ELY – For the past seven years, Becky Rom, the national chairperson for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, has led the fight to keep sulfide-based copper-nickel mining and its potential …
ELY – For the past seven years, Becky Rom, the national chairperson for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, has led the fight to keep sulfide-based copper-nickel mining and its potential pollution from despoiling the most visited wilderness area in the U.S. She provided an update of her group’s efforts last week before a packed house at an Ely Tuesday Group gathering, and as usual, faced pushback from a number of local copper-nickel mining supporters.
Rom outlined the history of the campaign and cited economic studies and opinion polls to make her case that the proposed Twin Metals mine is opposed by most Minnesotans and likely wouldn’t provide the long-term boost to the Ely area economy that many supporters believe. She also charged that the Trump administration violated the law by reinstating mineral leases pulled by the Obama administration just weeks before President Trump took office.
Rom placed the current battle in historical context, noting that efforts to save the region from development date back 110 years to the establishment of the Superior National Forest, and have continued ever since.
“Congress acted in 1978 to strengthen the laws protecting the Boundary Waters, and among other things, it banned mining within the wilderness,” Rom said. “This was the first wilderness area in America where mining was banned. It also banned mining on 220,000 acres of the Superior National Forest, basically the entryways, like the Echo Trail, Fernberg and Gunflint areas.” Mineral leases originally issued to the International Nickel Company, or INCO, predated the 1978 legislation and prevented lawmakers at the time from including that area within the mining protection area.
While prospectors have known of the copper-nickel deposits in the area for more than half a century, the latest push to develop the resource prompted the creation of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in 2013. “We recognized that we had a national wilderness area which every American had as much ownership right to as every other American,” Rom said. “We sought to build a national campaign for all Americans to participate in policy decisions around mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.”
Rom challenged the primary economic argument for copper-nickel mining— jobs— citing findings from two studies, by Key-Log Economics and Harvard University.
The Harvard study, according to Rom, projects 36 employment and 72 income scenarios and finds that over a 20-year period, an economy based on copper mining would significantly underperform the growing, sustainable economy already in place in virtually every scenario studied. Compared to a Twin Metals mining economy, a mining ban would result in 1,500 to 4,600 more jobs and $100 million to $900 million more income, the study found.
The Key-Log study estimates a billion dollars or more in lost tourism spending, personal income, and property value in the three-county Arrowhead study region.
Nancy McReady, the leader of Ely-based Conservationists with Common Sense, disputed much of what Rom described.
“How do you explain the decrease of visitors to the Boundary Waters?” she asked. “It used to be estimated that we had 250,000 visitors a year and now it is 100,000 visitors a year.”
Rom noted that when the number of visitors was actually counted, the number showed that as many 150,000 people visited the BWCAW each year. In either case, Rom argued that a consistent message about Ely’s future would likely attract more visitors to the area. “I think it would be better for our community for both attracting new residents and new visitors to the Boundary Waters if we all embraced the gateway to the wilderness and didn’t talk about copper mining, which most Americans perceive as a great threat to the wilderness.”
McReady pushed on. “The empty storefronts in Ely don’t help either,” she said. “The closing of Shopko and the Dollar General really don’t help the area either.”
Rom reminded McReady that all Shopko stores nationwide closed at the same time as a result of bankruptcy, and the fact that there is no sulfide mining in Ely did not lead to the demise of the national franchise. “And the two dollar stores merged, so it makes sense that they are keeping the larger one open.”
McReady also suggested that as much as 95 percent of the world’s strategic minerals are controlled by China. “If they decide that they don’t want to sell those to the United States, according to 1978 legislation, in the case of an emergency, the United States could mine in the Boundary Waters.”
Rom noted that copper is not considered a strategic mineral. Some examples of strategic minerals are tin, silver, cobalt, manganese, tungsten, zinc, titanium, platinum, chromium, bauxite, and diamonds.
“In fact, copper is abundant throughout the world. Antofagosta has giant (copper) mines in South America,” Rom said. “There is a lot of copper, and most of it has not been yet been exploited or developed. Next to a water-intensive, highly valuable wilderness ecosystem, that is probably the worst place in America for a copper mine.”
Tuesday Group coordinators also faced criticism that mining advocates are not allowed to present their side of the issue.
Steve Schon responded, “We have had folks here from PolyMet. We have toured Twin Metals and had lunch over there. We don’t really turn anybody down.”
As a microphone was passed around for people to make comments or to ask questions, someone shouted out, “You’re our hero, Becky!”
Ely resident Steve Saari responded, “Becky, you are not my hero. This town is dying.” Saari said the area relies on a three-legged stool of mining, logging and tourism and he speculated that as many as three of four Iron Range residents support the sulfide mining here.
“We disagree,” Rom said. “I think what is really important is that in a civil society, you can stand up and talk and I can stand up and talk. I respect your right to do that.”