Water soaks out mining at Ely meeting

Dayton's town hall steers clear of hot-button issue, despite packed house at Grand Ely Lodge

by Tom Coombe -

A packed house that included Gov. Mark Dayton addressed water quality issues for nearly two hours in Ely Tuesday night, but the hottest topic linked to that issue remained on the backburner.
Mining and its impact on the region’s waterways were never publicly mentioned at Dayton’s lone Water Quality Town Hall in northeastern Minnesota.
More than 250 people, including many of the region’s leading anti-mining voices as well as dozens wearing “We Support Mining” garb, crammed into the Grand Ely Lodge for the latest in a series of meetings convened by Dayton across the state.
Passion, however, never boiled over despite steamy conditions inside the meeting room.
Dozens of breakout sessions, including two involving Dayton with elected officials and local residents, appeared civil with most focusing on issues beyond copper-nickel mining.
“I appreciate that people looked at broader, regional issues,” Dayton said in a brief press conference before leaving the building.
Mayor Chuck Novak, who has clashed publicly with Dayton over the governor’s opposition to the the Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mining project near Ely, also steered clear of the dispute and opened the meeting with a conciliatory tone.
Novak called Dayton a “man with character,” and surprised people on both sides of the mining debate when he told the audience “the economy of the city of Ely is currently a tourism-based economy. We lose our water, we lose our economy.”
Ely is one 10 cities across the state selected to host a meeting, part of Dayton’s “25 by 25” effort to improve the state’s water quality 25 percent by 2025.
After three separate breakout session periods, when people were encouraged to move from table-to-table and identify water-related problems and possible solutions, Dayton appointees including DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr addressed the group.
While sessions elsewhere in the state focused on water that was unsafe to drink or water corrupted by agricultural or industrial waste. the Ely session took on a different tone, according to Landwehr.
Landwehr said the Ely gathering showed that “people here are very proud of the clean water.”
“When really pressed, people suggested we really need to protect what we have,” said Landwehr.
Area residents told Landwehr they were concerned with the cost associated with mandates that municipal wastewater treatment plants meet state standards, and that individual septic systems “may not be up to snuff.”
“What I heard here repesents a much different set of discussions,” said Landwehr. “There’s not one silver bullet.”
IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips added that the Ely gathering “really sent a message that we care about our water quality here.”
Dayton called the Ely meeting a “really terrific gathering” that “shows the level of interest in water quality.”
His staff members are gathering ideas generated at the sessions to develop possible goals and next steps, although Dayton identified one potential initiative in his remarks.
“Everybody talked about the importance of education,” said Dayton. “We need to build the consciousness and ethic that we are all concerned about water quality.”
A flyer released prior to the session includes several potential goals to improve water quality, from reducing water pollutants to efforts to better protect water on agricultural lands and in urban areas.
In a nod to the region, its abundance of waterways and the thousands who flock here to enjoy them, numerous speakers echoed the sentiments of many area residents who argued water quality problems are far more prevalent elsewhere in Minnesota.
“Take care of what you got here, it’s pretty nice,” said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources.
Anna Henderson, Dayton’s water advisor, facilitated the session and the breakout sessions were preceded by remarks from northern Minnesota officials including county commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth, Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Dan Schutte and Charlene Mason of the International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board.
Earlier this year, Dayton announced a new goal to improve Minnesota’s water quality 25 percent by 2025. Without additional action, the quality of Minnesota’s waters is expected to improve only 6 to 8 percent by 2034.

ADDRESSING WATER QUALITY ISSUES IN ELY - Gov. Mark Dayton (third from left) was joined by an aide (second from left), county commissioner Frank Jewell (left) and Babbitt resident Verne Mattson at a breakout session Tuesday night. Photo by Tom Coombe