The emotional divide over the potential for copper mining near the Boundary Waters was on full display Thursday night, as about 1,000 people packed a public meeting in Duluth on a federal proposal that could lead to a 20-year moratorium on mining exploration and development.
"We're talking about the world's most toxic industry, coming in next to the world's most popular wilderness area, those two, it just seems impossible to mix," said Steve Piragis, who owns a canoe outfitting business in Ely.
St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, who represents the Ely area, argued that mining and preserving the wilderness aren't incompatible.
"Mining is what we do for a living, it's what we've done for 135 years. And you people get to come up to the wilderness that you love, because how we've taken care of the environment," he said, generating a mix of applause and boos.
More than 50 people offered verbal comments to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Those agencies have launched a two-year environmental study of a proposed mineral "withdrawal," essentially a mining moratorium on more than 200,000 acres of federal land in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
"Our rationale for that is our concern over the uncertainty that's associated with the contaminants that are associated with mining waste, and the potential harm they might have to the environment," said Connie Cummins, supervisor of the Superior National Forest.
The moratorium was proposed at the same time the government refused to renew two mineral leases for a company called Twin Metals, which is developing a huge potential underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Twin Metals is challenging that lease denial in court and also believes the proposed mineral withdrawal is illegal.
"No mining projects have been proposed in this area. There is nothing yet to study," said Twin Metals spokesperson Bob McFarlin. "They're exceeding their authority in attempting to study hypothetical environmental fears for projects that don't exist."
The decision will have impacts far beyond just the Twin Metals project. Other mining companies are also exploring in the area where the moratorium is being considered, east of Ely and south of the Boundary Waters. It's believed to contain one of the richest deposits of copper, nickel and precious metals in North America.
Mining backers say that could transform the economy of Ely and the region, with potentially thousands of good-paying jobs.
Joe Baltich of Ely recently founded a group called Fight for Mining Minnesota. He says mining can be done safely.
"We have modern mining techniques. We've got miners today who really give a crap about their land, and about their backyard and where they hunt," he said. "It's not 1974, where we just do whatever we want to do. We have restrictions, we've got regulations, we've got rules."
Baltich says Ely's economy has crumbled without mining.
But others paint a different portrait. They say a more sustainable economy based on the wilderness is slowly taking hold in Ely
"My business relies on clean water and a healthy Boundary Waters. Without these, my main street business just plain does't exist," said Jason Zabokrtsky, who owns the Ely Outfitting Company and is part of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Zabokrtsky says he hosted guests from 44 states and nine countries. "These guests don't travel long distances to paddle polluted waters or listen to mining noise," he said.
There has been speculation that the Trump administration could step in and stop the environmental review. But the Bureau of Land Management's Karen Mouritsen says they're moving ahead.
"Right now, we have our regulations, it set out a process, and we have an application submitted by the Forest Service, so right now we are going through that process," she said.
That process has been extended to allow for comment on the proposed mining moratorium into August. The government is also planning another public meeting on the Iron Range.
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