ELY—Forest Service officials may have expected a consistent chorus of pro-mining advocacy at Tuesday’s listening session here on the future of two federal mineral leases critical to the proposed …
ELY—Forest Service officials may have expected a consistent chorus of pro-mining advocacy at Tuesday’s listening session here on the future of two federal mineral leases critical to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine. That was certainly the hope of Twin Metals supporters, who had lobbied hard for a public input session on the Iron Range, in addition to the one held last week in Duluth.
Yet while Twin Metals advocates, many of whom were bussed in from other parts of the Iron Range, appeared to easily outnumber opponents of the project in the crowd, a slim majority of the nearly 50 people who actually spoke— who were selected by lottery— urged the Forest Service not to renew the leases.
Mayor Chuck Novak, at a rally in Virginia last month, had noted that Ely was not of one mind on the issue of Twin Metals, and the division was clear as a significant majority of the speakers from the Ely area itself, spoke against the mining project and urged the Forest Service to deny the leases.
Novak spoke briefly to the roughly 800 people in attendance at Tuesday’s session in Ely, asking for a civil debate, and the crowd, with a few minor exceptions, followed Novak’s advice. Some speakers, on both sides, drew loud applause, while a few drew scattered boos.
The Forest Service has already indicated it is leaning against renewal of the leases, citing grave concerns about the potential impact to water quality in the Kawishiwi River watershed, which passes into the heart of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But the agency had two top regional officials on hand Tuesday to hear the views of residents of the area. Among them was Kathleen Atkinson, regional forester for the Forest Service’s eastern region.
The prospect that the leases may not be renewed has alarmed mine supporters, who had hoped to use Tuesday’s session to convince the Forest Service that the lease renewal is critical to the success of the area’s economy and was consistent with the mission of the Superior National Forest.
District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said he was representing thousands of families in his sprawling border country district who need the good-paying jobs that the mine would provide. “We do not need to rely on some third world country for the minerals our country needs,” said Ecklund. “This has the potential to be a great project for this region.”
Chad Houde, a young new police officer in Ely, urged renewal and argued that opponents of the mine are mostly retirees who no longer need to earn a living. “Young people can’t live here anymore, because there aren’t any jobs,” he said. He questioned how many of the new businesses in town were really going to be successful. “I drive up and down the streets after 10 p.m. and there’s nobody on the streets,” he said. “People aren’t shopping here.”
Gerald Tyler, the director of the Ely-based group UpNorth Jobs, said mining creates good-paying jobs and presented a resolution of support for the Twin Metals project from the local American Legion. “When you deny a family’s breadwinner of a job that pays a living wage, you strip that person of their dignity,” he said.
Bernie Barich, of Ely, said he’s been a miner for 22 years and, for his family, mining has been a sustainable livelihood, one he’d like to see continue. He said seasonal jobs in tourism don’t pay enough to raise a family, noting that it’s only the entrepreneur owners of such businesses that are able to make a living.
“Their attitude is hurray for me and my resort and too bad for you peons,” he said.
But that wasn’t the view expressed by Sue Schurke, an owner of Wintergreen Northern Wear, a winter clothing manufacturing company, who urged the Forest Service to deny the leases while expressing her respect for those on the other side of the issue. “Most of my manufacturing crew are from mining families, so this is a sensitive issue,” she said. “I have enormous respect for the mining families and their work ethic,” she added. Schurke said she’s not opposed to taconite mining or mining in general, but she said the toxic legacy of copper-nickel mining gives her pause. “I am very concerned about this watershed,” she said. “I am not in favor of copper mining occurring in our precious area.”
Tuesday’s session reflected the starkly different impressions that many Ely residents have of their own community. Elton Brown, who said he and his wife came to live in Ely because of his frequent visits to the Boundary Waters, talked in glowing terms about the community that he finds at the end of the road. “Ely is one of the healthiest, most diversified communities found anywhere,” he said, drawing scoffs from a few in the crowd. But Brown urged doubters to look around and see how other small towns are faring. “We need to protect this special place from international corporate businesses that want to make enormous amounts of money while exposing the Boundary Waters to extraordinary risk.”
Jason Zabokrtsky, a wilderness guide and outfitter said he feels fortunate to have seen tremendous growth in his own small business in the eight years since he founded it. “I feel part of a vibrant local economy,” he said.
But several others saw the glass as half-empty, and spoke of declining school enrollment, shrinking population, and a lack of good-paying jobs in the Ely area. “Tourism may be a big part of keeping businesses open, but it doesn’t put kids in our schools,” said Barich.
Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich spoke of the economic struggles of the area, citing job losses and housing foreclosures. “We are asking for a fair chance at this,” she said.
While many spoke of their impressions and connections with the area, and what it means to them and others, several speakers on both sides of the issue urged the Forest Service to set aside emotional arguments and focus on science and the process.
“The National Environmental Policy Act, (NEPA) has as its basis, the presentation of facts,” said Steve Georgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. “We aren’t hearing facts here tonight, but views based on what someone believes to be true,” he said.
Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce dismissed those who oppose the Twin Metals project, but still rely on the metals such projects provide. “Today, the world needs the minerals under our feet,” he said, adding “you can’t be anti-mining and pro-metal.”
But Roger Powell, a retired professor in applied ecology who began his studies in the Ely area back in 1970, said the Boundary Waters provides a valuable laboratory for research. “It’s a place that shows how biological systems operate when they aren’t screwed up,” he said. He also cited a recent peer-reviewed study published by Tom Myers in the Journal of Hydrology, which indicated that the Twin Metals mine would likely lead to long-term groundwater and surface water pollution within the Kawishiwi watershed, and possibly in nearby watersheds as well.
Decision date unclear
The Forest Service comment period ended on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of written comments already in, according to Atkinson. Jeremy Drucker, of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said the group would be submitting over 65,000 petitions opposed to the lease renewals by this week’s Wednesday deadline.
Atkinson said the Forest Service has no timeline in place for when a final decision will be made. “The decision will be grounded in science, so we’ll be going through the science, the vast amount of existing research, data and literature, and it will be influenced by what we hear from the public,” she said.
While the leases are actually controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, top BLM officials have already indicated they won’t approve the lease renewals without approval by the Forest Service.