Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Twin Metals decision

We’ve had enough hyperbole; let’s get to work building a diverse and stable economy


We live in a loud and troubled time, where far too many citizens would rather lob incendiary rhetoric than have a rational discussion. We saw that in our recent presidential election, and, unfortunately, it appears we’re seeing more of the same in the wake of the decision by the Obama administration to deny federal mineral leases to Twin Metals, and undertake a study of an expansion of the mining buffer zone surrounding the Boundary Waters.

The reaction from many in social media has been extreme, and the reaction from many of the region’s politicians has barely been better. The overall message is that the decision represents an attack on every resident of northern Minnesota and the death knell for mining in the region.

That’s nonsense.

The truth is that a copper-nickel mining project that is currently uneconomical and highly speculative is now even less likely to happen, although the courts will have the final word on that. This isn’t an attack on mining, nor on northern Minnesota jobs.

Instead, it is a recognition that there are different means of building a healthy economy, and that, in this instance, the potential for harm to an incalculably valuable resource was too significant to overlook.

Even the strongest advocates of resource extraction acknowledge that there are some places where it simply doesn’t make sense. Building a sulfide-based copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters, within a pristine wilderness watershed, is literally the worst place in the world for such a facility. Sulfide in rock reacts with air and water to form sulfuric acid, which leaches heavy metals and other toxins from rock, resulting in ongoing contamination lasting for centuries.

It is exactly that process that rendered the waters of the Berkeley pit, a former sulfide-based copper mine near Butte, Montana, so toxic that thousands of geese died earlier this month simply from drinking the water. We’re not suggesting that waters would ever become that contaminated here, but our region’s shallow soils and lack of buffering capacity clearly exacerbate the threat posed by acid mine drainage.

Such mineral resources are best developed in dry regions, where the risk of toxic runoff, and the damage done from major disasters, which are all too common in the mining industry, are minimized. Locating such a mine just upstream of America’s most-loved wilderness, that currently boasts some of the purest water in the world, elevates the risk to unacceptable levels.

Supporters of the Twin Metals project have argued that Minnesota is the best place to mine because the state has tough environmental standards. But as we’ve learned in recent years, those standards are routinely ignored when it comes to the mining industry. Sorry, but that’s a very real fact. No one can legitimately claim that Twin Metals, or any mine, in Minnesota is going to meet the highest standards when neither state regulators, nor state legislators, require it.

That is not intended in any way to diminish the importance of mining in Minnesota. It is simply a recognition that benefits derived from mining come with associated costs, both environmental and economic.

In either case, mining isn’t under threat in Minnesota, despite the hyperbolic claims made by some Twin Metals supporters. The proposed expansion of the mining buffer zone around the edge of the Boundary Waters would not impact any existing mine, nor any currently proposed mine, other than Twin Metals. It will not impact the PolyMet project, nor will it have any impact on the taconite industry.

We recognize and share the frustration that many feel about the seemingly endless struggles of the region’s economy. But we need to recognize that mining is, in part, responsible for those struggles. The boom and bust cycles inherent in mining make mining economies particularly unstable and lacking in diversity.

In communities like Ely and Tower, there’s an effort to transition to a different economic model, based on the creation of high quality-of-life communities, with outstanding recreational resources, where people will want to visit, to live, and to create new and sustainable economic opportunities. At a minimum, it makes sense to give those efforts the chance to succeed.

So let’s quit lobbing the verbal hand grenades and start the real work of building a diverse and stable economy that can provide jobs people need today.


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Reid Carron

Thanks for a perfectly clear and sensible analysis. Do you have any thoughts or advice on communicating with mining proponents? How do those of us who understand that copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would be a disaster in myriad ways communicate with those who assert that copper mining opponents intend to destroy Ely?

Friday, December 23, 2016
shaking my head

Unless the 'diverse and sustainable' jobs in the imaginary new economy pay what mining jobs pay, what is your point? Families will not locate here nor stay here, working 3 part time 'tourism' jobs. Natural resources are our economy. Tourists are seasonal,, and mostly camping.

Monday, December 26, 2016
Steve Jacobson

This past weekend I had a long conversation with a friend of mine from the Twin Cities area. He has traveled up to the BWCA numersous times through the years to go "Winter Camping". He knows I support mining and I am well aware of his "loving the BWCA"! So, we both were truthful in our feelings/thought regarding the BWCA. Probably what struck me the most was that he stated how much planning ahead of time it took to pull off this trip. He had already started packing for his trip in February to make sure to not forget anything. I asked him how much he and his group of three other guys would spend on their trip once they left their homes. He said they planned to leave the Twin Cities area by 5:00 am on the day of their trip. They would most likely stop in Cloquet for a good sit down breakfast. They would then be up to Ely shortly after noon. He stated that he/they would have everything they needed food and other supplies already packed and would not need to purchase anything in Ely. He stated also that there was just too much involved with the trip to chance forgetting anything so they would not rely on Ely for any supplies. Although he has not made the trip yet he said their plan were to try be back to their vehicle by 3:00 pm on the day they would leave. He also said although they have not ruled out stopping for a meal in Ely he said that in the past they are more than ready for a hot shower and look forward to getting back home as fast as they can.

Ultimately, my point is that many who plan to travel to the BWCA must do most of their packing and purchasing before they ever get to the Iron Range. Not only is usage dropping yearly the users are not utilizing Ely or the Range as much as in the past. It's hard for someone to make a living off the BWCA users when their plan is to not spend any money locallly.

I will be looking forward to hearing about families with school age children moving to the Ely area and getting sustainable paying jobs to provide for them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017