Will new mining set northern Minnesota free?

On Thursday, a panel of state officials approved leases allowing companies to explore nonferrous mineral mining about 20,000 acres of land in northeastern Minnesota. Most of the land is near Ely and Isabella east and south of the Vermilion Range, far from existing taconite mines on the Mesabi Range.

We talked about some of the issues relevant to this new form of mining here and on the radio last week. It’s been interesting to read the feedback on the discussion and helpful to watch the debate expand from the old “jobs vs. the environment” canard.

Arguments for mining: The mineral reserves in this area are historic and will likely need to be mined someday to feed the international demand for metals in new technologies. They can be mined more safely than ever before thanks to technology that’s been developed recently. Obviously, there are a significant number of jobs at stake as well. These were the dominant sentiments of a handful of learned geologists and mining types who contacted me this week.

Arguments against mining: These mining projects do not guarantee consistent employment or economic stability for the region.  Actually, Aaron Klemz over at the new Left.MN blog is probably doing the best job explaining this particular argument with a very fascinating series of posts on the topic, which I recommend you read regardless of your position on the matter. His most recent entry explores the question of whether these mining jobs will be union scale or more like the lower paying mining jobs seen out West.

Naturally, there are environmental implications as the new mining takes place in a very important freshwater watershed and near the BWCA. There is precious little room for error in the environmental impact calculations.

This is a more productive discussion now. I am left with the following questions, which I’ll put out there for discussion.

  • Can someone share an example of a mining-dependent region or city in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, now or at any time in human history, that did not collapse once the minerals were no longer economically feasible to mine?
  • If the ores from this Lake Superior watershed region are not mined now, where will they come from? If they are not needed, how can market demand for those ores be abated within 10 years in a way that is politically and economically practical?
  • I continue to believe that nearly all political and entrepreneurial energy in northern Minnesota should be focused on economic diversification. This is the best chance for the region to have a practical chance of becoming a vibrant economy with a high quality of life for most residents. Anything short of that will lead to more of what we have now: political allegiance to one industry controlled by complicated market forces, economic stratification, weakening public education and social problems. I’d entertain arguments to the contrary.

This Iron Ranger is not here to begrudge mining or dismiss the importance of raw materials in our economy. But this region has known dark times. Many have died or been forever changed by this region’s mining history. I want a region that can sustain itself indefinitely because we say so, not because we are told so by someone with a chart and a mineral lease, or a pie-in-the-sky notion of tourism jobs.


  1. Appreciate your balanced viewpoints on this matter. Though I am generally opposed to sulfide mining due to the acid drainage problems, I am trying to understand both sides of the story here. Could you please refer to a article\ resource which explains this new technology that mitigates the environmental concerns, also a current mine that is using this technology with successful results. It would be greatly appreciated!

  2. If an argument against is – “no guarantees”, is an argument for – “a guarantee”?

    Wow…what a whistling in the wind sad way to live when reality is – “there are no guarantees”. But thats what generations of government hand-outs has spawned.

  3. @rach, I have some PDFs of papers that were sent to me. I’ll try to figure out a way to share them.
    @Ranger, perhaps “guarantee” was not the right word. I think it’s fair to ask whether outcomes are probable or not. That’s what businesses do, as you well know. I think the public’s business should be conducted in a similar fashion. Mining would produce x jobs and y revenue, but would x+y = the gap in our economy that prevents the region from self-sufficient development. That’s the question. No need for another screed on government hand-outs.

  4. As corollaries to your Q#2, where do we get those minerals from now? Are they bring currently mined/processed in an environmentally wise manner at these other places? Will the market/need support environmentally wise practices PLUS good wages? If we wait to mine here, will a future shortage mean higher prices, so we can have higher rates plus better processes?

    I’ve become aware that many products I take for granted have raw materials/components that that one from places that don’t protect the land nor the workers. If we hold off to mine something here, does that mean that we are implicitly allowing the rape of land and workers elsewhere? Should we care?

    No, there are no guarantees, but there are exploitative practices and there are somewhat better practices.

  5. I know the resource is by no means expended, but I look to Norway and their petroleum resource (and petroleum fund) as an example of how to use a resource to bolster the economy both now and into the future.

  6. Anyone who thinks these mining conglomerates intend to lavish new trucks and fishing boats upon the local population is out of their mind. What you’d likely get is cheap, itinerant labor brought into the area — with all of its concomitant challenges: where to house them, how to integrate them into the local culture and economy, how to contain the squalor that tends to tag along when labor camps suddenly pop up.

    Jobs? Of course. Just not the type (or number) that some folks seem to expect.

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