By water and land; perils of a man-made landscape

Two big stories this past have shown that the mines and mining in general still hold a lot of sway over northern Minnesota, particularly when it comes to public infrastructure.

First, Cliffs Natural Resources rejected the most popular proposal to re-route the vital Range artery of Highway 53. The Minnesota DOT had proposed building the highway over an active mining area, something Cliffs was ultimately uncomfortable doing. (Actually, that always did seem like a bad idea).

The second-most-popular plan involves swinging the highway out east of Virginia, curling it along the backside of a mine dump and pit and routing the highway into town differently. This would open new development along the highway, while cutting off traffic to some existing businesses. Other, even less popular plans would have put the highway west of Virginia, back through Iron Junction and bypassing most of the quad cities entirely. This would ensure that the highway never has to move again, but would cost the towns untold millions in lost traffic revenue.

Then in the Star Tribune last weekend, Hibbing’s ongoing battle with Cliffs over public water wells was aired. Hibbing Taconite pumping operations have drained down the water table, which has emptied two of the cities three main drinking water sources.

The draining of water in North Hibbing and the expansion of mining between Eveleth and Virginia are all things foretold in dusty old mine plans. With the highway, the original sin may have occurred back in 1960 when the state agreed to build the highway over the ore formation under the promise of paying the bill for moving it at the order of the mining company. In both cases, the mines are poised to get their way, not only because of political advantages but because people long ago acquiesced in writing laws for the mines.

I’ve said it before, but we’re not too terribly far away from big battles over basic things like water, not necessarily because there isn’t enough for people to survive, but because a small number of people seek to control it. Such is the way of our world. It’s the job of mining companies to mine and they do a fine job of it. It’s the job of local leaders to demand that public actions always better the lives of the people.

We ought to be speaking up about our roads and waters, not just over the limited scope of what it means to our current homes or favorite businesses, but to how our communities will look in coming years.

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