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From ‘they need it’ to ‘it’s going to destroy the land,’ people in Ely have a lot of thoughts about Twin Metals

photo of people and tents at blueberry fest
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Dueling booths run by supporters and opponents of Twin Metals Minnesota and the controversial underground mine it hopes to build dotted Ely’s Whiteside Park on Friday during the city's annual Bluberry/Art Festival.

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:

photo of dan hernesmaa
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Dan Hernesmaa
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.”

***

photo of johan and carolyn carlson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Johan and Carolyn Carlson
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.”

***

photo of joyce bernard
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Joyce Bernard
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.”

***

photo of joe worwa
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Joe Worwa
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.”

***

photo of rice family
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Laura, Beth and Sam Rice
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.”

***

photo of nan snyder
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Nan Snyder
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.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 07/29/2019 - 10:45 am.

    Sulfide mining in a wet environment has never been done before without poisoning the groundwater and leaving an environmental mess.

    It is conceivable that the entire watershed, including Lake of the Woods, will be impacted when the pH of the water and the loss of smaller plants and animals will no longer sustain the walleye hatcheries.

    Ask the younger people. It is clear a retired guy won’t be impacted, but his grandkids will never know the area like we did.

  2. Submitted by Michael Jones on 07/29/2019 - 11:43 am.

    Minnesota is rated 11th of the 50 states in overall pollution rankings while Texas is rated 40th. I think Becky Ward’s comment “…in Dallas, it’s such a different environment as far as how pro-growth, pro-business it is. ” explains why they are nearly 30 states below us. I’d prefer to stay where we are at the risk of being less pro-business.

  3. Submitted by Nancy Gibson on 07/29/2019 - 11:49 am.

    Who says there will be 700 jobs, the company or an independent source? Will the jobs be labor union jobs? And for the record, Minnesota does not have the strongest mining rules in the nation. Montana has the best rules by default. That state has been the object of every mining disaster and had to tighten the rules due to the aftermath of spills and water pollution. Don’t take these assumptions for granted.

  4. Submitted by Mike Downing on 07/29/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    It is easy to be against my mining when you live in the Twin Cities, when you are retired or live in another state. The people who need jobs to support their families and their community should make the decision…

    • Submitted by richard owens on 07/29/2019 - 02:30 pm.

      The extent and duration of these “good jobs” is a wink in time, compared to the exhausted scarred landscape and tailings nightmare that will live on and on.

      We simply cannot replace what will be lost.

      We shouldn’t allow a small group of individuals determine the benefits, either way.

      This has multi-generational negative implications.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/29/2019 - 04:14 pm.

      On paper that sounds lovely and if it were the local’s land and resources being mined, if it were a local company doing the mining, someone with roots in the community, I’d say great knock yourselves out, but…the resources being mined and those being put in danger belong to all Minnesotans, with the boundary waters the country as a whole. And the company is a large global conglomerate with a history of leave local communities with the problems after they’ve extracted all the profit. No, its a decision for all of us, whether the locals like it or not.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/30/2019 - 05:44 pm.

      It is easy to be against sulfide mining when it will forever ruin one of the greatest treasures God has given this state.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/29/2019 - 12:43 pm.

    Just a thought, no snark intended:

    If local support for mining is entirely jobs based, then perhaps opponents of hard rock mining should find another source for jobs paying comparable wages and local taxes. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see such companies crowd funded.

    • Submitted by Chester Francis on 07/29/2019 - 08:20 pm.

      I thought the IRRRB was supposed to be finding ways to diversify the jobs base beyond mining. Also, if there aren’t any jobs available in the area, what is preventing these folks from moving to where the jobs are located? I believe that is an accepted alternative in just about every other industry.

  6. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/29/2019 - 12:46 pm.

    “So I think the people who should vote on it are unemployed or underemployed.”

    Sorry YMCA dude, but this is one of the dumbest comments that I’ve ever seen. Giving folks with the most to gain from the mine the power to decide if its allowed or not, seriously? How about giving those the most to lose the power to make the decision, I bet mine supporters would love handing that power to the tree huggers.

  7. Submitted by Jerome Jensen on 07/29/2019 - 01:46 pm.

    What do lifelong Ely residents think (or are there any)?

  8. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 07/29/2019 - 02:10 pm.

    Wow. After all of PolyMet’s environmental review, people still don’t understand what’s at stake here. The plan is for an industrial sulfide mining complex extending from PolyMet /Glencore to Teck to Twin Metals/Antofagasta.
    First, copper-nickel sulfide mining will not be done on the Iron Range. The sulfide mineralization does not contain iron.
    Second, the copper-nickel metals embedded in the sulfide mineralization are very low grade. PolyMet is a less-than-1% ore body. Lots of waste rock produced here–99% waste rock. Try to picture that upon the environment.
    Third–sulfide mining would be taking place on what is now forests or wetlands. PolyMet plans to dig its open pits on 6,500 acres of Superior National Forest–which the USFS willingly traded with them, rather than fulfill their own Forest Service duty of not allowing strip mining on public US forest land originally purchased for watershed protection.
    Fourth–we would be handing this land over to huge international mining conglomerates–Glencore, Teck, and Antofagasta–all with polluting track records on a global scale. But they are going to do it right in Minnesota, right?.
    Fifth, the amount of jobs promised is questionable, as mining companies convert to robotics and artificial intelligence to run their machinery operations.
    Sixth–we are ultimately talking about the headwaters of both Lake Superior and the Rainy River. Has anybody heard anything about the importance of clean water, the pollution of ground and surface water sources–PolyMet’s plant would need water treatment for at least 500 years, and for the usage of water required in mine operations?

    Sounds like the Blueberry Fest goers are a lot more interested in arts and crafts than they are in mining proposals and the impacts to the environment. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  9. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/29/2019 - 04:51 pm.

    I’m currently removing Asbetos tiles and asbestos mastic (adhesive) from a 110 year old porcelain tile floor. The process is exhaustive, expensive and dangerous. Most shop owners would just cover it up again with another layer of ecologically irresponsible flooring. This original tile once restored will be beautiful.

    It was known as early as 1914 that asbestos kills, yet asbestos was applied in schools and hospitals until the 1980’s. These two layers of asbestos tiles were set in the 40’s and 70’s.

    It reminds me alot of this discussion about copper nickle mining. The leadership of today is really no different than the leadership of old. There is next to no concern for what future generations will have to deal with. Surely the excuses used about asbestos are similar to those used to justify this mining. Surely those responsible for this pollution will not be held responsible when pollution becomes a problem, likely in the main after they are dead, any more than anyone responsible for the proliferation of asbestos was held responsible.

    There are plenty of people aware of the dangers of copper-nickle mining in sulfides. But to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is very hard to get a person to care about pollution when their income depends on polluting.

    Incidentally, whatever arguments there are about the strength of Minnesota’s environmental regulations – systemic chemicals are exterminating pollinators but you don’t hear the leadership of today questioning big ag or big chemical, any more than the leadership of old questioned the asbestos industry.

  10. Submitted by Daniel Hernesmaa on 07/29/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    Twin Metals is planning an underground copper/nickel mine within Rainy River Watershed. Twin Metals will be the first underground mine in a very low copper sulfide deposit in the U.S. A mining plan will most likely come out this year which will generate a multiyear EIS to determine if an underground mine is appropriate for this area along with no impacts to the Boundary Waters. What we know and what Environmental groups are claiming are two very different things. We know that the Duluth Complex contains on average 1-2% sulfide in the rock. Far less then what mines in Wisconsin, Michigan or out west contain which would be around 30%. We also have learned that Twin Metals will be using a dry stacking method instead of a settling pond. This is a huge positive for this development. No risk of dam failure which is always a concern with mining companies or environmentalist. Their plan is to extract and follow veins of Copper/Nickel etc. keeping the amount of waste rock as limited as possible. The tailings as well as the waste rock will be non-acid producing and contain about 1/10 of 1% sulfates. That is far less then the area of the same Duluth Complex that covers a vast area on the east side of the Boundary Waters. So if environmentalists claim a tiny tiny amount of the same rock at the mine will pollute the BW how come an area a zillion times bigger has not? TMM has noted that the highest dome (roof) of the mine will be more than 400 feet below the surface so there is no chance of lake water etc. migrating into the mine; drilling results indicate that this will be a dry mine. In other words no water in, no water out. People need to let the NEPA process continue and let the facts present themselves, something environmental groups have failed to do. I live downstream of the proposed Twin Metals mine. If it is going to cause damage to the BW then I don’t want it either, but I am not naïve enough to believe what environments claim without doing my own research.

    • Submitted by john skogerboe on 08/03/2019 - 12:54 am.

      Speaking of facts presenting themselves, let me ask a question.

      What comparable mine has been run without polluting the watershed? Twin Metals should be trumpeting all of the mines that are in existence without having the environmental impact that everyone fears. Where are those mines?

  11. Submitted by Ronald Holch on 07/29/2019 - 09:08 pm.

    When it comes to mining next to MN pristine wilderness, One word needs to be said over and over, ROBOTS.
    This is not your grandfathers iron range. There will be few jobs available in the very near future in mining.
    Do you think a ROBOT will care if it despoils the environment? Do you think the Company will have any witness to this destruction? Anyone who has paddled in this wilderness knows what is at stake here.
    DO NOT BE FOOLED.
    Google “robot mining” and see for yourself.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/29/2019 - 10:51 pm.

    Distrubing reactions …how were the reactions solicited ?

  13. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/30/2019 - 07:21 am.

    Every article I’ve read about the subject over the past several years has reached the same conclusion: No sulfide mine anywhere in the world, ever, has been able to produce usable ore without polluting nearby water sources.

    What will locals do for work and income in 20 years when the mine closes, the foreign-owned company running the mine has declared bankruptcy (as mining companies have frequently done) and walked away from fouling the local environment to the point where pollution of nearby water sources, including the boundary waters, has driven hikers, fishermen and women, canoeists and other tourists away?

    Are jobs for several hundred Minnesotans worth the danger to the only environment residents of the state will ever have?

    Arguments that “mining is all they’ve ever done,” or “all they know how to do,” are unpersuasive. When the mine closes, as has happened to virtually every mine extracting a limited resource, miners will have to relocate, or retrain themselves to find other work anyway.

  14. Submitted by Wes Davey on 07/30/2019 - 08:07 am.

    The need for jobs up north is understood on both sides of this issue – is that need understood in the state legislature? Apart from giving a thumbs up to this controversial project, what has the Legislature done to help create alternative jobs that won’t endanger the environment?

    Reading this reminds of the need for jobs – decades ago and to the present time – in Appalachia. The politicians there gave the go-ahead for strip mining of coal that removed mountains tops for eternity, all for a few temporary jobs at best. Once the coal was gone, these domestically owned coal companies essentially said good-bye, leaving an environmental mess behind them.

    Will the outcome be different up north? Once the minerals are gone in northern Minnesota, the foreign owned mining companies and the profits they’ve reaped will also be gone. And what will we leave to our posterity? An empty hole in the ground – and anger at the short-sighted greed of those who left that hole.

  15. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 07/30/2019 - 01:53 pm.

    Take a look at NoDaks fracking boom. Experienced oil field hands appeared from all over the country to take the jobs, and left their families at home. Thinking that every grad of Hibbing High is going to get one of these jobs, buy a house, start a family and return da Range to the 50″s is a fantasy. That’s what the companies and some of the local pols are selling. The Range is just another third world outpost to be exploited if you’re sitting in a boardroom in Geneva. Copper is as cyclical a market as any other commodity. Some of the iron mines on the Range were shut down for a while just a few years back. Bottom line copper mining is a chemically intensive operation and if the genie ever gets out of the holding ponds the cost and environmental impact will be immeasurable.

  16. Submitted by Richard Steuland on 07/31/2019 - 06:46 am.

    So we are to allow this questionable company to mine in our pristine BWCA for the sake of a few jobs and much destruction of the natural enviornment. Very short sided and greedy. The effect of this will last forever. Let’s not allow the privileged few to create consequences that all of us live with. I say take a deep breath and find new creative ways to earn a dollar.

  17. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 08/04/2019 - 08:41 am.

    Miners need jobs. They don’t necessarily have to be extraction mining jobs. The mining conglomerates have been selling this idea that they won’t pollute the earth, air, and water for centuries. The reality is completely opposite of what they tell us. The permit for this copper-nickel mining operation needs to come with a clean-it-up-as-you-go policy and prohibit them from hiding behind bankruptcy after they’ve extracted what they came to extract. If they want the mine, they own the clean up, too. Our boundary waters are too precious to gamble with. There are smart, reasonable people living there. It can’t be just a “mining or nothing” jobs argument. Get a group of well-connected folks together in a room and let them come up with a strategic plan for jobs and growth for the next 5 or 6 decades. It can be done!

  18. Submitted by Dave Paulson on 08/13/2019 - 03:59 pm.

    A simple top level risk analysis with, on one side the history of both Glencore and Antifagosta, pollution performance of sulfide mines vs the projections in mine plans and EIS (this has been done twice in peer-reviewed papers- See Kuipers and Maests’ 2006 report and Earthworks 2012 report on copper sulfide mines)
    vs.
    the likely real payroll landing in the area and the potential damage to L Superior watershed AND the BWCAW
    and the answer is the risk way outweighs the benefits.

    How many gun mfgr employees will lose their jobs if AR-15s get banned? Nobody tries that argument.

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