Mining for economic answers, digging up riddles

We know from experience that mining is a boom and bust industry. Why, even the speculative future of mining is boom and bust! It all depends on who you talk to.

Here, MPR’s Dan Kraker explores the dynamic of potential new mining near the eastern Mesabi Iron Range. You can (and should) listen to the story here:

I pulled the following selection from the story, however, to illustrate two points of view that I view as most relevant to how Iron Rangers think about these projects. This is not to dismiss environmental concerns about mining, but rather to show you mindset of most Range voters, who balance the memories that mining is not secure with the reality that when it is, everything is easier.

“We have hundreds of years of history with mining. It’s staring us in the face on the Iron Range or the Upper Peninsula or Butte, Montana,” [Univ. of Montanta economics professor Thomas] Power said. “How is it that despite the high wages, and despite the incredible wealth pulled out of the ground, these areas are not prosperous?”

In St. Louis County, where most Minnesota mining is concentrated, the unemployment rate of 6.6 percent is more than a point higher than the statewide average of 5.4 percent. The county’s poverty rate of 16.2 percent is the sixth highest rate in Minnesota, well above the state average of 10.1 percent. Many Iron Range communities have seen their populations shrink.

But to people like Jim Lassi, a City Council member in Babbitt, a small town near two proposed copper-nickel mines by PolyMet and Twin Metals, that’s exactly the reason these new projects are so desperately needed.

“So many of our small businesses are struggling,” he said. “We’re really counting on this to get this influx of people to stabilize our economy and boost us up.”

Lassi said Babbitt is already making plans for a possible boom by updating its comprehensive plan to prepare for new housing developments and upgrades to utilities and other services. He thinks Babbitt could grow to around 3,000 residents.

“I think that would be max,” he said. “That would mean we’d have to double.”

These little towns talk about seeing their populations double while their schools lose enrollment, drop programs and their downtown areas crumble. That, in a ever flippin’ nutshell, is my problem with mining politics. Will the mining promises pan out? Well, they might. But short of the kind of explosive boom seen here 100 years ago coupled with the political will to extract public dollars from mining profits, it’s not likely as rosy as advertised.

I viewed with great interest this Tom Hansell and Patricia Beaver post on The Daily Yonder, “Life After Coal: Does Wales Point the Way?” Yes, coal and iron are very different elements, but their economics have ties.

Hansell and Beaver share this short video comparing South Wales with Appalachia, which is fascinating for many reasons (look at the remarkable similarities in landscapes and try your very best to follow along with BOTH Kentucky and Welsh accents):

But the video, and the post, and indeed this whole discussion ends not with a definitive answer about how mining regions become diversified and self-sufficient, but rather with the soft sounds of wind blowing over hills that are finally turning green again. Some folks pointing at computer screens here and there. But mostly the wind and the hills. A canvas.

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