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Canoeing to the capitol

On Friday a contingent that calls itself the Precious Waters Flotilla and includes Lake County residents, will embark on a one-month journey, by canoe, from Aurora to St. Paul along the Partridge and Mississippi rivers.

Their goal is to call attention to the potential environmental and economic impact of sulfide mining in northern Minnesota. In addition, they want citizens to understand there are decades-old laws that permit the state to lease mineral rights to mining prospectors -- even when the prospector will be drilling and digging on privately owned land.

The Flotilla will hold press conferences along their route in Floodwood, Crosby/Aitkin and Brainerd before a rally in St. Paul on Oct. 22.

"Not enough people know about this," said Elli King, one of the event's coordinators. "In a recent survey, only 4 percent of people knew about sulfide mining in Minnesota."

King has lived in the Finland area for almost 10 years. She and her husband, Rory Scoles, who owns a business in the area, are raising their two children on 40 acres of land purchased when they moved to Lake County from Minneapolis.

"We feel that giving our children the chance to live in relationship with the land, their food and water is invaluable," she said.

Christine Cole, another Lake County resident and organizer of the Flotilla, grew up on the Iron Range as did four generations of her family before her, said King. Cole is paddling to St. Paul because northern Minnesota has become a hot spot for prospecting. Thus far, Cole's land has not been included among parcels up for lease to mining companies, but the mineral rights of some of her neighbors have been leased, King said.

King said she's concerned that Minnesotans don't understand that sulfide mining differs from the iron ore mining, which has been a part of Minnesota life for generations.

"Sulfide mining is a completely different animal than iron ore mining," she said. "We're really concerned because no sulfide mines have ever been operated safely."

Companies like PolyMet, now in the process of completing its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, are awaiting approval to begin sulfide mining at the former LTV steel processing plant on the Iron Range.

The SEIS was ordered after PolyMet's Draft Environmental Impact Statement did not earn the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In its comments regarding PolyMet's DEIS, the EPA said: "Based on our review of the DEIS, EPA has rated the DEIS as Environmentally Unsatisfactory -- Inadequate, or EU-3. Environmentally Unsatisfactory (EU) indicates that our review has identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that the EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed." PolyMet has been working to address the EPA's concerns since then.

In the interim, PolyMet has received significant support for its proposed operation by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which approved a $4 million loan to the company in December 2010. The mine is seen as a source of potential jobs and economic growth for northern Minnesota.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says, however, that the IRRRB jumped the gun and support for the project was premature, according to the advocacy group's website.

After the decision of the IRRRB, the environmental group and several other plaintiffs -- including Save Lake Superior Association, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and Indigenous Environmental Network -- filed suit under the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act. They said they hoped the court would invalidate the IRRRB's loan approval and prevent the state of Minnesota from taking further action to support PolyMet's efforts until an environmental review of the project was completed.

In March 2011, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law exempting the IRRRB from environmental review requirements under the Environmental Protection Act and the case was dismissed.

The Precious Waters Flotilla is taking to the waterways just months ahead of the release of PolyMet's SEIS and "as the DNR prepares for an auction of 142,000 acres of mineral leases under public and private land near Hoyt Lakes, Tettegouche State Park and Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge," said the group's press release last week.

Flotilla organizers said they want Minnesotans understand what's at stake. "We are for the water and the people. Jobs and the environment--we can have both," said King.

"In most of the media and the news," she said, " people get the message that we can have one or the other -- jobs or the environment -- and people in the area say, 'We need these jobs,' so we have to choose.' I don't believe that's true."

People need jobs, said King, but "the ecology of the area is what attracts people. If that's compromised, it will affect the entire area economy."

The Precious Waters Flotilla will gather at the junction of Highway 100 and the St, Louis River. A press conference will be held at 9 a.m. and the send-off ceremony will be at 10 a.m.