HOYT LAKES, Minn. - A major proposed mining project on Minnesota's Iron Range has nothing to do with iron ore, but could still hold the key to the region's economic future or lead to its environmental destruction, depending on who you ask.
There is no doubt that the possibility of mining for copper, nickel and other precious metals in an area with a tradition of mining, as well as a tradition of impeccable cleanliness and beauty, has been contentious. The new debate is ramping up as a company that could be the first to mine for copper and nickel in Minnesota moves further along in the regulatory process.
The deposit of copper, nickel and other precious metals like platinum, palladium and gold is one of the world's largest. It's called the Duluth Complex and stretches approximately 150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border.
The Duluth complex was discovered decades ago, but because of the geologic make-up of the deposit, only more recently has technology been developed to mine the ore efficiently. Geologists say the Duluth complex contains billions of tons of ore potentially worth trillions of dollars. Many companies have staked a claim in the rich mineral deposit.
And so the discussion begins.
On Minnesota's Iron Range, a century of iron ore mining built many communities.
"That's my dad - Willy 'Winko' Erzar," says Bill Erzar, a third generation miner from Ely, as he points to a 1950's era photograph of his dad working at the old Pioneer underground iron ore mine. Erzar is proud of his mining heritage.
"Those mining jobs provided our families, our parents with a living that could send us to college or kept us in clothes or food and a nice home," Erzar says. "Those kind of jobs contributed greatly to the economic stability of the community."
While mining on the west side of the Iron Range continues today, the last of the underground mines near Ely shut down in the 1960s. But with the copper nickel potential, Erzar has hope for a new generation of mining on the east range.
"When you look at that opportunity for mining jobs...Those of us who have lived here all our lives, that's part of us," Erzar says.
The debate over copper-nickel mining now plays out on front yards and along highways in northern Minnesota. There are many signs clearly supporting mining and others pointing to the potential environmental consequences of copper-nickel mining in particular.
In the east range community of Hoyt Lakes, most people don't consider themselves divided. In Mark Novosel's 35 years in Hoyt Lakes, he saw a once booming community empty out.
"Well, we're a mining community without a mine. That's never a good fit," says Novosel.
LTV shut down its Hoyt Lakes taconite plant more than ten years ago. 1400 mining jobs went away leaving the company town looking for a company. But a company found them.
Jon Cherry is CEO of PolyMet, one of many companies with mineral rights in the Duluth Complex and furthest along in climbing the complicated regulatory staircase to acquire mining permits. If allowed, PolyMet would have a large open pit mine and use the old LTV facility to process the ore.
"This Erie plant, mill and site, it's a truly iconic asset up here on the Iron Range that the communities of Hoyt Lakes and Aurora were really kind of built and founded around. This was really the community center here and PolyMet, we're very excited to be able to put this back to work and turn it back into what it was before," says Cherry.
Core samples rich with precious metals tell the story of the jobs Cherry says will come which include a thousand jobs to retrofit the plant, 350 full time workers and jobs generated by spin-off businesses.
"There's been 100 years of iron ore mining. There could very easily be 100 years of copper nickel mining up here on the range," Cherry says.
But opponents say mining comes with a heavy cost. Aaron Klemz is with Friends of the Boundary Waters, which is just one group leading the charge against copper nickel mining.
"What we've seen across the country is a record of other mines... leaving behind pollution that lasts for centuries," says Klemz.
Critics often look to the west for the legacy of precious metals mining where some communities in South Dakota, Montana and Idaho still deal with pollution years after their mines closed.
Copper, nickel and other precious metals are harmless in the ground. But the rock also contains something called sulfide. Once the rock is exposed to air and water it can create sulfuric acid, causing the metals to be released into the environment.
The heavy metal run-off could potentially get into ground and surface water. The water can become polluted by run-off only if modern technology to contain and treat the water doesn't work.
"You can't have a riskier place to cite this type of mining," says Becky Rom, who was born and raised in Ely and now heads up the group Sustainable Ely. She says not only might copper nickel mining have environmental consequences, it's not needed.
"We have a stable and sustainable economy that is based on the great natural beauty," says Rom. "People will not want to live here anymore, our water will be polluted, our air will be polluted. We're going to have a huge impact on roads, dust, noise and this is no longer going to be the gateway to the wilderness or the end of the road."
The tourism industry has in fact grown in northern Minnesota and livelihoods depend on it. Renowned arctic explorer Paul Schurke runs a popular dog-sledding resort.
"It's not an issue of mining jobs versus tourism jobs. They simply are not compatible," Schurke says..
But former state lawmaker and lifelong ranger Tom Rukavina doesn't think much of the opponents of copper nickel mining and reminds them that many people who live on the edge of the Boundary Waters still mine. East rangers work at iron ore mines on the west range and many retirees live off their pensions there. He says tourism alone can't sustain the region.
And the latest numbers from the state show the Arrowhead region currently has more than 4,500 mining jobs with an average weekly wage of about $1600. Tourism accounts for some 5,500 jobs. On average, workers in the tourism industry take home $270-275 each week according the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"I don't see how some of the members of the environmental community can want wind mills and solar panels and electric cars and not make the connection that all of those metals come from somewhere," says Rukavina.
But what opponents say they fear most is what might come next. If PolyMet passes environmental muster, then other companies that might also want permission to mine copper nickel, but are not as far along in the regulatory process - among them Twin Metals in Ely - might too.
"It will transform our national forest into a massive mining district," says Rom.
PolyMet and its supporters say this type of mining can be done safely and point to the Flambeau open pit copper mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. While environmental groups say water tests show continued polluted run-off from the site more than a decade after the mine closed, Wisconsin DNR officials say Flambeau never violated its mining permit.
Today, it's hard to tell there was ever a mine here next to the Flambeau River. Much of the area has experienced re-growth of grasses and trees.
Minnesota officials from the agencies who will make the decision about PolyMet and other copper-nickel mining projects recently visited Flambeau to see for themselves.
Still, opponents say Flambeau is different. Flambeau was smaller than what PolyMet proposes and the copper was never processed on site.
No matter what, there is no perfect example either side can look to for the potential impact of this type of mining. Critics and supporters say Minnesota's geology and geography are unique, as is the debate over whether a new mining future can be rooted in northern Minnesota's past.
"We're not interested in this toxic form of mining in this area," says Rom.
"Without mining there is no range so if people want to get rid of the range get rid of mining," says Rukavina.
Supporters of copper nickel mining say the technology and regulation exist to do this right. PolyMet would use a process called reverse osmosis to clean any water that leaves the site - meaning the mine and the processing facility. The company would also be required to set aside money, in the form bonds for example, for any future cleanup needs.
Opponents have voiced their concerns about the Boundary Waters. According to the DNR, PolyMet is actually located in the Lake Superior watershed, not the watershed that feeds the Boundary Waters. But opponents say it's awfully close and there are other companies that want to mine, even closer to the Boundary Waters.
PolyMet's supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement will be released next month, followed by a public comment period, a final EIS and later, a long permitting process if the project gets that far.
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