Mining passion fuels lively Duluth hearing

Fresh off the Ely bus was this large group of mining supporters at the Forest Service meeting in Duluth Thursday. Photo by Nancy McReady.

by Tom Coombe -

There was no middle ground Thursday night in Duluth, when federal officials convened another passionate public hearing over proposed copper-nickel mining projects near Ely.
Mining supporters called a possible 20-year mining ban on federal land in the region “draconian,” illegal and even a death knell for local communities.
On the opposite side were detractors who called the proposals “sinful,” fanciful. and detrimental to everything from salamanders to public health.
That was the backdrop as more than 50 people, from an audience of nearly 1,000 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, addressed representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management.
The hearing came in the midst of a two-year timeout on mining development as officials consider a plan that could take more than 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest land out of circulation for mining for 20 years.
While that decision will ultimately be made by the Trump Administration, Thursday’s hearing and a likely second session this summer somewhere on the Iron Range allow the public to weigh in.
And like they did at two similar sessions last year on federal leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota, both sides came out in force in Duluth.
Crowd reaction indicated a 50-50 or perhaps even a pro-mining bent, but more speakers favored the proposed mining withdrawal than those opposing it.

The strongest reaction, however, was generated by former legislator and current St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina.
Rukavina, who represents the Ely area on the county board, bristled at suggestions that the local economy was thriving, that Ely no longer relies on mining or that sentiment in the community was split over the prospect of new mining projects.
Citing statistics showing that more than 100 area residents work at Iron Range mines and the prevalence of retired miners in the community, Rukavina charged “that’s what keeps this town going, not tourism.”
“Mining is what we do for a living,” said Rukavina. “It’s what we’ve been doing for 135 years.”

Both at a press conference prior to the event and again during the hearing, Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich called the possible mining ban a “death sentence” for her community.
Joe Baltich, a former Ely mayor who last year founded Fight for Mining Minnesota, a grassroots pro-mining group that has attracted nearly 12,000 members, vowed that Zupancich’s fears wouldn’t be realized.
“I’m angry, we’re organized and this time we’re going to win,” said Baltich.
Mining opponents countered in support of the proposed withdrawal by renewing long-held positions that copper-nickel mining near the BWCAW and the project proposed by Twin Metals pose environmental risks that threaten the region’s waterways and tourism economy.
“You’ve got the world’s most toxic industry moving into the world’s most popular wilderness area,” said Ely business owner Steve Piragis. “They’re like oil and water. They just don’t mix.”
Piragis also evoked jeers from some in the audience when he claimed “Ely’s economy is in a growth phase. Good things are happening in Ely. It’s not a mining economy like we had in 1967.”
One opponent pointed to the threat of pollution and said “it would be a sin” to allow mining near the BWCAW, while Ely business owner Peta Barrett said “my home and business depend on a healthy ecosystem.”
“To imagine (mining) can be done safely here defies science,” said Barrett.
Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League spoke in favor of the withdrawal and alleged that mining companies were dangling “the carrot” of jobs to spur support for the projects. Staffon said it’s unclear what will happen to waterways “if we bite the carrot.”