EVELETH, Minn. – At the new Boomtown Woodfire restaurant in this Iron Range city, diners can order the Steelworker prime rib with a Mesabi’s Best beer and, as the menu states, pay homage to the miners who dug the state’s mining industry out of a deposit of rich iron ore.
It’s a heritage many here hope will come roaring back, perhaps as soon as this summer, after officials granted the state’s first copper-nickel mine its final approvals last week.
“We’ve been talking for years about how to get ready,” said Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum. “It’s been hard to keep people’s spirits up. You want people to be excited and to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it was a really long tunnel.”
After 14 years of regulatory back-and-forth and a pitched environmental battle that’s ongoing in the courts, northern Minnesota’s mining industry celebrated a double win last week when PolyMet Mining Corp. cleared its last obstacle with state regulators while federal officials opened a path for a second mine just outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The expectation that the mines will launch a new era for the Iron Range has towns planning for new growth, though analysts said expectations should be tempered by the unknown.
In Aurora, there’s talk of upgrading the child care options for new families who might move in. In Biwabik, Weikum and others have wondered if the city’s railroad spur might find new uses. Elsewhere, local officials are gauging the condition of the housing stock, talking up workforce development and looking for broadband connections to make their cities more livable.
The PolyMet plan calls for a $1 billion, 6,000-acre open-pit mine, tailings basin and processing plant at the former LTV Steel Mining Co. plant near Hoyt Lakes. The steel plant closed in 2001, laying off 1,100 workers, part of the state’s long-term decline in mining employment that saw a peak of 13,000 jobs in 1979 shrink to about 4,000 today.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved final air and water permits last week, though the project still needs a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On the same day last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior said it would renew mineral leases for a copper-nickel mine near Ely proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota, a St. Paul-based subsidiary of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta PLC. The company has not yet filed a formal mining plan and faces a yearslong review process.
The mines would tap one of the world’s largest known copper and nickel deposits, an untouched reserve that includes precious metals such as gold, platinum and palladium. Critics have filed court challenges against both mines, saying they threaten the Lake Superior watershed and the Boundary Waters because copper-nickel mining generates sulfuric acid, heavy metals and other contaminants.
Aurora’s bright future
Aurora Mayor Dave Lislegard said he’s confident the mining can be done responsibly despite environmental concerns.
Guiding a tour of Aurora’s City Hall, he points to a framed, 50-year-old newspaper clipping about a taconite mine with the headline, “Hoyt Lakes Mine to be World’s No. 1.” The glory days of Minnesota’s mining past loom large here, Lislegard said.
“We’re so much deeper than just one issue, although it is the rock, the foundation, the engine of this region,” he said.
Lislegard was laid off when the LTV plant closed, so he shifted to a career in politics.
Lislegard just won election to the Legislature and will soon join other incoming freshmen in St. Paul. Among his first ideas was to invite other legislators on a tour of the Iron Range to show them how his hometown views mining.
“In a short period we lost our only grocery store, we lost our only dentist, we lost our only drugstore and pharmacist,” he said, recounting the hit to the local community after LTV shuttered. “The hopes and the dreams of what PolyMet will bring has really held our communities together.”
His replacement, City Council Member Doug Gregor, said PolyMet will help but isn’t expected to restore Aurora to its glory days.
“I don’t think anybody is anticipating another boomtown era,” Gregor said, “but I do think it will be an economic boost to the town as well as the region.”
PolyMet is expected to hire about 300 workers, a boost but not enough to offset the LTV layoffs.
“It’s a fraction of the overall employment,” said Steve Hine, research director at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Mining jobs make up less than 3 percent of all jobs in the seven-county Arrowhead region, but with an average annual salary of $89,500 that makes them among the highest-paying.
“There’s a little bit of a leap of faith here,” said Ron Wirtz, an analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Any private investment in a local economy tends to be positive, Wirtz said, but the mines carry unknowns: Will the price of metals remain profitable? Will there be an environmental crisis that wipes away profits and decimates a treasured community resource?
“This is essentially a risk proposition,” he said.
Hope for dying towns
Not doing anything carries risk, too, Wirtz added. That’s the risk that people like Joni Stutzman fear. Stutzman, a longtime Iron Range grocer, watched the slow demise of the Iron Range through the closure of its grocery stores. As each one went dark, a town was left without a source of fresh produce or meat, he said. Stores like Dollar General have moved in, competing against locally owned operations like the IGA grocery he runs in Hoyt Lakes.
The grocery store anchors the Hoyt Lakes strip mall along Hwy. 110, some of which sits darkened and empty.
Stutzman, a skeptic of Iron Range rehabilitation plans going back to the Hibbing chopsticks factory of the 1980s, said he has followed copper prices closely and believes they’ll have to rise before PolyMet can begin operating.
The recent approval of permits for the mine, however, has him feeling more confident that economic growth for the Iron Range is finally at hand.
“My take is it will 100 percent happen, it just may not happen this summer,” Stutzman said.
At the edge of town, a sign outside of the Hoyt Lakes Arena last week summed up the town’s mood: “Go PolyMet.”