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Differences bubble in copper mining debate

Justin Mattson, his wife, Christina, and daughter, Maarit. Justin Mattson, a Two Harbors native and teacher at Mesabi East High School, supports the proposed PolyMet copper mine. Others say the potential for long-term environmental damage isn't worth the short-term economic gain. Submitted photo

Justin Mattson and Steve Koschak each live within a few miles of the proposed PolyMet copper mine and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes.

One is a high school chemistry teacher. The other is a resort owner. Both want to see the Iron Range thrive economically and both want clean air and water for their families.

Yet Mattson and Koschak have vastly different views on what Minnesota's first copper mine might mean.

Mattson of Aurora is the teacher. He's in favor of the proposed PolyMet mine that he says will create jobs and keep families on the Range and kids in his classroom.

Koschak, an Ely native whose family has owned River Point Resort on Birch Lake since 1944, says the copper mine's potential for long-term environmental damage isn't worth the short-term economic gain.

The two represent divergent camps that will came together at an open house on PolyMet's environmental impacts Wednesday night in the Mesabi East High School gymnasium. The event was sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The teacher

Mattson is very familiar with the Mesabi East gym. He's a junior varsity basketball coach there, and teaches his chemistry classes at the school.

He's also the president of the local teacher's union charged with making sure his members keep their jobs. That translates into supporting other jobs to keep families on the Range.

"This [project] has the potential to really diversify the economy up here to get away from the cycles of the taconite and steel industries," Mattson said. "It's a real company, with their own money, going after a real resource in the ground. It's not some sort of scam looking for tax dollars from the IRRRB."

A Two Harbors native and annual visitor to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Mattson has no direct ties to the mining industry. But he felt strongly enough about the issue to write a letter to the editor to the Duluth News Tribune earlier this year backing the project.

As a chemistry teacher, he knows the world needs the minerals underground between Ely and Aitkin for wiring, circuit boards and much more. Cars, computers and electric lights all need copper. Nickel is used in rechargeable batteries, including those in hybrid cars. Platinum, another precious metal PolyMet hopes to mine, is a crucial component in catalytic converters that reduce pollution from cars.

"You can't do wind energy projects without these minerals," Mattson noted of the massive copper components of wind turbines. "People talk about being energy independent. But we also need to be minerals independent."

Minnesota can better regulate the industry and protect the environment than overseas entities, he said, while also reaping the economic benefits.

"If we don't use the minerals that are in Minnesota ... they're just going to be mined somewhere where they don't care about the environment and where they use slave labor."

As a chemistry teacher, Mattson also knows about the sulfuric acid runoff and metal leaching that occurs when the sulfur-bearing rock containing copper deposits is exposed to air and water. But he says he's satisfied his baby daughter will have clean water for decades to come and that PolyMet engineers have done their homework to stop acid runoff.

"They can do it right," he said.

The resort owners

Steve and Jane Koschak took over River Point Resort on Birch Lake from Steve's parents in 1976, and this marks the 65th year the place has been in the family. The Koschaks grew up in Ely, taught school in the Twin Cities area for a time and then returned to live full-time at the resort.

It's a good business, and River Point was named Minnesota's Resort Property of the Year in 2003, catering to cabin owners and outfitting Boundary Waters canoe trips.

The Koschaks haven't been environmental activists before. But last month Steve appeared in a documentary film produced by opponents of copper mining. It's a big step for an Ely-area family in an area dominated by pro-mining sentiment.

"I've been up here all my life and I think people are coming around to respect our opinions, even if they don't agree with it," Steve said.

His goal is to see Minnesota lawmakers pass a referendum on copper mining until supporters can prove it absolutely won't harm the environment, similar to a law already in effect in Wisconsin.

Like most people concerned with copper mining, the Koschaks say they're most worried about sulfuric acid runoff and metal leaching that can pollute streams for centuries after mining occurs.

"There will be groundwater in the pit and water coming off the waste rock piles and seeping out of the tailings basin. It's all going to be acidic to some extent," Steve said. "How long will they [PolyMet] be around to make sure it isn't polluting the water?"

Unspoiled lakes and forests are the attractions that bring customers to their business, and the Koschaks say copper mining jeopardizes that. While peak employment may hit 400 at the mine, the environmental impact statement predicts that the majority of workers will move out of the area when the mine is played out in about 20 years.

"We aren't anti-mining. We are pro clean-water," Jane said. "We just want people to stop and think, to get informed and realize this is not taconite mining. ... This is so different and has so much possible downside."

The Koschaks say the water in and around the proposed copper projects either flows south, into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, or north, into the BWCAW -- two waterways they say should never be subjected to the possibility of acid runoff.

"Water is what we have to offer, it's what sustains us, it's what Ely is all about," Steve said. "The mines go up and down, mostly down. ... But we still have the clean water and the tourism here. At least for now."