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Environmental issues on the front burner in Ely

Twin Metals, gypsy moths highlight marathon session

Keith Vandervort
Posted 3/9/16

ELY – Two hot environmental topics occupied the Ely City Council for more than four hours Tuesday night: Gov. Mark Dayton’s concern for sulfide mining in close proximity to the Boundary Waters …

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Environmental issues on the front burner in Ely

Twin Metals, gypsy moths highlight marathon session

Posted

ELY – Two hot environmental topics occupied the Ely City Council for more than four hours Tuesday night: Gov. Mark Dayton’s concern for sulfide mining in close proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the proposed aerial spraying to eradicate a gypsy moth infestation in the city.

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak often refers to “the speed of government” in the pace of how the council conducts the business of the city.

In the case of Dayton’s directive on Monday to the Department of Natural Resources to not authorize agreements for mining operations proposed by Twin Metals adjacent to the BWCAW, the council was quick to pass a resolution the next day unanimously requesting that he change his mind.

In the case of allowing the proposed aerial spraying over a portion of the city this summer by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, council members were inundated with objections from several residents and are now proposing another public hearing. The eradication proposal was presented in January. “We have time to debate this,” Novak said. “As this council decides to take serious action, we have until the helicopter hits the air.”

The marathon session began with council members, serving in the capacity of the Ely Economic Development Authority, responding to Dayton’s letter to Twin Metals Minnesota concerning the company’s desire to access state land to advance its mining proposal.

“We will have a robust discussion as a council about this,” Novak said, ‘but this is important at the EEDA level because this is an economic development issue for Ely. The governor said he was going to hold up on Twin Metals until PolyMet (environmental assessment adequacy) final came in. We lost three good-paying jobs in Ely and five in St. Paul and depending on how this goes, it might temporarily shutter the local building. We have to make the good fight.”

EEDA president Heidi Omerza weighed in on the local impact of the Twin Metals operation in Ely. “These are our neighbors and people who have kids in the school district. These are not people who live in the next city over. These are people we know,” she said.

Twin Metals executives appeared before the Ely City Council last September to present an update on the local operation. By then, the company had spent $250 million on the project through employment, investments and contractors.

“This is no small investment that they made in our community,’ said Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski, including hundreds of thousands of dollars that they have contributed to the Food Shelf, the park, and the trees. All of those organizations as well will feel that pain if they close.”

In his letter to Twin Metals, Dayton said, “I have grave concerns about the use of state surface lands for mining-related activities in close proximity to the BWCAW. I am not questioning the qualifications of either Twin Metals or its parent company Antofagasta. Rather my concern is about the State of Minnesota’s actively promoting advancement of such operations by permitting access to state lands. I have an obligation to ensure it is not diminished in any way. Its uniqueness and fragility require that we exercise special care when we evaluate significant land use changes in the area, and I am unwilling to take risks with that Minnesota environmental icon.”

Council member Albert Forsman said, “Dayton is undermining all the agencies that protect the BWCAW and the process that the mine operations go through to develop a mine.” He urged people to “inundate” and “infiltrate” the governor’s mailbox and email inbox with their thoughts on his actions “that seem so unthought out.”

Council member Paul Kess voiced his concerns with Dayton’s “uncharacteristic” actions. He called for the same process for Twin Metals that is being used for the PolyMet project. “I am disappointed and I hope we are able to change his mind,” Kess said.

The city’s economic developer, John Fedo, called Dayton’s action “extremely arbitrary” and said, ”This is not the way to run a state.”

The EEDA unanimously approved the resolution requesting Gov. Dayton allow Twin Metals to access state lands. At the end of their agenda, the council members, acting as the City Council, also passed the resolution.

In order to accommodate comments from the audience, Mayor Novak allowed for the open forum portion of the agenda to take place before the council went into closed session to discuss other business.

Environmental advocate Becky Rom noted that one of the outcomes of a study session last fall concerning sulfide mining was that Mayor Novak would form a study group to address the issue and help inform the City Council as it moves forward. “That group has not been set up yet and I respectfully request that be done and I request that I be on it,” she said.

“You claim that the governor violated the process when in fact the governor respects the process that is about to start,” Rom said. “He made the right decision. He is a leader and he is smart. The process that is about to start is at the federal level and not the state level.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management is currently in the process of making a determination pertaining to the renewal of Twin Metal’s federal lease holdings. “They are going to do a process that involved a lot of public input,” she said. “They are going to look at science. They are going to look at the economics and then they are going to make their decision on whether to grant leases.”

She asserted the state has no obligation to let Twin Metals on land they have no right to access. “(Dayton) didn’t violate any process or rights,” Rom said.

She stressed the importance of forming a study group to advise the City Council. At the DFL caucuses last week, resolutions banning sulfide mining near the BWCA were passed overwhelmingly in Ely, Morse township, Fall Lake township, Stony River township, as well as Gunflint and Tofte areas near Grand Marais. “Recent polling shows that 67 percent of the people in Minnesota oppose sulfide ore mining near the Boundary Waters,” she said.

Mayor Novak said he in fact queried “many individuals” about serving on a sulfide mining study group and “hasn’t found anyone willing to participate.” He said he wants to include all viewpoints. “If anyone is interested, call the clerk’s office,” he said. “Then we can have robust debate rather than a one-sided discussion.”

Gypsy moths

In response to a proposed summer aerial spraying program to battle a gypsy moth infestation, two citizens requested to appear before the council to voice their concerns.

Many more citizens filled the council chambers Tuesday night and many voiced their concerns during the open forum portion of the meeting.

In January, Kimberly Thielen Cremers, pest mitigation and regulatory response unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, described the plan to the City Council, and repeated that presentation at a public hearing last month.

Ranked among America’s most destructive tree pests, gypsy moth have caused millions of dollars in damage to forests as they have spread from New England to Wisconsin in recent decades. Gypsy moth caterpillars can defoliate large sections of forest. The pests are common in Wisconsin and are now establishing themselves in Minnesota.

Last summer, the MDA found an initial gypsy moth infestation and developed a treatment plan for the affected area totaling approximately 565 acres.

The plan calls for spraying to start sometime in June over an area roughly bordered by 2nd Avenue on the west, Camp Street on the north, 15th Avenue on the east, and Look Out Ridge Road south of the city in the town of Morse.

Aircraft will fly some 50 feet above the treetops and spray an insecticide in the early mornings sometime in June. Two treatments, about a week apart, will likely be needed to kill the gypsy moth larvae, according to the MDA. Similar spraying is proposed near Two Harbors and at three other sites in southeast Minnesota.

Area resident Rebecca Stouffer asked the council to “say no” to the aerial spraying proposal as presented by the MDA. “After much research, I believe this is an over-reaction by the MDA and want to raise public awareness about the effects of the aerial spraying of this insecticide,” she said.

Stouffer cited two reasons for her concerns: the health risks to people and animals and the negative impact on local business and tourism.

She proceeded to argue against the claims made by the MDA about the relative safety of the insecticide. “The Btk strains used commercially are not normally found in the soil and may be genetically modified by the manufacturer,” she said.

She also cited research that claims Btk, applied up to one million times that of natural levels, wipes out entire families of insects in a sprayed area.

Ely Boundary Street resident Richard Watson also spoke to the council. The retired research chemist cited information posted on a web blog, www.elyminnesota/elybuzz that cites numerous research sources as well as links to the MDA information.

He said he talked to a scientist who has worked with the Btk insecticide for more than 30 years. “He didn’t say he created it, but darn near,” Watson said.

Watson stressed that the council consider options to the aerial spraying proposal.

“For just 14 moths, this seems like overkill,” he said. “They can do the spraying from the ground with such a low number of moths in the affected area. This is a panic situation created by MDA. This is not a proposal; it seems to me this is an edict. They are telling you what to do. My sense is that this is the cheapest way for them, and not necessarily the best.”

At least seven other concerned residents and business owners voiced their opposition to the MDA’s aerial spraying proposal during the open forum, citing the health risks to kids at the playground and youth baseball players at the park, the loss of a father and husband from the military’s use of Agent Orange, the loss of tourism dollars to businesses at the start of the summer season, and the impact to a child care business that stresses outside activities.

The Department of Agriculture will accept comments from the public on the spraying proposal until March 15. As of Tuesday, just 14 comments were received, according to Langowski.

“Once the comment period is over, we will determine if we can have another public hearing,” Novak said. He indicated that, depending on the public interest, a second hearing could be held at Washington Auditorium or another venue in the city.

To comment on the issue, contact the MDA at kimberly.tcremers@state.mn.us.

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