ELY - A rare meeting of the minds seemed to gather at a Tuesday Group meeting last week when Save The Boundary Waters members presented an update on the group’s efforts to halt a proposed sulfide mining project near the wilderness outside of Ely.
“We all depend on mining,” said Ely business owner Steve Piragis, who, along with Becky Rom, national chairperson for the environmental group, discussed the potential environmental impact of the mine project on the Ely community, and the importance of the current U.S. Forest Service mineral lease study.
An overflow crowd of people on both sides of the issue attended the weekly luncheon at the Grand Ely Lodge.
Conservationists With Common Sense President Nancy McReady passionately described her love of the Ely community and surrounding wilderness, and the importance of maintaining the pristine waters in and around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “I will be the first one in line to protest if the water in front of my home on Fall Lake gets polluted by mining,” she said.
Ely resident Carol Orban asked if there were any members of the Ely City Council in the room. No one raised a hand. “Our elected officials are telling all of us that this town is dying,” Rom said to a hearty applause that appeared to come from both sides of the issue. “Where are our elected officials? When our mayor was elected, he promised to form a study group to try to get both sides of this important issue together. I keep asking about the study group. I think we would all be better served by it.”
Piragis said, “Those involved with the Save the Boundary Waters campaign are not against mining. I think we have been mischaracterized this way a couple of times over the years. We all depend on mining. We have since the Stone Age. We, as human beings, take what we need from the earth. We are, as a campaign, opposed to mining in the Kawishiwi watershed because it is so close to us who live here and appreciate what we have now. We have a different perspective, maybe, about the future. This is America. We can disagree.”
He said the opinion of many people, not only in Ely, but also in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S., has been considered and they have good reasons to be opposed to the project. “This is considered over a long period of time and not by some flagrant, wild-eyed environmentalists. We are smart people who have considered all of these options over a long period,” Piragis said.
He said compromise has been at the root of the discussion. “Why can’t we find a way to do this where everybody is happy? That would be great, but it is simply not possible. Sulfide ore mining has inherent dangers in a lot of different ways.”
He noted that the liability of sulfide ore mining producing sulfuric acid is well known by all mining companies. “They have not been able to solve it,” he said. “This is not a secret. They are all working to try to solve this problem.”
Piragis went on to discuss the economy of Ely that depends on clean water. “Our customers depend on it. They are not going to be interested in a canoe trip on the Kawishiwi River if it is polluted,” he said. “Mining supports us too.”
He also discussed the socio-economic costs of a mining project that could affect the Ely community. “Look at the Bakken oil fields, not only with their problems of drugs, alcohol and prostitution, but how people’s lives have been ruined in that area of North Dakota,” he said.
“We are all Americans. We are all Ely people. We all share a love for this place and I don’t doubt that all of you want to protect the watershed as much as I do,” Piragis said.
Rom gave an overview of the study currently being conducted by the USFS in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management. “We should all be involved in this because we all want to protect our water,” she said.
There is currently a two-year protection or moratorium for the Boundary Waters and the Superior National Forest. “That moratorium on mine lease renewals is in place so that a comprehensive and thoughtful study could be done on the risks associated with copper nickel mining on National Forest lands in the Boundary Waters watershed.
“That study is important because all credible science tells us right now that a copper nickel mine in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, operating normally, creates a huge risk to the wilderness,” Rom said.
It is on that basis of scientific evidence that the moratorium was put in place by the BLM, she said, and the Forest Service wants a two-year study in cooperation with the BLM.
The study focuses on two scenarios, mining or no mining, on 234,328 acres in the Superior National Forrest. “Right now we are in what is called scoping,“ she said, “the point of the study where the Forest Service wants the public to tell them what to study, such as water quality, impact on loons, impact on the fisheries, the forest, timber harvest, or recreation. Ask the Forest Service to study what you are concerned about.”
According to Rom, a recent poll asked Minnesotans across the state what they thought about the two-year moratorium on mining lease renewals, and 79 percent of the respondents were in favor of the moratorium. “Here’s why,” she said. “Minnesotans love the Boundary Waters. This is a conversation about the Boundary Waters. It is real to them. It is not hypothetical. They want any decision made to be based on facts and science. And that’s what we want the Forest Service to do with this study. We want wise decisions made on facts and science.”
She noted that some information that has been disseminated about the mining leases is misleading. “Sometimes you hear people say the leases are just for exploration,” she said. “They are not. These leases grant Twin Metals the right to mine forever. They are claiming a right into perpetuity to America’s minerals,” she said. “This is National Forest land that belongs to everybody.”
She also said there are efforts to kill the study and grant the leases. “If that happens, the public no longer has the opportunity to say they don’t want mining to occur in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The public will be locked out of that decision. This is your one chance to weigh in on the study.”
She noted that some contend that taconite mining would be affected by the mineral lease withdrawal, in particular, the Peter Mitchell pit. “There are no taconite mines on National Forest land in the U.S., and this is the only one that is even close,” she said.
“Of the 14 mines currently operating in America, that represent 89 percent of copper production in the United States, all have experienced accidental releases and 13 have experienced water collection or treatment failures that led to significant water pollution.”
Rom encouraged everyone on both sides of the issue to dig deep into the facts on copper nickel mining. “Study up and learn the science and engage in the process,” she said. “We have a lot to lose. This is about protecting the Boundary Waters for the next generation.”