Mining opponents speak out; Rom, Piragis face some pushback during Tuesday Group visit

Becky Rom presented her views at the Tuesday Group.

by Tom Coombe -

The passion and emotion of the dispute over copper-nickel mining was on display Tuesday in Ely.
An update on a national campaign to block proposed new mining development in the Ely area and elsewhere in northeastern Minnesota evoked fervor from both sides of the issue and even a call to compromise.
Becky Rom, one of two presenters at the Tuesday Group luncheon, stoked outrage in some circles last month when she was quoted in a national piece that anti-mining forces would turn public sentiment in Ely “one funeral at a time.”
Challenged to rescind that statement by Mike Banovetz during a question-and-answer session, Rom denied making the statement.
“I actually don’t think I said it,” said Rom. “We don’t need any of that.”
But Rom also pushed back, noting that Ely mayor Chuck Novak was alleged to have harassed the reporter in the same story and blasted elected officials “who say this is a dying town.”
Rom, an Ely native and attorney who is leading a coordinated effort to derail the mining project proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota, reiterated familiar arguments that copper-nickel mining is too unsafe for the area’s water-rich environment and would damage the region’s economy.
Division over the issue was also on display, with another new Elyite, Mary O’Brien, pressing for common ground.
A former lobbyist in the Iowa legislature, O’Brien said the “polarization in this town is phenomenal,” and criticized the Tuesday Group for catering to one viewpoint.
Of mining families and those who count on the mining economy, O’Brien said “they love their homes, they love the area.”
Nancy McReady, president of the pro-mining Conservationists with Common Sense, took issue with contentions made by Rom and other copper-nickel mining opponents, that new mining would destroy other segments of the local economy.
“If we can guarantee mining can be done right, all of Ely will prosper,” said McReady.
McReady also pointed to declining school enrollments, Ely’s many vacant storefronts and the challenges of sustaining a business in Ely year-round.
“I worry about Insula making it through the winter here,” said McReady.
While Rom later focused on the ongoing campaign and laid out arguments against copper-nickel mining on ecological and economic grounds, Ely business owner Steve Piragis opened the presentation before a packed house of nearly 100 people at the Grand Ely Lodge.
Piragis first sought to dispute contentions that he and others opposed to copper-nickel projects are “anti-mining.”
“We’re not anti-mining,” said Piragis. “We all depend on mining. We are opposed to mining in this watershed.”
Piragis said he is opposed to copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota on ecological, economic and sociological grounds.
He charged “it’s simplly not possible” to conduct copper-nickel mining safety and that it “has inherent damages in many different ways.”
Piragis said his company employs 55 people during the summer and 29 people year-round, paying “way more than a million dollars” a year overall.
“We’re not insignificant,” said Piragis. “We exist because (the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) is an attraction to people.”
Piragis also warned that copper-nickel mining will come with a social cost, citing a “boom-and-bust” economy and pointing to changes in areas such as the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and increases in alcoholism, prostitution and how “people’s lives have been ruined.”
Rom honed in on science and alleged “all credible sources tell us (copper-nickel mining) creates a huge risk to the wilderness.”
Copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota pose risks to three protected areas - the BWCAW, Voyaguers National Park and Quetico Provincial Park, according to Rom.
“You can mine in a lot of places but this is probably the worst place in America to mine,” Rom said of northeastern Minnesota.
Armed with maps and polling data, Rom said that copper-nickel mines create a “pathway to pollution” that put Fall and Basswood lakes at risk.
According to Rom, the mines will also put the Voyageur Outward Bound operation at risk, not to mention numerous other businesses.
She said the establishment of a commercial mining district near Ely will also destroy property wealth, reducing values by over $500 million and damaging the segment of the economy that relies on those who have built or bought retirement homes in the area.
“Most of our homegrown businesses would suffer,” she said.
Rom pointed to data showing that just two percent of northestern Minnesota jobs are in mining and charged the region, as a whole, has moved on and even grown since the mining downturn of the 1980s.
She cited polling data commissioned by mining opponents that show significant majorities of Minnesotans, including those in the state’s Eighth Congressional district, are skeptical about copper-nickel mining and want a current two-year timeout to proceed.
Rom also used Ely’s own marketing efforts to cement her argument that mining should not be in the community’s future, pointing to the Ely Chamber of Commerce slogan that Ely provides “the last, pure, great experience.”
“That’s what we are, and that’s why we can’t have sulfide mining in this watershed,” said Rom.