importance of mining to the region’s economic health.
Twin Metals officials estimate the project would create 850 full-time jobs in addition to temporary construction jobs over three years while the mine is built.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak suggested that the Boundary Waters’ draw as a tourist attraction has been exaggerated, and that tourism jobs were no substitute for the well-paying jobs created by mining. Even though Ely’s Pioneer Mine closed half a century ago, Novak said Ely still has a “mining mindset.”
RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi fretted that the governor’s action on Twin Metals could discourage other mining exploration in the region.
“How does your statement impact the operations of Northshore Mining in Babbitt, which many would say is in close proximity to the BWCA?” asked Giorgi, adding would other mining companies who have invested in exploratory drilling in northeastern Minnesota “be informed that they have to move on and stop their work because they are in the close proximity of the BWCA?”
“We cannot ignore what your position has done as it reverberates across the global business market,” Giorgi continued. “Why would a company want to come to Minnesota and invest hundreds of millions of dollars as Twin Metals has done….in any other industrial development that might be environmentally sensitive if they cannot be assured they will be allowed at least to complete our nation’s rigorous regulatory processes?”
Dayton countered that existing valid leases would not be affected. He also drew a distinction between Twin Metals and PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine, and said he has instructed commissioners to process and review permits for PolyMet as “expeditiously as possible.”
Bob Tammen, who worked in mining and lives in Soudan, said communities have focused too much on mining and not explored ways to diversify and strengthen the economy.
“I believe we could take wheelbarrows full of twenties and dump them in front of Zaverl's and get more economic activity than we would with the copper industry,” he said
Becky Rom, who chairs the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, thanked Dayton for his “courageous decision” and said proceeding with Twin Metals’ project could hurt Ely’s economy.
“Tourism is really important in Ely,” said Rom. “Virtually every Main Street business will be harmed if the Boundary Waters loses its reputation.”
Local government officials, however, asked the governor to reconsider his decision. The Ely City Council unanimously backed a resolution in March asking the governor to rethink his position, and on Friday, Giorgi presented the governor with resolutions from 17 RAMS member school districts, cities and townships urging the same.
Local officials conceded that Dayton is unlikely to change his mind, but said they appreciated his willingness to hear their objections in person.
Dayton complimented all who attended the special meetings of the Ely City Council and RAMS for the respectful tone of the sessions.
Dayton’s announcement that he will block access to state lands near the site, puts the fate of Twin Metals’ project in the hands of the federal Bureau of Land Management. Dayton has contacted the director of the BLM, urging her to withdraw mineral leases, which date back to 1966 and have never been subject to significant environmental review.
Twin Metals has argued that the BLM is legally obligated to renew the leases. But in a rare opinion, issued March 8, the Department of Interior’s Solicitor determined the renewal of leases by the BLM is discretionary, giving the federal agency the legal justification to withdraw the leased minerals.
Dayton said should Twin Metals’ proposed project pass muster with the BLM, it could still move forward. But until the risks are fully assessed, he said, he doesn’t want to gamble with tarnishing the Boundary Waters.