No hope on the Iron Range, but for hope we create

    "Northern Minnesota Mine," a 1934 painting by E Dewey Albinson, depicts iron mining towns as they formed and appeared in the earlier days of Iron Range mining.

“Northern Minnesota Mine,” a 1934 painting by E Dewey Albinson, depicts iron mining towns after they formed at the mouth of active mines in the earlier days of Iron Range mining. Miners today live up to 60 miles from work and most aspire to live in the country outside town. One miner now does what dozens of miners like this did early last century.

To drive the Iron Range spine of Highway 169 is to see a sleeping giant not unlike the region’s namesake, Missabe — the Dakota and Ojibwe “big man” resting on the divide between all that is north and south. Missabe’s body is not like that of a man. Its fluids are water. Its bones are timbers. Its tissues are minerals. Its blood, the people who live here. But like a human, in order to wake up, the blood of the giant Missabe must pump faster; its temperature must rise.

Ely-area resident Joe Baltich penned a barbed yet thought-provoking op-ed in the Star Tribune last week entitled, “Mining opponents: You think you know Ely’s needs?” It effectively captured the feelings of many Iron Rangers. We know we need more jobs, more prosperity in our communities; that much is evident. The idea of mining nonferrous minerals like copper and nickel on the East Range came along, promising jobs, tax revenue and growth. The idea has been slowed, however, by a corporate financing system, regulatory system and protest movement dominated by people who live outside of the region.

There is no greater enemy in Iron Range culture than outside forces: be it in the form of a distant robber baron, a disengaged politician or, in this case, environmentalists who live in the Twin Cities. This cultural trait transcends matters like party affiliation, science, or sometimes even logic. The Range operates from the gut, with heart, fists and brains to follow (in that order).

Baltich writes:

“This is 2013, not the Dark Ages. The locals actually like being here far more than you do. We’ve committed to a lifetime of eking out a living when we could have just as easily moved to some metro area for better pay.

“Your signing a petition against our support of the project says to me that you somehow know more about and have greater concern for our back yard, which you visit once a year. That’s shortsighted on your part, and rather insulting to the people who mined the very same rock for 88 years before the inception of the BWCA in 1964, a development based upon the existence of pristine waters after all that virtually unregulated mining.

“Hopefully, this will enlighten you somewhat. I’m not expecting much, given the Twin Cities crowd. It’s always about their own good time.”

As you’d expect, Baltich’s piece exposes old emotions and cultural fault lines — ones that simply must be addressed for us to have a productive conversation on this matter. To summarize, Baltich points out the decline in Ely’s population, economy and birth rates since the early 1970s. Many downtown businesses are for sale, with no buyers evident. Fewer people are camping in the BWCA, so businesses oriented around serving them are struggling as well (the internet and kids these days, and such). Regulations in the BWCA keep out an aging population that wants to run motors, sleep in campers and ride four-wheelers.

While there is a cantankerous, confrontational edge to Baltich’s comments, I’d argue that he’s actually right about all of that (though Baltich was corrected in this letter to the editor from former Ely chamber president Bill Forsberg, who explains that Ely’s tourism revenue and visits are up, not down, since 2000). Where he goes wrong is in several barbed comments about the tourists and professionals from the Twin Cities, people we need not just to visit here, but move and invest here if the Iron Range is to actually accomplish population growth and prosperity. More on that later.

As I’ve written, the population of Iron Range cities dropped an average of 40 percent from 1980 to 2010. The towns skew older than the state average with an average household size suggesting that the kids moved away and mom and dad are either wrapping up careers or living off retirement benefits. These moms and dads are the people in charge — mayors, administrators, consultants, etc., and they know there are serious problems on the Iron Range. More drugs. More crime. More blight. There are fewer jobs and an erosion of family stability that was once a staple of Iron Range life, an effect heavily tied to the collapse of the economy 30 years ago.

All of this manifests in a generation of kids graduating from the smallest classes in 100 years of Iron Range education who will have a harder time attending college or technical college than their parents or, if they are poor, their great-grandparents. They’ve been raised to believe that maybe something good will come along if you work hard, but also in a culture that values hockey, hunting, fishing, motorsports and other recreations where it’s easy to get lost in the moment, the silent passage of seasons. Still others have simply been raised to believe there is no hope but escape from the Iron Range, fires fueled by popular culture and the advent of the Information Age.

This leaves the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas of the Iron Range few choices. They only know that after some hard times, the taconite mines have become more stable than they’ve been since the ’70s. They know some people have shown them research explaining great reserves of other kinds of minerals beneath the woods and waters of the eastern Mesabi and Vermilion ranges. And they know that their kid needs a job here if he or she is ever going to move back.

Baltich again:

“So, if you’re a mining opponent, what is your plan to see Ely survive? Are you willing to pay substantially more in your personal taxes to keep the city going? Will you contribute to keep the hospital operating, the roads to the entry points paved and maintained, and the schools open?”

BWCA by Chad Fennell, Flickr Creative Commons license

The proximity of new mining projects to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area brings an emotional edge the debate that cuts deep. People in northern Minnesota have been fighting about the BWCA for generations.

The biggest detriment to the argument of mining opponents is that there is no ready economic alternative to mining in their worldview. Many of the locals who do oppose new mining are tied to a tourism industry where there is not a lot of growth on the horizon.

But the views of many mining supporters, a crowd that I believe includes a working majority of residents of the Iron Range, are quick to adopt false assurances from the promises of new mining. Mining is more mechanized than ever and even the most optimistic nonferrous mining outcomes would fail to back-fill the enormous gaps in our economy left by the 1980s and ’90s. Further, the environmental protection measures mines like PolyMet or Twin Metals hope to use is untested in the commercial marketplace: innovative, yes, with great potential perhaps, but worthy of investigation.

So, let us proceed with a place of agreement: there is a serious economic problem on the Iron Range. Let us make arguments that build solutions to that problem.

The Ten Hypotheses About the Northern Minnesota Mining Debate; and one solution

The debate over mining in northern Minnesota often devolves quickly, with mining supporters portrayed as greedy, ignorant monsters and mining opponents as whiny, elitist tree-huggers. They can’t even agree what to call it (Nonferrous mining for supporters, Sulfide mining for opponents).

The respective sides often rely on assumptions. Mining backers assume that A) the mines will go forth at the scale and environmental safety levels promised by the companies, and B) the jobs from those mines will save the community. Mining opponents assume that A) the mines will destroy their surroundings, and B) if we stop them, a creative, dynamic economy will sprout in their stead.

I question all of these assumptions, and prescribe a solution that is A) more difficult and B) likely to yield long term economic growth and stability for the region. In short, the only way to fix the economy of the Iron Range is to build it from within, and doing so will be the greatest challenge we’ve faced since the people of the Range were called about to win World War II with epic shipments of iron ore. Now, the commodity is innovation, and the stage is set for change on the Iron Range.

Here are my Ten Hypotheses About the Northern Minnesota Mining Debate:

aaron_cropped

It will be several more years, perhaps a decade, before there is any hope of a nonferrous mine operating in northeastern Minnesota. Yes, Polymet’s EIS review will be out this fall, with public comments in January. But several environmental organizations and Ojibwe nations are readying litigation over the validity of the company’s promises, something they’re entitled to do. Even with permits the mine companies won’t get through the litigious landmines without promising long term financial assurance for its environmental record, something their investors and shareholders will not allow.

The minerals under the ground in Northeastern Minnesota are the pistol on the wall of a Chekov play; that is to say, with global demand for precious minerals they will be mined eventually. Electronic devices are so deeply integrated in our culture now that their production and consumption is of global concern. We can’t count on cheap minerals and workers from overseas for long. Remember, we were those workers in 1907. Domestic mining and manufacturing will become attractive options once this change takes place, ensuring some form of demand into the future. So we should prepare for the reality that, one day (not tomorrow, but perhaps within 10 years) these mines will happen.

Even so, nonferrous mineral mining is more volatile than iron. Ups and downs should be expected, with workers moving in and out of the region for mining.

It is highly unlikely that the companies building the mining projects now will be the companies operating them when the mines close, or even five years after opening. Just look at how mines in the West have been proposed, built and then sold multiple times, to companies that never sent smiling representatives to community meetings to promise environmental safety. I know a lot of very good people who work for these new mine projects in Minnesota. I wish I could say that they’ll be the ones in the corner offices in 10 or 20 years, but they probably won’t. With the sale of these mines come variables and potential problems we can’t predict.

The new mining jobs will be a part of an even more mechanized, automated process than we’ve seen in area iron mines, thus bringing fewer jobs with higher technical needs and pay. The automation of the mining industry worldwide is making the jobs in the field more efficient, more technical, and less plentiful as compared to the mining our parents and grandparents knew on the Iron Range. The video below shows that many companies are exploring robotic haul trucks, which cut the number of truck operators needed in half.

Australian mines are finding ways to mine ore for the global market with just such practices, and it’s only a matter of time before mines here will do the same. These will be very good jobs; higher pay, competitive with the jobs in western North Dakota on pay (and in a better place to live); but even fewer jobs than exist now, and only available after extensive education. That’s an economic reality; not an argument.

It’s a coin flip whether the new mines are unionized. They’ll be built with union labor, per agreement, but these mines will face early union votes among workers who will be hired by a process that screens them for attitudes about unions and, like the Steelworkers’ defeat at Mesabi Nugget, there’s a better-than-you-think chance those union votes will fail. This will erode the power of the very labor unions and labor-friendly politicians who have backed these new mines on the Iron Range.

Done right, the environmental process promised by Polymet and other companies could be groundbreaking. The new technology could be harnessed into innovative industry on the Iron Range, not just the mining but the technology behind it. There is an internationally relevant interest in finding out whether it works or not.

In the future, having clean water and a temperate climate will be more valuable to us than the minerals below the ground. That’s not to say we won’t need the minerals; we will. And we will probably mine them. But we’ll benefit most from figuring out how to balance mineral extraction with resource management.

The entire debate has thus far existed on a premise that the land, minerals and water of northern Minnesota are controlled by powerful outside fate-brokers. So long as that is the case, the people of northern Minnesota will eventually suffer disappointment. EPA regulations are written in D.C. and Polymet is owned by a global corporation. When an Ely resident says they want to keep the BWCA and mine safely, they mean it. No one else cares as much about both at the same time. We must stop being inebriated by tomorrow’s paycheck so that we can plan for a future.

Finally, I’ve spent a long time looking for an example of a community built on a mining economy that survived the end of its mining. The only examples are towns that were absorbed by growing cities. The Iron Range has already beat many odds by surviving a century, but we can’t count on another century, nor should we. Diversification is the only way we can save the communities marked by our work and that of our ancestors.

My overarching solution: Only we can save the Iron Range 21st Century. Stop waiting for the mines, or complaining about them. All Iron Range mental, emotional and financial resources should be dedicated to streamlining education into innovative fields. Every Iron Range resident should be called upon directly to pursue community improvement, whether through volunteerism, organizing, investment or simple beautification. We must come in out of the woods, out of our internal worlds to give something tangible to our sense of place. Yes, many give countless hours and dollars already, but that hasn’t been enough. We will find that a little bit more from all of us would go further. We can’t wait for the same folks, the same institutions to bail us out again. Some of our greatest community servants are literally elderly, giving more of themselves than they should have to. Others must step up now.

We must encourage the arts, new businesses, and independent workers who would benefit from living in a beautiful, affordable place. Our infrastructure must match this goal — developing our towns (not our outskirts of town), expanding internet affordability and availability across the region. We must welcome others, because the Iron Range of the future will be populated by people whose great-grandparents came from Maplewood or Mexico, not necessarily Montenegro.

In this vision, mining will neither go away nor remain the lynchpin of the next century. Mining will be a viable, important field that employs 5-9 percent of our people. We will simply demand that companies pay for the ore they take from our region, and that they conform to reasonable laws about long range protection of our land and water, itself an invaluable commodity in a hotter, drier future. These arguments won’t go away; but they must not shape us and become our identity. We should have reasonably expectations about what mining can and can’t do for our economy, and pick up the slack ourselves.

And yeah, Big City, put your life where your mouth is and move here. Bring friends. Start new communities of influence. Preserve this land yourself. Some old people might yell at you for one thing or another, but that’ll blow over. Believe me, I know. It might be hard, if you use money as your value. But if you use values — like nature, work ethic and community — as your money, you will rejoice for the opportunities northern Minnesota offers.

The old days are dead; long live the new days.

 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece is an extended cut of a two part special commentary originally published in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, running on Sept. 8 and 15, 2013.

Comments

  1. People who want to talk about tourism as a source of jobs are a bit off pitch. To make a decent living off tourism you need to own a business, by and large. And not everybody is cut out to do that. Tourism is, at best, like whipped cream, it needs something to top or it is just fluff.

  2. Lake Superior, the St Louis and Cloquet Rivers, the wetlands of the north are all going to be harmed by mining in the Duluth Complex. It is very important that people understand that what is planned is not in remote areas but near our homes in the Arrowhead. Mines can take private property, its a complex process but the truth of the matter is that we in Mn have very weak protection for surface property owners. Those of us who live in the Duluth Complex are keenly aware of the impact already to property values. In many ways it amounts to taking from Peter to give to Paul. The most important point Aaron makes is that the value of our water far exceeds any mineral value in the future. The People of Duluth and the surrounding area will receive the brunt of the waste from the proposed mining and need to wake up , you don’t realize that in this discussion Duluth and Fond du Lac and the townships surrounding will be faced with pollution from these mines that will impact the health of generations to come. This isn’t going to happen in Hibbing or Virginia. The first mine will dump its waste into the St Louis River. The same river you hear millions being spent to “clean up” every time you turn around.

    And it isn’t people from the big cities objecting. Many, many courageous Arrowhead residents are speaking out. We must diversify, we must not be bullied into the schemes of big corporate mining. The rush to streamline permitting may send a bulldozer over your home.

  3. To paraphrase Wallace Stegner, “The [Ranger] is less a person than a continuing adaptation. The [Range] is less a place than a process.” Granted Stegner was speaking of the West, but the same holds true for the Range.
    Stegner’s quote opens a post from the founder of the Quivara Coalition (http://www.quiviracoalition.org/) about the need to adapt to changes in the environment. The Quivara Coalition works with Ranchers AND conservationists, AND they are achieving positive results, something the bickering and name-calling that dominates the economic and environmantal discussions on the Range, will NEVER be able to accomplish.
    The article, Inspiring Adaptation, is at: http://carbonpilgrim.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/inspiring-adaptation/

  4. Kristen Albinson says:

    You used my (distant) cousin’s painting! He made many paintings of the northern Minnesota arrowhead region. I enjoyed your discussion and feel unable to comment upon it. But your call for artists to move up there reminds me of places like Door County, where arts, woods, farming, fishing and tourism seem to coexist well (though as an outsider, I could be wrong).

  5. You present a false argument Aaron. People don’t invest in “money” verses “nature, work ethic or community” as you suggest. Capitalists (those who take risks with their resources) invest in only one of two things…a product or service. Get your mind around that concept. Then suggest one or two concrete ideas (a specific product or service), but don’t stop there, get involved, put your money on the line, present your business plan. Don’t pontificate. DO SOMETHING TANGIBLE!

    David Gray…I know you know but tourism is a great service opportunity, not just whipped cream. Just ask Hawaii.

    • I agree, Bob. That’s what I’m asking for. I do my part in my own way. (If you’d like my CV give me a call). But the point here is not to get everyone to follow my orders, but develop their own ideas. A venture capitalist will have a different purpose than an artist or a stock car driver. There’s a role for each to play.

  6. Aaron makes a number of good points: don’t rely on sulfide mining as a silver bullet; be creative and diversify. He has insight into the future of mining and mining economics that is missing from the discussion and from the UMD economic study. But as an Ely retiree resident with an Ely mining grandfather and an Ely outfitter father, I would add that Ely is different from other Range towns. Since the last Ely mine closed in 1967 and mining employment in Minnesota dropped from 12.600 in 1980 to 5.600 today, Ely has seen an upswing in industries based on the natural beauty (BWCAW and Superior NF) including manufacturing, a large increase in summer home development with its associated construction jobs and ongoing service jobs and support of main street businesses, large upswing in retirees moving to the area and supporting main street businesses and local volunteer-run community groups, and new residents who telecommute and/or start new businesses. In fact, our 3-county Arrowhead area is above average in entrepreneurial and creative people. We have the necessary attributes to be successful and build toward a sustainable and diverse economy; this is happening organically now. Are we there yet? No, but by supporting our local businesses and encouraging people to move to Ely because it is a great place to live, we can help the community to grow. But the big problem is sulfide mining. If current prospecting and mining holdings are developed, Ely will be surrounded on the west, south, and southeast by a massive industrial mining zone. The forests would be transformed and lost forever. No sulfide mine has avoided extensive toxic pollution to waters, and Ely is in a high risk area for water pollution. At risk are 20 of the 40 resorts and campgrounds listed on the Ely Chamber website downstream of sulfide mining, as is the Boundary Waters. The path of pollution will flow into Basswood Lake, damaging a world-class fisheries and exposing humans to the toxic effects of methymercury. What will Ely lose? Its economy (summer/winter tourism is an important part but Ely’s economy is broader and based on being a great place to live and the entire economy will be harmed), its culture, and its healthy waters and forests. Ely will displace its current economy and much of its new population with the boom and bust of sulfide mining, social upheaval, and man-camps. Check out North Dakota. Is mining inevitable? We think not. These are low grade deposits and are dependent on high prices and low costs. If China slows down, the numbers won’t work unless the costs drop dramatically. The trend is for recycling (now about 50% of every product). Copper is abundant (enough within 1 mile of the earth’s surface to supply world demand at current levels for 1 million years). All of this is the reason I say our Ely area is too valuable to gamble on the most toxic form of mining with little return and a lot of cost to us.

  7. Al Gustaveson says:

    Thanks Becky you said exactly what I wanted to… I keep remembering Butte and the big toxic pit of water that kills any goose that lands in it. Who wants that? Who will be around to care for and clean up the mess when the profits demand that the mines be shut down? Short term limited gain…long term disaster. A “Faustian contract ” if ever there was one…

  8. Lark Arrichiello says:

    At the end of the day the only thing that matters here is preserving the wilderness… for ourselves and future generations. It has nothing to do with keeping the area just in case some city folks might want to come for a “free” BWCA vacation as Joe Baltich (and others) suggest. It needs to be preserved because we need unpolluted natural places. Once they are gone…there will be no going back. Even if it would be possible to “clean up” damage to the environment it would never be the same. This area does not belong exclusively to the residents of Ely. The BWCAW belongs to all of us. I would have loved to live there, but knew that I would not find work. I sympathize with anyone who would have to leave that beautiful area…but many people, in many places have been forced to relocate and leave places they love if they are unable to make a living there.

    • All due respect Lark, but lotsa people don’t have the privilege of leaving. Leaving requires resources and for many of us variables that coulda went either way. I probably agree with your view, actually. However, the divide most people fail to consider is the one highlighted here. Leaving is a privilege to many, a luxury not afforded. Beyond that I should also mention that many Iron Range people do not have the privilege of taking time and resources to go paddling around in the water. These are the hurdles involved with this discussion.

      • Lark Arrichiello says:

        Trevor, I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of explaining my point of view if you feel the need to remark about “paddling around in the water”. I reject the idea that everyone interested in protecting these natural resources is a wealthy canoeist in search of a loon.
        My position has absolutely nothing to do with recreation. It has to do with the simple intrinsic value of natural places. I also reject the idea that relocation is a luxury only some can afford. There are no absolute guarantees regarding economic security anywhere…not in rural areas, wilderness areas, not in urban or suburban areas. Many of the “Iron Range people” you refer to are descendents of immigrants from around the world. These Scandinavians, Slovenians, Bohemias, Hungarians, Serbs, Croatians, Poles, Russians, Italians, Greeks (& others) came because they felt they could not make a living where they were. It couldn’t have been easy to leave everything they knew behind and travel halfway around the world in search of work. I doubt they would consider their voyages a luxury. Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from them and move on.

        • The people you are referring to would not have made the trip but for the mining jobs…

          • And I agree with you. Its just that the mining jobs were the necessary resources for people to make the trip. Those resources do not exist anymore in the same manner. The funny thing here is that people know me as a tree hugger. All I want is to change how people approach the discussion. I know too many people that can’t leave. Some of us had differing circumstances that enabled us to leave. I can’t tell my friends to just move and find a new job. They don’t have that option. That requires resources unavailable to them.

          • Lark Arrichiello says:

            Trevor…I understand that mining was the draw…but it didn’t last did it? That’s the point…no guarantees about financial security especially not based on questionable uses of natural resources. Everyone can leave. I’m sure it would be easier for some than others. People make choices every day that can help determine their future. No one is being held prisoner.

  9. Anne Uehling says:

    The claim that it is Twin Cities folk who are opposing the mining and “locals’ supporting it is untrue. I have lived near Ely for over twenty years and have many “local” friends (born and graduated from high school here) who are opposed. Also, many people who have lived here twenty, thirty, even forty years oppose the mining but are counted by Baltich and others as outsiders. (If he moved to a neighborhood in the cities, he would be considered part of the community). Also, many of the supporters fall into the non-local class. So the division between “local” and outsiders is bogus, particularly in the townships surrounding Ely. The town itself has grown in area and new business buildings built. Housing outside of the city has increased. It is the old houses and buildings in the city that are becoming empty.

  10. Andrew Miller says:

    Well done, Aaron.

  11. Thought I’d tag on one more comment that made it into the Hibbing Daily Tribune the week after this ran in the paper. James Mancuso, who identifies himself as a 1949 Hibbing High School graduate who lives in Centennial, Colorado took issue with the piece. You can read his response here:

    http://www.hibbingmn.com/opinion/letters/article_26bccde8-2327-11e3-a481-001a4bcf887a.html

    There’s a strange attitude that seems to persist around regions where economic planning is mingled with the desperation of population and job losses. The attitude suggests that calling into question the likelihood of developer claims is the reason those claims aren’t or won’t be fulfilled. It’s the Tinkerbell hypothesis. It’s the same dodge that sham tent preachers use when the jig is up (“You didn’t believe hard enough. That’s why you still can’t walk”). Anyway, I thought about writing another post, but feel this is best left to this discussion on the main post.

  12. Hey Aaron,
    After reading the letter you posted I am not sure if Mr. Mancuso read your original article. You always stick to the same theme regarding this discussion, and I always appreciate your theme. You understand that we have two groups of people arguing with each other about their opposing world views. You usually focus on strengths within the community and making the community independent from outside forces. Part of your article related to how we heard about supposed new projects our whole lives and nothing ever happened. No sense in waiting and arguing while the community can create its own opportunities. Mr. Mancuso is missing that point, I think.

    • Lark Arrichiello says:

      OK… I’m feeling the need for a reality check. I want to be sure I am responding to what I think I’m responding to. In order to do that I’d like to step back and ask for:
      ~ a brief overview of the core issue/s this forum was meant to address
      ~ a definition of the “2 groups of people”
      ~ and a definition of their “opposing world views”
      Thanks!

      • Lark Arrichiello says:

        Sorry…I should have tagged Trevor in my latest request. But actually, it might be even more helpful if BOTH Aaron and Trevor would respond!

        • Thanks for the continued discussion here. I don’t know that this forum has core issues. The original post sought ideas for economic diversification and immediate community activity, while the mining debate continues on its own slow pace. I don’t think Trevor’s descriptions are too hard to understand (correct me if I’m wrong, Trevor). There are generally two groups that form at public meetings about the mining issue: those who’d prefer the mines happen and those who’d prefer they don’t. Opposing world views might be a strong description, but basically, I think that relates to this idea. I’m not here to take a side on all that (wouldn’t matter if I did), but rather to argue for communities to engage with improvement now, while they still can, as opposed to some later date when resources and abilities are potentially diminished.

      • Lark Arrichiello says:

        Thanks to both Aaron & Trevor for responding. I support the idea that it is important to work toward economic diversification as long as solutions are environmentally sound. The only thing in Aaron’s response that I do take exception to…Trevor’s definition of the groups was hard for me to understand. My request for a reality check came because it appeared to me that interested folks had been reduced to just these two groups:
        ~ Local residents in favor of mining
        ~ Outsiders against mining
        Clearly there are many other possible configuarations; locals against mining, outsiders for mining, etc. I would be interested to know if that is indeed what Trevor meant when he said he should have been more specific.

        • It has nothing to do with whether outsiders are mining supporters or mining opponents. The same goes for residents. That’s the specific point. It all has to do with a community creating its own opportunities from within. The whole theme is about becoming independent from all outside forces. Outside forces can mean mining companies, or it can mean environmental groups.

          • Lark Arrichiello says:

            I think we’ve come full circle. If you aren’t trying to make this an insider vs outsider argument I’m not sure why you keep coming back to it. Let me just say that I agree with the idea that in order for a community to remain viable it must create opportunities from within. Independence is a good thing. BUT…as I stated in one of my first replies to you…the residents of a community do not have absolute and complete ownership and control of any given area. It is not appropriate for a community to independently move forward with any project that could damage the environment. It is appropriate for all citizens, residents or not, to have input into any aspect of a project that has the potential for negative ecological/environmental outcomes. Remember…”This land is your land this land is my land etc.”

  13. Clinton Shafto says:

    Pro-miners, pro-environment, insiders and outsiders all have one thing in common: they want to continue having a beautiful land, a land that can provide now and for future generations. Aaron, you make a lot of great points from a historical perspective and as a caring resident looking forward to the future. The biggest questions are these: how to get people who all want the same thing to agree on common ways of achieving it? and how people can be motivated towards working together as a community to save their community?

    The arts are definitely one way.. they can help to give a sense of pride. But I think pride in our community is the thing lacking most of all, and what pride is there needs to be transformed and blossom from out of the past and into the present and future.

  14. Grace Kelly says:

    One of the problems with the insider/outsider argument is that water contamination from open pit mining will affect the whole watershed. Maybe two watershed since the location is on the border of two watersheds. Since when does weather behave? A whole state with future water problems for almost forever is a high price. We are looking at a choice of water contaminated for over 500 years for maybe 350 jobs where Polymet might even employ people from outside the country. I say – lets build an Iron Range stadium instead.

  15. Thanks for another insightful article Aaron. As someone who lives north of Duluth right smack in the Duluth complex where the mining is proposed I can assure you that this issue is of tremendous importance and will frame the future of not just our region but may have long lasting impacts on our nation. Lake Superior will receive the brunt of the pollution from this particular mine. That lake is the biggest source of fresh surface water in the US and one of the biggest lakes in the world. Its got Survival of the Species written all over it in glittering waves. Polymet, is much like like a gateway drug or a primary tumor. It is envisioned as a central processing facility for much of the mining waiting in the wings ready to spring the next mines on Minnesota. The mining companies cannot bring them forward till the Polymet EIS is done or they’d have to expand the EIS to include the functions Polymet will serve. And heavens we wouldn’t want any delay they say – they’ve been at this for 10 long years they say! (But wait don’t they say 500 years isn’t that long for clean up?) They couldn’t put Polymet’s strip mine plan into place without the cooperation of the US Forest Service which has been bullied and manipulated into submission to allow an exchange that is in fact a law exchange. All these nice folks who’ve been telling us that we should spread our arms and relax and let the mine go forward are telling a big fat lie when they say that will be under today’s strict laws. They are eliminating the strict laws that protect the surface land under the planned mine which according to the deed which was made under the Weeks Act must repair the surface land within months after mine closure. You can’t do that with an open pit strip mine so they are “exchanging” Its a manipulation, a trick and a farce. The mine will pollute – as to how long its a lot like how many angels will fit on the head of a pin or what the meaning of is is. Its a fan dance, a fiction. They say 500 years, but they can figure out ways to mess with that number – they can “mitigate” that sorry number right out of the equation with wordsmithing and some magical mitigation. When folks ask how they’re going to pay for damages we hear that there’s financial assurance in the wings (it sounds so impressive – like you have to have a suit on to say it!) Yet just today I read : “A key Republican senator is reiterating concerns over EPA plans to develop financial assurance ” See below.

    We as Minnesotans have to reach deep into our selves and take the name calling out and plan for our future together. If the people of NE Mn are willing this mining in the Arrowhead where’s the regional development plan and its public input? Where’s the opportunity for folks to review the system in place that puts mining in the drivers seat for much of the region and allows legislators and ex legislators to tell whole cities “its their turn to dig holes”

    Lets step back, leave the minerals where they are and hold a planning activity for NE Mn and allow all to have a say. This is not something that one part of the civilization should have their way on. Mining lobbyists have historically had a strong hand in forming the laws in Minnesota. Land owners and citizens (even the various “ists” among us) need to have a voice and that just doesn’t happen when one industry has established legal and fiscal dominance over a region.

    A key Republican senator is reiterating concerns over EPA plans to develop financial assurance requirements under the Superfund law intended to cover potential cleanup costs of hardrock mining, drawing agreement from an Interior Department (DOI) nominee during a recent hearing that DOI’s existing mining rules are sufficient to support any needed land reclamation.

    “I think this is overreach by the EPA,” Energy Committee Ranking Member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said during a Dec. 17 committee hearing on the nominations of Janice M. Schneider to be DOI assistant secretary for land and minerals management, and Neil G. Kornze to be director of DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

    She noted that BLM, the Forest Service and states already have financial assurance programs in place. Past correspondence from DOI and the U.S. Forest Service has indicated these programs are working at the federal level. “So I’m not certain why EPA needs to inject itself, add additional requirements there.” She told the nominees the issue needs to be critically examined.

    She asked the two nominees whether they believe there are deficiencies in existing programs that would require EPA’s involvement, and whether they would defend BLM’s statutory role in the interagency process.

    Schneider defended DOI’s rules and said EPA has “also injected itself into the leaseable minerals area as well on the bonding issue.” She added that she believes “it’s a dialogue that we need to have with EPA, if confirmed. Based on my review of BLM regulations, I think the regulations are strong and adequate to support necessary reclamation for mineral development.”

    The senator’s warnings come as EPA recently delayed until 2016 its plans to develop the rules, to the consternation of environmental groups, who say their hands are tied legally in forcing the rules to be promulgated by a date certain.

    EPA announced in 2009 that it intends to develop financial assurance rules under section 108(b) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA) to require mine companies to prove they can pay to clean up waste their mines might create. The companies would have to post surety bonds or a letter of credit before a permit for the mine is approved. The effort grew out of a 2008 Sierra Club lawsuit in which a federal district court held that EPA must designate industrial sectors that would be subject to such rules. But the court in its decision ruled that the agency has discretion over when to issue the rules.

    Future Regulation

    EPA has designated the mining industry as one sector that will fall under the future regulation, but has postponed three times the date by which it plans to issue the proposed rule. In the latest delay, EPA in its recently updated regulatory agenda for fall 2013 has delayed by two years plans to propose the CERCLA financial assurance rules for the hardrock mining industry, looking to August 2016 to formally propose the rules, according to the Unified Agenda, released Nov. 27.

    The announcement has triggered complaints from environmentalists over the ongoing delay of what they say is an important rule. Both the Government Accountability Office and the courts have said EPA should develop the rules to give taxpayers protection against the costs of cleaning up hardrock mines, a source with the environmental group Earthworks says. Taxpayers already face “staggering costs” for mine cleanups and “by failing to act, the Obama Administration is simply making the situation worse,” the source says in an email response.

    But legally “there isn’t much we can do,” the source says in an interview. The group plans to continue its ongoing call to affected communities to pressure EPA to write the rules, according to the source. The source does not know the reason for EPA’s delays.

    Earlier this year, EPA officials indicated to environmentalists that the rulemaking has been complicated by trying to integrate the proposed rules with existing bonding and financial assurance requirements managed by other federal agencies, including the Forest Service and DOI.

    A fact sheet by Earthworks says the mining industry is the largest source of toxic pollution. EPA has identified 156 hardrock mining sites with the potential to cost between $7 billion and $24 billion to clean up, with a maximum total cost to EPA of about $15 billion, it says, citing a 2004 EPA inspector general report. It says that while about 7 percent of Superfund sites are mining or smelting sites, 21 percent of Superfund money has been spent to date on mining sites, costing $2.5 billion.

    Meanwhile, the Western Governors’ Association at its winter meeting Dec. 11-12 in Las Vegas approved a policy resolution arguing against EPA developing financial assurance rules for the mining sector, saying states have programs in place that are “working well,” and that these programs should not be duplicated or pre-empted by an EPA program.

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    • Lark Arrichiello says:

      Kristen…well done! Protecting the environment is such an important issue that it’s sometimes easy to get swept up in emotional arguments. I’ll admit that I sometimes fall into that trap. Thank you for your articulate, informative, and fact based comments. The stakes are so high…there’s a great need for more of this kind of discourse. Again, thanks and Happy New Year!

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