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Ely residents sharply divided over mining near BWCA

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Alton Lake
Twin Metals Minnesota is exploring building a vast underground copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR 2012

Wednesday is the last day for the public to comment on whether two controversial mining leases near the Boundary Waters should be renewed. Twin Metals Minnesota is exploring building a vast underground copper-nickel mine on the doorstep of the wilderness area.

On Tuesday night nearly 900 people packed a stuffy high school auditorium in Ely to give emotional testimony both for and against the project. The meeting in Ely showed just how contentious the issue of copper-nickel mining is in northeast Minnesota. Speakers were split about 50-50, with a few more speaking against mining.

That comment was met with boos.

"That's my point. This isn't about Ely. The people that are booing live here probably, but the people that have an interest in the Boundary Waters are not from here, and that's my point — this is a national interest," Munger continued. "It is like Yellowstone. It deserves to be saved."

The meeting highlighted a divide between those who were drawn to the area by the wilderness, like Brown and Munger, with others who grew up in Ely.

Bernie Barich, the fourth generation of his family to be a miner, said mining has provided his family with a sustainable living. He said tourism is only sustainable for the owners of resorts and outfitters, many of whom are opposed to the Twin Metals project.

"They claim concern for the environment and water, but in truth they're driven by greed and an attitude of 'hooray for me and my resort, and to hell with the rest of you peons,'" he said. "They continue to spew misinformation and lies about the Twin Metals project and mining in general."

The two-and-a-half hour meeting followed a similar listening session the U.S. Forest Service hosted in Duluth last week.

The agency is gauging public opinion before deciding whether to grant its consent to the renewal of two federal mineral leases about 12 miles southeast of Ely.

Twin Metals has called those leases the foundation of its project. The company is still two years away from submitting a formal mine plan. But a 2014 study laid out a potential $2.8 billion copper-nickel mine that could operate for 30 years and employ more than 800 people.

Twin Metals public listening session
Signs supporting mining and the Boundary Waters sit next to each other before a listening session last week in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Mining supporters like Mike Syresvud, president of Iron Range Building Trades, urged the Forest Service to allow the leases to be renewed. He said potential environmental impacts should be evaluated after the company submits a mine plan.

"We can do this safely. Let the process work itself out. This is what the area needs," he said. "Because we all live here. We don't just travel in and out of here for the weekend. This is where we live. This is where we raise our children and our grandchildren."

But opponents of the Twin Metals project say this is the appropriate time for the government to decide whether copper-nickel mining should be allowed in the watershed of the country's most popular wilderness.

"If you look at the leases themselves, they explicitly grant the right to mine, and the right to build mining facilities, and so I think the question is, is this the right location to build a mine? We don't think it is," said Jeremy Drucker, a spokesperson for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

Drucker said his group and others will drop off 65,000 petitions opposing the lease renewal at the Superior National Forest headquarters in Duluth Wednesday.

Forest Service officials say they've already received more than 50,000 emails.

Regional forester Kathleen Atkinson said the agency doesn't have a timeline for its decision.

"The decision will be grounded in science, so we'll be going through the science, the vast amount of existing research, data and literature, and it will be influenced by what we hear from the public."