ELY— The fallout from a New York Times Magazine article highlighting the ongoing debate over copper-nickel mining near Ely came fast and furious this past Friday, as unions, politicians, and others …
ELY— The fallout from a New York Times Magazine article highlighting the ongoing debate over copper-nickel mining near Ely came fast and furious this past Friday, as unions, politicians, and others weighed in on comments attributed to two prominent critics of the Twin Metals mining proposal, that were widely interpreted as disparaging to the region’s blue -collar workforce.
The story, by reporter Reid Forgrave, cast the debate as a battle between two competing economic models, one based on traditional resource extraction, the other based on outdoor recreation and tourism.
The story focused on miner and Ely city council member Dan Forsman, representing the quintessential blue-collar worker right down to the white bread in his lunch pail, and whose life and work provided the backdrop for much of the story’s narrative— a narrative that focused more on the personal animosities on both sides of the debate than on the substance itself.
At one point, Forsman complained about Piragis Northwoods Company, referring to the business’s owners, Steve and Nancy Piragis as “packsackers” even though they moved to Ely before Forsman was born and built a successful outfitting business that today provides 18 local residents a full-time year-round job, with many more seasonal jobs during the busy season. Forsman called opponents of copper-nickel mining, particularly fellow Elyite Becky Rom, who chairs the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, “elitists” and “hypocrites” and said he’s angered by their condescension and moral certainty. “The way she comes off, her attitude and way of doing this, it’s part of the problem,” he told reporter Forgrave.
Rom, and her husband Reid Carron, both retired attorneys, returned fire. “Danny Forsman drives to the mine in his truck, comes home and watches TV, and he doesn’t know this world exists,” said Rom, describing the Boundary Waters. Carron took a deeper shot, one that sparked outrage from many in the region, saying mining supporters appear motivated mostly by resentment of those who’ve succeeded in a changing Ely economy. “They want somebody to just give them a job so they can all drink beer with their buddies and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling with their buddies, not have to think about anything except punching a clock,” he told Forgrave.
It didn’t take long for the aftershocks to arrive, and some sought to connect all opposition to sulfide-based mining as sharing Carron’s views. “In my opinion, and in my experience sitting through public hearing after public hearing listening to environmental activists dismiss and belittle construction jobs, the sentiments expressed by Rom and Carron very accurately reflect the way most anti-mining, anti-pipeline, anti-development groups really feel about the hardworking people of northern Minnesota,” said Jason George, in a statement issued by the Operating Engineers Local 49. “It disgusts me. There is no other way to put it.”
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, in comments to the Timberjay, said he shared that disgust, both from the sentiment expressed as well as the negative perception the article put on the Ely community. “With those comments, we see their true feelings about Ely and those of us who live here,” Novak said. “I am disgusted by these latest comments they made. They’re all done. No one will listen to them from now on. No one will respect what they have to say.”
Justin Perpich, Chair of the Eighth District DFL weighed in as well. “These statements were cruel, excessive, and do not reflect the community values we hold dear on the Iron Range,” he said in a statement he issued last Friday. “Republicans are salivating at the opportunity to use the mining issue to splinter our community. We must resist this temptation to belittle our brothers and sisters, and instead, stand together for good-paying union jobs that will support the next generation of Iron Rangers.”
Politicians, including Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan and his recently-announced DFL primary challenger, Leah Phfier, both weighed in as well, suggesting the comments were inappropriate and divisive. Sen. Al Franken urged a return to more civil debate on the issue. “Even in heated disagreement, that’s not the way we do things in Minnesota, and I was glad to see an apology. It was the right thing to do.”
Franken was referring to the apology issued by Rom and Carron shortly after the story appeared, calling their comments, particularly Carron’s, disrespectful and untrue. “We respect people who get up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to work in Minnesota’s taconite mines. Second, the statement is untrue because it does not reflect what we think. Living in the Ely community, we depend on people all the time who we know hold a different view than we do on whether copper mining would be a good thing. When we do business with them, they are helpful and generous, and we treat each other with mutual respect. For Reid to say that people like that are sitting around waiting for a big mining company to give them a job or Becky to question if Dan Forsman has been into the Boundary Waters is disrespectful. We apologize for these statements. The people and the communities in northeastern Minnesota are treasures that deserve to prosper.”
Ironically, it was Forsman, portrayed as the blue-collar archetype by the Times, who faced his own moment of public ignominy this past winter for intemperate comments, when he posted a satirical meme on a private pro-Hillary Clinton chat group, that included many Ely area women, suggesting the Clinton supporters should consider suicide. The incident prompted calls for Forsman’s resignation from the city council. In the end, he apologized, and the issue largely faded away.
Whether the latest twist has long-lasting repercussions or quickly blows over remains to be seen. But it was at least a short-term blow to the campaign’s efforts to hold onto the victories it achieved late last year. That’s when the Obama administration announced it was cancelling two critical mineral leases for the Twin Metals project and would conduct a two-year study of the potential social, economic, and environmental effects of mining within the Boundary Waters watershed as the first step towards a possible 20-year suspension of mineral leasing within the wilderness watershed.
Nolan, along with Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, is currently seeking to undo those decisions through congressional action and their efforts have gained some traction in the GOP-dominated House.
A misfire for
For the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, the damage was largely self-inflicted. The campaign initially reached out to the Times in hopes of advancing their vision of the “amenity-based economy” that has grown up in the region in recent decades, particularly in the Ely area.
An economic study commissioned by the campaign this past summer put numbers to the impact, which is based not so much on tourism and recreation as it is the spending by the thousands of people who have moved to the Ely area in recent years, mostly to the townships surrounding Ely.
Yet while the Times story mentioned the study, it largely missed the point according to Spencer Phillips, of Key-Log Economics, the firm that prepared the analysis. “The story fell into a tired trope and false choice between jobs in one extractive industry and jobs in recreation and tourism,” wrote Phillips in response to questions from the Timberjay.
Phillips notes that the Times reporter spoke to people who represented the local payoff of the amenity-based economy, but apparently never made the connection. Kris Hallberg, a recently retired World Bank economist is one of them. She was quoted sympathizing with the plight of blue collar workers, a sincere position she said, but added that her overall views on the question of sulfide mining weren’t represented in the story. “They kind of cherry-picked, without reflecting the totality of people’s views,” she said.
Phillips noted the many ways that people like Hallberg contribute to the local economy through the income she spends in the community.
“We can imagine that she spends a significant portion of her retirement income in the region year-round,” he said. “Someone local, most likely, built her home, and another local resident handled the real estate transaction. Someone else may fix the plumbing or maintain the landscaping. Someone else repairs her car, bags her groceries, cleans her teeth, executes trades in her stock portfolio, or performs music for her entertainment.”
Hallberg said that she and her husband, who moved to the area 11 years ago from the Washington, D.C. area, are “stereotypical cases” of the amenity-based economy. “I was with the World Bank and my husband was a water quality specialist with the EPA,” she said. With the arrival of DSL at their renovated lake home, Hallberg and her husband realized they could live at their lake home year-round and work from there. She continued her consulting for several years and has now worked her way into retirement, but she and her husband continue to spend their annual incomes in the local area.
“We came here for the clean water, clean air and rocks and woods and wildlife and it’s been great,” she said.
It’s stories like Hallberg’s, multiplied many times over, that form the foundation of the amenity-based economy, notes Phillips. While tourism relies on outside income from visitors, the amenity-based economy relies on community assets, or amenities, to attract permanent residents who contribute to the economy through their local spending and business creation. In the case of Ely, a 2014 University of Minnesota study found that the vast majority of residents in the townships surrounding Ely were attracted to amenities like clean water and ready access to a vast array of wild, public lands. And it’s fueled a building boom in the townships, where 80 percent of the new housing in the Ely area has been built in recent years. That same U of M survey found that nearly a quarter of those new residents indicated new mining in the area would prompt them to leave, taking their incomes and businesses with them. And those incomes aren’t the low wages that the Times story suggested. Residents of the surrounding townships have some of the highest incomes in the region, averaging well above the median household income in Minnesota. Those wages currently fuel the bulk of local year-round spending in the Ely area economy, impacting a broad cross section of businesses, from real estate, construction, finance, insurance, utilities, home furnishings and other retail.
To suggest that such an economy leaves workers with the choice between mining or working as “Sherpas” as County Commissioner Tom Rukavina stated, is a false choice, said Phillips. “A union member with the kinds of skills that would be useful in the mining industry might well find work in construction, as a mechanic, or in other skilled trades, or he might seek employment in mining in another place,” he said.
Phillips also took issue with Rukavina’s claim that 100 miners who live in the Ely area and commute to taconite mines on the Mesabi Iron Range, provide the bulk of the income that keeps the Ely economy afloat through nine months of the year. Economist Phillips ran the numbers and dismissed Rukavina’s comment as nonsensical, noting that each miner would have to earn more than three quarters of a million dollars a year for such a claim to be true.
The Times story also suggested that the Twin Metals mine would be an underground operation, which is far from certain. As Congressman Nolan and others have noted repeatedly in opposing the two-year study of the proposed mining withdrawal, Twin Metals has put forward no mine plan to study. An initial pre-feasibility report produced several years ago, when the now-defunct Duluth Metals still controlled the project, did propose an underground operation. But that proposal came with a $3 billion construction price tag and would not be economically viable at metal prices anywhere close to today’s levels. Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, which now owns Twin Metals, has not put forward a new mine plan. Some of the mineral deposits that the company is hoping to exploit do come close to the surface, which has led to speculation that an open pit mine is a likelier outcome due to economic factors.
While the local reaction to the Times story was perhaps predictable, the intensity came as a surprise to reporter Forgrave, who said he would be disappointed if the story’s broader message was overshadowed by the sudden controversy over the comments by Carron and Rom. “I would hate to think that a story with a lot of complexity can be boiled down to one quote,” he said. “I don’t regret putting those quotes in there,” he said. “I think they reflect the views up there,” adding that the criticism of the opposition was sharp on both sides. “Not from everyone, but there was quite a bit of it,” he said. “What was most fascinating to me about the story, was the cultural divide, the strange bedfellows and the way that this town of 3,500 reflects the political moment we’re in right now.”
Hallberg, who said the report glossed over the risks associated with sulfide mining, sees it differently. “I thought it was unfortunate that the story didn’t delve into the more substantive issues, and opted to focus more on the personal side. It only served to inflame the situation.”
Sen. Franken said he hopes the experience may still prove useful. “I hope that we can learn from this moment. I hope it allows us all to take a deep breath and realize that despite the passions people feel about this—or any issue—we must respect the perspectives of others in our communities. We all want the same things. Good-paying jobs. A strong economy. Responsible stewardship of our environment. I hope we all remember that even as we confront our most challenging differences, these are still our neighbors.”