At Ely’s annual Blueberry/Art Festival this weekend, the debate over copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) was nearly as visible as the food, music and crafts for sale.
Dueling booths run by supporters and opponents of Twin Metals Minnesota and the controversial underground mine it hopes to build dotted Whiteside Park on Friday as thousands of people streamed through the small town in northern Minnesota for the first day of the festival.
One of those tents was run by Up North Jobs, a pro-mining nonprofit that declared the weekend “Twin Metals Appreciation Days” in honor of the company’s continued investment in Ely. Just across the park was Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which warned fairgoers of the risk that copper-nickel mining could be to the BWCA.
Twin Metals is preparing to submit a mine plan to state and federal regulators in the coming months and hopes to win over public support for its project. The company promises it can mine without polluting the BWCA and its watershed while creating 700 direct jobs and another 1,400 spinoff jobs. Unlike the iron ore mining that has dominated the region, however, copper-nickel mining can create acid and leach heavy metals into nearby waters.
MinnPost asked people at the festival whether they believe a Twin Metals mine should be built. Here’s what some of them said:
An Ely native, Dan Hernesmaa is retired; he worked for 32 years as a transportation planner for the U.S. Forest Service. The self-described “hard-core mining supporter” stopped by the Up North Jobs booth and signed up to be a volunteer on Friday. He stressed people should wait until Twin Metals releases its mining plan before judging the project.
“Having lived here all my life I’ve seen the population go way down and now there’s just a high percent of retired people here. Well, retired people aren’t working, even though most of them have pretty good large cash flow. But we really need workers. If Twin Metals … can prove that they will not pollute the environment, there’s no reason not to have a modern-day copper-nickel mine. I mean the Forest Service is not going to allow the Boundary Waters to get polluted.”
Carolyn and Johan Carlson live in Minneapolis but were in Ely after the death of a family member. They came to the festival after hearing about it “for years,” Carolyn Carlson said. Johan Carlson said he’d want strong oversight of the mine, and both had skepticism that it could be done safely. Yet they sympathized with those who support the mine for the jobs it could bring.
Johan: “Well I’m a big believer in the Boundary Waters. Now that I’m older I don’t deal with it as much. Years ago, friends and I would forever camp in the Boundary Waters. It’s an amazing area, would like to keep it as close to what it is now as possible. But then I know that life has to go on. If there aren’t any other options in other places. I guess they need it. If they need it, they need it.
Carolyn: “I really don’t understand what the financial impact would be for the area to have it or not to have it. I personally would just as soon not have it that close to the Boundary Waters just because I think it’s a natural resource that we should be preserving. But if that means people don’t have jobs, I don’t know enough about it to understand that.”
Chris Ellerbroek was born and raised in Ely and recently moved back. His family has a resort in the area and he runs a marketing and graphic design business. Ellerbroek, who asked not to be pictured, said talking about the mine is tricky in the business world since passions run deep over the debate. He said he wished there were better rural broadband in the area to make creating tech jobs easier.
“It’s been a challenge to engage in conversations because people are so adamant about their positions. It makes it difficult for you as a business owner then to talk with them about it without jeopardizing those relationships. So I’ve been careful about sharing those concerns. I do think having the opportunity for high paying jobs is important. And I am open to industry in the area, but again I do have those concerns about the potential pollution and risk there.”
Joyce Bernard lives near Baltimore but has been visiting Ely for about 25 years to enjoy the wilderness. She said the “slower pace of life” and small-town feel keeps her coming back, and she helps with fundraisers for the North American Bear Center.
“I know it’s been a mining community forever and it seems to me as time goes on they must have better environmental procedures. In fact, they just reported in the Ely Echo here recently of a new way that they can do this without having those big ponds to leach water. And it just seems to me that this area needs jobs and this would bring people in. Because it’s a wonderful town, it really is. And it needs more than just tourism.”
Liz Finders grew up in northern Minnesota and her parents live in Ely. She was visiting Friday from California’s Bay Area and strenuously objected to the prospect of a copper-nickel mine so close to the Boundary Waters. She asked not to be pictured.
“I think the copper mines are awful. I think it’s such a short-term, shortsighted thing to do.” Finders added: “It’s going to destroy the land, and then they’re going to lose all the tourism; that’s going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on the planet that’s left, that’s untouched.”
Joe Worwa was at the Blueberry Festival as a vendor with Ultra Bubbles. The North Branch resident said he wasn’t too familiar with the debate over Twin Metals, but if his gut feeling was that he opposed the potential mine.
“I would say I would be against mining near the Boundary Waters. Because it’s a protected natural area that we have.”
Becky Ward lives in Dallas but grew up in Hibbing and once lived in Ely. Her dad works for U.S. Steel and her sister is an environmental engineer. She said she knows people have concerns, but there is a need for copper and nickel and she’d rather those minerals come from Minnesota. She asked not to be pictured, as she had come from a campground that morning.
“You can’t just not have work. It doesn’t pay for school, it doesn’t pay for your kids to be able to drive a car. And living in Dallas, it’s such a different environment as far as how pro-growth, pro-business it is. And I’m not saying Minnesota needs to be completely that way. But it is nice to have a little moderation.”
Laura, Beth and Sam Rice moved to Ely from the Twin Cities and work at YMCA Camp Du Nord. Beth and Sam have reservations about a mine nearby, but said the promise of jobs for those without any generally takes precedent.
Sam: “I’m a big canoer and hiker; I would be devastated if anything bad happened to the Boundary Waters. But I can have that sentiment because I am gainfully employed. There’s a lot of people around here who aren’t. So I think the people who should vote on it are unemployed or underemployed. And the rest of us can have our opinions, but our livelihoods don’t depend on it. Boom.”
Beth: “I think we understand, at least I do, that there’s a need for copper-nickel mining. It’s just — ‘not in my yard.’ I mean, unfortunately, this is where the resource is.”
Kyah Altiere lives in Duluth and comes to Ely every year for the Blueberry Festival. Altiere, who asked not to be pictured, said she hasn’t done enough research on the mine to make up her mind, but said she is generally “concerned about the environment” and wants to know more about Twin Metals before taking a stance.
“Yes we’re concerned, and we just want more information before they do things.”
Nan Snyder moved from Virginia to Ely about 10 years ago but has been visiting since 1987. Working a booth at the Blueberry Festival, she said she has volunteered for the anti-Twin Metals group Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters since “the get go.”
“We’re not against mining. We think mining is necessary and useful. This particular mine, copper-nickel mining is so polluting. When you mine, the residue goes into the water eventually.”