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Advocacy Group Questions Mine Project’s Economic Viability

March 05, 2014 By Nicole Simms, Fellow

PolyMet’s plans to build a copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota have been getting a great deal of media attention; lesser known is Twin Metals Minnesota’s intention to mine copper and nickel within the Rainey River watershed. Surface waters in the area flow into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), parts of the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Any water pollution resulting from Twin Metals’ proposed underground sulfide-ore mine just southeast of Ely will potentially impact these areas.

Unlike iron and taconite mining, copper mining is new to Minnesota. Its detractors argue it will produce acid mine drainage that will negatively impact water quality and aquatic life for centuries. Its proponents claim it will generate jobs, revenue for the state, and the materials necessary for modern life. But wilderness advocacy group Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) is working to reframe this debate. Last month, at one of several events geared toward raising awareness about Twin Metals’ intentions, the NMW called into question the notion that this type of mining does more economic harm than good.

The potential environmental implications of a Twin Metals mine were certainly discussed at the event, which was held at the Ridgedale Library and billed as a discussion on impacts to property owners. Becky Rom, a long-time advocate for the BWCA, noted that the boundary waters are particularly vulnerable to acid mine drainage: they lack calcium carbonate, which counteracts sulfide – without it, there’s nothing to stop a rapid and dangerous drop in pH levels once sulfide enters the system. While she acknowledged the need for copper supplies, Rom questioned the logic of locating the kind of toxic activity associated with its extraction next to a protected wilderness area that is especially vulnerable to it.

Instead of simply pitting the economy against the environment, the event’s participants were eager to demonstrate to the packed room how integral environmental well-being is to the economy of northern Minnesota. Rom argued Ely’s healthy economy is based on wilderness – a threat to the wilderness is a threat to that economy. She noted that the kind of boom and bust economic cycles induced by mining preclude a diverse and sustainable economy, and pointed out the 26 Ely-area resorts, camps, and other recreation businesses and facilities that lie in the path of potential pollution.

Twin Metals says the mine – which would be the largest in Minnesota history – would produce more than 5,000 Minnesota construction jobs from 2012-2016, and more than 1,300 long-term Minnesota mining jobs. Former iron miner Bob Tammen argued at the event that mines like Twin Metals don’t offer any significant employment opportunities (especially because mining is becoming increasingly automated), nor do they provide a path toward a sustainable northern economy.

Rom’s husband, Reid Carron, who also spoke at the event, noted that in addition to compromising the economy, the mine would have a negative impact on property values in the area. He pointed out that properties decrease in value the closer they are to a mine; they also increase in value the closer they are to wilderness. The Twin Metals mine would pack a “double whammy” for property owners because not only would they be close to a mine, the wilderness which increased the value of their properties would be despoiled.

Carron disputed Twin Metals’ claims that the mine would be like an underground city (and thereby contained), arguing there would be constant trucks, dust, noise, and materials coming and going from the site. In fact, Carron said the company’s exploratory activities had already been disruptive to residents, and that the damage to the local real estate market was already underway: people are electing not to buy in the area once they hear about Twin Metals, while existing homeowners are deferring home improvements for fear they will not be able to recoup the value later.

The Twin Metals project is not as far along as PolyMet’s – it is currently in the prefeasibility stage. This may help to explain why Twin Metals has largely received only local media coverage, even though its plans eclipse PolyMet’s in both size and duration: Twin Metals would process 80,000 tons of metal per day for at least 40 years; PolyMet would process 32,000 tons a day for 20 years. However, opponents argue this is a critical time to mobilize against Twin Metals – acting now could stop the project from moving forward at all if federal agencies like the EPA get on board.

To this end, the NMW is spearheading and supporting a variety of initiatives to protest this mining under the auspices of its Sustainable Ely project, including petitions, events, info sessions, and a unique canoe trip down to Washington, D.C. designed to get the attention of President Obama. They encourage any individuals who are undecided about sulfide-ore mining to contact them to get more information, or let them know what kind of information they might need to make a decision.

They certainly have their work cut out for them – they are up against Twin Metals, which is owned by two huge mining corporations with considerable resources at their disposal. They are also up against strong support for the project from some northern communities.

As a campaign strategy, questioning the economic viability of the project is a smart way to add nuance to the economy vs. environment debate. But arguing the merits of a diversified economy doesn’t automatically generate one. Bob Tammen said he didn’t blame Minnesota miners for taking jobs with polluting mining companies, or supporting proposals like the Twin Metals or PolyMet mines, because “it’s a paycheck. If we don’t have alternatives, we’ll take it.” Perhaps it’s time to start focusing on how alternatives can be created in northern Minnesota. Ely’s diverse economy may be thriving, but until we can say the same for the rest of the region, trying to stand in the way of sulfide-ore mining is going to continue to be an uphill battle.  

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  • fred says:

    March 10, 2014 at 9:09 am

    no comment now; would like to see other comments

  • tony says:

    March 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    polymet mine. only 75 jobs for MN, remainder will be brought in & no commitment to make them union, so can you say"minimum wage”??  This mine mentioned will burrow under the boundary waters & could possibly collapse, rerouting the entire drainage…

  • John Crampton says:

    March 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Once the wilderness is despoiled you can kiss the economy of Ely good-bye.  I spent a week last summer in the Bakken area of North Dakota.  All the businesses and people who depend on Theo Roosevelt National Park, Little Missouri State Park, National Grasslands are all hurting because of all the truck traffic, constant dust, incredible traffic and crime in the area brought on by the oil boom are keeping people away from the area.  All this to make Mark Rich and the other gang of vicious capitalist pigs richer?