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Senator Tina Smith visits Ely

Sulfide mining overshadows ‘Rural Economy Tour’

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/4/19

Ely— Minnesota’s junior U.S. Senator, Tina Smith, visited Ely for the first time as a senator on Tuesday, as part of a “Rural Economy Tour” with state and local leaders.

Her visit …

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Senator Tina Smith visits Ely

Sulfide mining overshadows ‘Rural Economy Tour’

Minnesota’s Sen. Tina Smith, along with State Rep. Rob Ecklund, right, visited Tuesday with Brian and Andrea Strom at the Crapola World Headquarters in Ely.
Minnesota’s Sen. Tina Smith, along with State Rep. Rob Ecklund, right, visited Tuesday with Brian and Andrea Strom at the Crapola World Headquarters in Ely.
K. Vandervort

Ely— Minnesota’s junior U.S. Senator, Tina Smith, visited Ely for the first time as a senator on Tuesday, as part of a “Rural Economy Tour” with state and local leaders.

Her visit included brief stops at the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital, to learn about EBCH’s expansion plans, as well as tours at the Ten Below Networking facility, Crapola World Headquarters, Wolfland Computers and Hobby, and lunch at Gator’s Grilled Cheese Emporium.

Smith also heard from both sides in the ongoing debate over the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine. She met privately with Twin Metals officials at their Ely facility and later traveled to Voyageur Outward Bound to meet with members of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Both of those meetings were closed to the media.

Smith had little to say prior to her closed discussions with local sulfide mining officials and environmental advocates, except, “It is just a visit.”

Last month, staff members of Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar were accused of meeting secretly with environmental advocates at an unadvertised listening session at Vermilion Community College.

“One thing about (Sen. Smith), she’s not chicken to jump into the fray,” Ely Mayor Novak said in introducing her to city officials at the hospital. “There are a lot of people who won’t come up here because they know what the attitude will be on the streets about Twin Metals. They get all their money from the other side.”

At a brief press availability session later in the day, Sen. Smith was pressed on her views of sulfide mining.

She stressed she is not opposed to iron mining, but she called for a “thorough review process” for planned copper-nickel mining, including PolyMet and Twin Metals. She said she had a thorough conversation with Twin Metals officials and heard about the recently-proposed dry stack tailings storage options. “I learned a lot,” she added.

“These are important decisions for this community and, more broadly, our state and our country, where these mining projects get done and this is an important discussion that we all have to have,” Sen. Smith said. Referring to her cell phone she said, “I personally believe that we have to responsibly mine the metals that go into these phones sustainably.”

Sen. Smith took issue with the Trump administration’s recent decision to end a study of the impact of a proposed 20-year withdrawal of mineral leasing on about 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest, including the land that Twin Metals hopes to mine. “It was a mistake when they stopped the study,” she said, noting that the two-year study was to look at both the economic and environmental benefits and costs of sulfide-based mining in the Ely area. “The Trump administration stopped that before it was done and that is too bad,” she said. “One way or another, the people are going to want to know what is in that study and what the data showed. The data should lead us. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

She was reminded by a representative of another publication that her views puts her at odds with Twin Metals and mining advocates in the community, who opposed the study.

“Where I stand is that I think the data and the science should lead us to where these mines should be located, and that’s what I’m pushing for here,” Sen. Smith said. “My main goal was to learn as much as I could. I looked at the core samples that they have accumulated, and I had the chance to ask lots of questions.”

After the Twin Metals presentation, Sen. Smith traveled out to Voyageur Outward Bound to meet with environmental advocates. “We heard from some outfitters and again, it was just information gathering. I spent a lot of time listening today. It was very helpful.”

Rural economy

Sen. Smith has conducted several such tours in rural communities around the state during her legislative recess this summer.  Earlier last month, she announced a new bipartisan “Rural Economic Working Group” that will highlight what is working in rural communities, and where local leaders, businesses and schools are coming together to overcome challenges in order to create jobs and spur economic development. 

“I am working to bring successful local ideas and partnerships to Congress and to spur efforts aimed at restoring rural economic prosperity in Minnesota and across the country,” she said at an informal coffee gathering at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital where she kicked off her local tour.

Novak welcomed her to the community. “Our hospital has some very important projects moving forward and one of the biggest issues in a small town like Ely is that we don’t have the resources to research where all the pots of money are in Washington so if you could help them locate some of those, that would be great,” he said.

Sen. Smith talked about the kind of assets that work for small communities. “Such things as hospital services, broadband, housing that fits the workforce need, a diverse economy, access to higher education, the Ely community already has many of those assets,” she said. “I’m interested in learning how communities like Ely are able to recruit folks back here, especially those in the age-35 range who think about where they want to raise a family,” Sen. Smith said. “In order to do that there has to be a place where they can live that works for them. There has to be broadband. There have to be job opportunities.”

EBCH CEO Michael Coyle highlighted many of the growth opportunities at the local health care facility. “While other hospitals are shrinking, we are growing,” he said.

He showed Smith and her staff the tight quarters of the city’s one and only pharmacy. “We were doing 150 prescriptions a day before Shopko shut down and now we are at 400-plus prescriptions a day, and we made that adjustment literally overnight,” Coyle said.

The hospital’s emergency tele-health capability, expanded MRI facility, hospital pharmacy expansion and other expansion projects were all part of the tour. “A complete infrastructure change-over is also part of our growth,” he added.

A $20 million facility expansion project is nearing a kick-off date, Coyle added. “Our board of directors has been very open to growth,” he said. “They are very proactive in looking toward the future. “Conceptual drawings could be available to the public as early as next week, he said.

Sen. Smith queried Coyle on where the $20 million for the expansion project is coming from. “With your help, thanks for offering,” Coyle was quick to respond.

“Seriously, we have been financially frugal over many years, so we have some funds available. We are also launching a capital campaign. Tax-free government bonds are very important for us. It really comes down to the community using our services,” he said.

Sen. Smith was quick to agree that EBCH’s “critical access hospital” designation is important for the local facility. “Without that title, we don’t exist,” Coyle stressed. “With cost-based reimbursement is the only way we survive.”

Local outfitters Bob LaTourell, owner of LaTourell’s Resort and Outfitters and Steve Nelson, owner of Spirit of the Wilderness, drew Smith’s attention to the ongoing permit reservation and recreational needs assessment issues in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“When you look at Ely,” Nelson said, “of course we have the hospital, and a good education system, and we also have mining and logging, and we have people working for different agencies. We need to continue to embrace tourism. This is not something that we can just push aside and take another avenue.”

The two likely spoke for a number of outfitters in the area who are concerned that the outcome of the current federal needs assessment could have repercussions for their businesses. “We have been around for a long time, and so has mining,” said Nelson. “We need to be able to do this in the correct way. To balance everything out is the critical factor. We have the U.S. Forest Service, and I hope they are listening.”

Sen. Smith responded, “When it comes working with federal agencies like the Forest Service, I want you to know that we want to be your partner. I respect the knowledge that they have, but I also think that you have to find a meeting ground. I want to be able to be useful to you here in Ely.”


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