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Duluth hearing draws supporters, critics of proposed ban near BWCAW

Spectators listen to a speaker at Thursday’s public hearing on the preliminary decision by the federal government to ban mining activities on 235,000 acres near the BWCAW. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The federal agencies responsible for a proposed mining ban near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness got an earful Thursday from supporters and opponents gathered at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management heard more than two hours of public input on the plan to stop Twin Metals and other companies from exploring or mining on 235,000 acres just outside the federal wilderness.

Twin Metals wants to dig a massive underground mine along the Kawishiwi River just southeast of Ely that would employ about 800 people. But the agencies decided in December that copper-nickel mining in that area stands too high a chance of spurring mining waste or mine runoff that could damage the region's sensitive lakes and streams.

The agencies denied Twin Metals’ federal exploration leases for the area where the mine was to be located. They also proposed a two-year moratorium on mining in the area and an ecological study of potential mining impacts.

Most of the DECC’s Symphony Hall’s 1,400 main-floor seats were filled for the event with more than two hours of testimony, at three minutes per person. Written comments will be accepted through Aug. 17 and Forest Service officials say they expect another public meeting will be held on the Iron Range sometime before then.

Mining critics praised the federal action, taken in the last days of the Obama administration, saying it will allow for a thorough scientific review before it’s too late to stop the project.

“We fully support the withdrawal of mineral leases in the Rainy River watershed," said Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, adding that the two-year study would allow time to determine “what damage a copper-nickel industry will do to the Boundary Waters.”

Staffon said the region is being lured into accepting copper mining by the “carrot” of jobs, but that it remains uncertain what will happen to the region’s lakes and streams “if we bite the carrot.”

Mining supporters said the Forest Service and BLM have overstepped their authority, scuttling the Twin Metals project even before it submitted any mining plan for review.

“They're years away from having a mining plan yet the rug has been pulled out from under them,” said Nancy McReady of Ely.

Mining supporters are hoping the new Trump administration in charge of the federal agencies will quickly overturn the decision and allow Twin Metals to continue exploring and proceed toward the environmental review and permitting phase. But, until then, they are pushing to have the Obama-era decision reversed.

Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, called the federal action “mission creep” by agencies that are denying his members good-paying jobs building the mine.

“We build … but we also fish, hunt, camp and canoe," Melander said. “We need to give companies the opportunity to show they can do it right.”

Kevin Baker, attorney for Twin Metals, went further.

“This proposal is illegal,” Baker said. Baker and others said the mining moratorium contradicts Congressional intent for the Superior National Forest that has always called for mineral development outside the BWCAW.

Joe Baltich of Ely, a founder of Up North Jobs, a pro-mining group, said copper-mine opponents are basing their fears on decades-old history of failed mines in other regions.

“This is 2017. We have modern mining techniques," Baltich said.

Baltich was among a chorus of longtime Ely and Iron Range residents who said the mining moratorium is just another step in federal control over their region, much like the creation of the federal wilderness that closed resorts and moved motors out of the Boundary Waters. Baltich vowed that local mining supporters wouldn't lose this fight.

“I’m angry. We’re organized. And, this time, we’re going to win," he said.

Mining opponents praised the Forest Service assessment that copper mining in the BWCAW watershed and so near the wilderness may — on its face and even before details of the project are clear — not be compatible with the mission of the BWCAW or with the region's thriving,  lake-based tourism industry.

“The natural landscape is what drives our economy. It’s what makes us different,” said Dave Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail. “Clean water is more valuable than copper.”

Ely outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky said he had clients come from 44 states and nine countries in 2016 because they can catch big fish, drink water out of the lakes, watch stars at night and hear loons call.

Those guests “don't travel those distances to paddle in polluted waters or listen to mining activity,” he said.

But others said Ely and the region can’t survive on part-time or low-wage tourism-based jobs and that copper mining offers families a chance at a decent living.

Julie Lucas said not only could copper mining help the local economy, but it could support environmental stewardship by supplying minerals for wind and solar energy. Lucans, an environmental engineer at Hibbing Taconite, said Minnesota’s regulators and its people will demand that the mining is done right and that all watersheds are protected.

“Green technologies are all about copper, nickel and gold,” Lucas said. “I would rather have this in my backyard. Green technologies should come from green mining.”

Twin Metals Minnesota is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta. The proposed underground mine is in the Rainy River watershed that flows north through the BWCAW and into Canada. It’s estimated to cost about $2.8 billion and would be much larger than the proposed PolyMet copper mine about 35 miles to the south, which is in the St. Louis River watershed that flows into Lake Superior.

Twin Metals has yet to submit any proposal for environmental review, although a pre-feasibility study suggested the mine could be very profitable by extracting and processing copper, nickel, gold, silver and other valuable metals.

To see the federal mining moratorium proposal go to fs.usda.gov/superior and click on the “Withdrawal of Federal Minerals in Rainy River Watershed from Exploration and Development” project page. Comments may be submitted via email to: comments-eastern-superior@fs.fed.us. The public comment period has been extended to Aug. 17.

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