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Power structure at McCollum-bill hearing shows what local BWCA supporters are up against

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is the wild heart of Minnesota’s great north woods and one of the premier expanses of public land in America, is under dire threat. Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, with the support of some powerful, self-interested organizations and politicians, proposes to build a vast sulfide-ore copper mining operation in the Superior National Forest adjacent to and upstream from the Boundary Waters.

Steve Piragis
Steve Piragis
This array of powerful interests has made clear that they could not possibly care less about the health of the Boundary Waters, about the sustainable economy that the wilderness supports in northeastern Minnesota, or about the priceless social benefits that the wilderness provides to its owners, the people of the United States.

The nature of the power structure arrayed against those of us who love the Boundary Waters and whose livelihoods depend on it were on clear display in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. I went to Washington with other local Ely business people, including another canoe trip outfitter, an owner of an outdoor clothing manufacturing company and winter dogsled business, and the executive director of a wilderness-focused nonprofit organization that has been taking people into the Boundary Waters for many decades. Together the payrolls for our five businesses provide over $4 million in annual income to the Ely area.

Our purpose was to attend a hearing on HR 5598, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s 5th District, that would ban sulfide-ore copper mining on all federal public lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin in Minnesota. Such a ban would protect the Boundary Waters by eliminating the enormous threat of acid mine drainage and environmental degradation from proposed sulfide-ore mines in the BWCA headwaters.

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, testified at the hearing on HR 5598:

The Boundary Waters region is thriving because of its environmental qualities, recreational opportunities, and quality of life. The Ely Chamber of Commerce markets Ely as “the last great pure experience.” Approximately 250 businesses belong to the Chamber, which attests to the strength and diversity of our small business economy, and our Ely community is the envy of other small towns.

Our businesses depend on the growing in-migration of new residents and a steady influx of tens of thousands of visitors, which we stand to lose from sulfide-ore copper mining. Why? Because the degradation of our water, forests, and air, and the loss of quietude, dark skies, and wildlife that are the inevitable consequences of this toxic form of mining will make our community unattractive for residents and visitors.

Although sulfide-ore mining boosters like U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s 8th District are quick to claim that opposition to copper mining near the Boundary Waters is an “insult to local people,” the Antofagasta supporters at the Feb. 5 hearing were not local people. They were instead an Antofagasta/ Twin Metals executive, a Minnesota Power executive, the chief lobbyist for the Minnesota copper-mining industry, and an employee of a mining construction company. In fact, the real insult to locals like me and my employees, friends, and colleagues, and to the thousands of other people who live in northeastern Minnesota because of the Boundary Waters, is the determination of powerful organizations to ride roughshod over the public interest. The great majority of Minnesotans get this — poll after poll shows a strong majority of people in every part of the state opposed to copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

The people of the greater Ely community — the people who drive the Ely economy — live here because of the Boundary Waters. Getting outdoors close to home is helping many of us cope with the stresses caused by the pandemic while maintaining the necessary social distancing. Traveling in the Boundary Waters will be a major part of the healing process for thousands of people as we emerge from this crisis. We want to share this magnificent, wild canoe country with you. When it is safe to do so, please visit the Boundary Waters, support local businesses, and help us save the BWCA from insatiable special interests that seek to destroy it.

Steve and Nancy Piragis and their daughter Elli own Piragis Northwoods Company, which operates on the main street of Ely, Minnesota.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 03/26/2020 - 11:07 am.

    To those who still believe that hard rock mining will not permanently poison both groundwater wells and the rivers that sustain the natural food chain, do a demonstration project: Fix the acid mine leach-ate at the closed Dunka Mine.

    Do it in partnership with public agency observation and mining company “technology” so Minnesotans can see if these two adventures in extraction can be safely done.

    Of course that won’t happen, 1) because the liability has already been passed along to the public, and 2) because it can’t be done.

    How nice is your cabin or your city water supply once acid has polluted your wells? What will future residents do for drinking water? What will such damage do to the property values?

    Miners! Align with those who will help make new industries and projects in the North Country. Stop supporting the greed of the extractors. They will move on if you don’t fall for their promises.

    Minnesotans will support jobs and prosperity for this special part of our state. Hard rock mining is the worst choice for a better future.

    • Submitted by Doug Beckwith on 04/01/2020 - 04:35 pm.

      I moved within 1/2 mile from where the Dunka River flows into Birch lake in 1960. This was before Erie Mining Company opened the Dunka Pit. Dunka Bay was a great place to fish and it was relatively free of all water vegetation. One could find some Lilly pads in a small corner of the back waters. Fast forward to my 45th high school reunion in 2017. I was camping at Mattilas Resort at Dunka Bay and I could not use a motor as the Bay was nearly 95% full of Wild Rice. I was surprised as before Erie Mining Company there was no Wild Rice and now after the mine ceased operations and according to some mine leachate is polluting the river and lake I saw very healthy and abundant Wild Rice where it never was. Certainly worth a study to find out how Wild Rice is growing in all those sulfides. That is if ones not afraid of data based on real science.

  2. Submitted by jim carlen on 03/26/2020 - 11:48 am.

    Thanks Steve. I really admire all of the work you’re doing. I rent canoes from Piragis Outfitters whenever I need one. I really admire your business and your passion for the BWCA/Quetico area. Thank you for speaking up.

  3. Submitted by William Duncan on 03/26/2020 - 08:36 pm.

    Having spent 400 nights or more in the BWCAW, I have been a keen observer of this issue. I expect in the economic aftermath of Covid-19, those international corporations will force this issue, and the call for jobs jobs jobs may overwhelm the reality that Antogofasta and Glencore would treat northern Minnesota like a banana republic, walking away from long term pollution, removing most of the profits to international investors and shareholders, leaving locals who had no say to deal with the pollution.

    I would rather have conversation about how to build a more localized, sustainable economy, empowering local people, takiing care of the land, waters and air and each other.

  4. Submitted by Sheryl Casey on 03/28/2020 - 12:26 pm.

    Steve: You, Becky, and so many others in Ely are so inspiring, and will prevail in saving the boundary waters. I don’t understand Ely’s City Council which seems to be working so hard to destroy the region from within. The economy in Ely is totally dependent on the boundary waters to sustain it’s businesses. What will Ely look like if copper sulfide mining starts up? It’s upsetting to think about. I for one want Ely to continue being the coolest small town in America. Thank-you for your editotial, and your work with Rep. McCollum!

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