Hearing reignites fiery debate over nonferrous mining

Materials such as copper and nickel are needed for devices that generate green energy, said Mike Birkeland of Lake Country Power.

Entities that favor and oppose non-ferrous mining reiterated their positions Thursday when public comment was received by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management.

The federal agencies co-hosted a Duluth hearing on a proposal not to renew mineral leases on federal lands near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Past practice has been to renew mineral leases when they expire, but that changed last year when Gov. Mark Dayton raised concern about potential pollution if non-ferrous minerals are mined near the wilderness area.

The leases at issue have been held since the 1960s by Twin Metals Minnesota and its predecessors. They have invested $400 million into the exploration project.

Dayton instructed the Department of Natural Resources not to review mineral leases on state lands and called upon the federal government to follow suit on its own parcels. The Obama administration agreed and placed a temporary moratorium on the renewals pending further investigation and comment. Thursday’s hearing was part of that process.

Those who favor non-ferrous mining complain the state and federal governments altered the established mineral lease process, prohibiting companies from recovering their investment in the affected area. Opponents said non-ferrous mining has invariably released sulfuric acid into the environment, and it should not be allowed in such a pristine wilderness area.

Residents of Northeastern Minnesota know how to keep the environment clean, testified St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who represents the 5th district.

“Mining and the BWCA have co-existed for decades,” he said.

“We think the action by the Forest Service, politely, is somewhat of a mission creep,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council. It’s wrong to prohibit exploration before firms have had a chance to determine what’s in the ground and develop a mining plan for further review, he said.

Addressing the legal issue, Kevin Baker of Twin Metals Minnesota said “This proposal is illegal. It contradicts the original intent of Congress for these minerals.” Twin Metals filed a lawsuit against the federal government in September to try to force the Bureau of Land Management to renew two longstanding leases needed for the project to move forward.

St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Jugovich, who represents District 7, said everyone wants a clean environment and robust economy.

“I’d like to see science be our guide,” he said. “We’re not asking for a mine right now. We’re asking for some exploratory drilling so we can find out if it’s feasible.”

Mike Birkeland of Lake Country Power said the land withdrawal plan is inconsistent with current with longstanding policy.

“The natural resources of our region have sustained our family for generations, and we still enjoy the water, the woods and the wildlife,” he said. Materials such as copper and nickel are needed for devices that generate green energy, Birkeland added, and those devices also contribute toward environmental protection.

Raising economic concerns about mining, Ely outfitter and retailer Steve Piragis said he employs 55 persons in the summer. If mining pollutes the environment, he said, “Our sustainable business will be replaced by a non-sustainable, boom or bust copper mining economy.” Piragis contended Ely’s tourism economy is in a growth phase, which drew considerable laughter in the room.

His comment also drew the ire of Tom Rukavina, who represents Ely on the St. Louis County Board. The suggestion that Ely is no longer a mining town is “a big fallacy,” said Rukavina, a former state legislator.

“There are 100 miners that are going to go to work in Ely tomorrow and there are a bunch of retirees, and that’s what keeps that town going…not tourism, and that’s the truth. Mining is what we do for a living. It’s what we’ve done for 135 years. We’ve mined ores with sulfides in them for 135 years and you people get to come up to the wilderness that you love because we’ve taken care of the environment,” he said.

Two Duluth physicians, however, raised concerns about toxins they believe are related to nonferrous mining.

Family physician Jennifer Pearson said the threats “are real, are substantial and will last for centuries.” Mining nonferrous minerals releases six dangerous toxins, she testified, and numerous medical organizations believe a health impact assessment should be conducted as part of an environmental impact statement in any future mining plan.

Dr. Margaret Sarasino agreed, contending toxins associated with nonferrous mining are particularly dangerous to children.

“This is not a light subject. This is serious stuff,” she said, contending those toxins can lead to lower IQs, autism and chronic neurological disorders. “I’ve seen these disorders day in and day out. The best way to help these conditions is to prevent them from occurring in the first place.”

Such threats, said Pat Mullen, vice president for marketing, corporate communications, and energy supply at Minnesota Power, will lead regulators to be especially vigilant in their duties.

“Because these areas are so close to our cherished BWCA, we believe the environmental studies will be the toughest ever done in Minnesota. We believe the appropriate processes already are in place to protect the BWCA,” he testified.

The formal meeting was preceded by rallies sponsored by representatives on both sides of the issue.

“This is federal bureaucracy at its worst,” said Nancy Norr, chairperson of Jobs for Minnesota, a group representing business, labor and communities. “We are not taking this lightly. Once the machine and the wheels begin to turn, it is very difficult to reverse the machine. We have to demonstrate why this proposal is unfounded and unnecessary.”

Some damage already has been done, noted Julianne Motis, principal environmental engineer at the Duluth office of Foth Infrastructure and Environment. At recent mining conferences, she said, persons in the metallic mining industry have taken notice of the potential ban.

“It made a lot of headlines. They feel like this isn’t a safe place to invest because the political environment is unpredictable,” she said. “They have limited dollars and they look for the safest, most predictable place to invest.”

Norr is among a group of local leaders who will take the pro-mining arguments to Washington D.C. next week. They will meet with a representative of the Trump administration during their visit.

Speakers for the Thursday hearing were selected through a lottery but written comments can be submitted to the Forest Service for another 120 days.