Battle waged over mining firms' plans in northern Minnesota

Mineral riches - and risky byproducts - lie in northern Minn. Environmentalists want Minnesotans paying attention to proposed mines. The companies say discussion is healthy.

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Waging an information battle: Opponents of efforts to open mines talk of the potential for environmental harm. Backers of mining prefer to talk about the jobs the mines may create.

Minnesotans heading north on Interstate 35 this holiday weekend will be greeted by a series of new billboards that ask whether sulfide mining is the right choice for the state and its favorite vacation destinations.

What, they may wonder while whizzing past, is sulfide mining?

They'll soon find out, as Minnesota enters a pivotal debate over what could be the state's next great mining boom.

A campaign called "Mining Truth" will be launched Wednesday by three of the state's leading environmental groups to alert Minnesotans to potential environmental hazards of large copper mining operations proposed for northern Minnesota.

Two mining companies, meanwhile, have been busy in communities such as Ely and Hoyt Lakes talking up the hundreds of jobs they hope to create and explaining the environmental standards they embrace.

Officials behind the environmentalists' campaign say their surveys show only 5 percent of Minnesotans are aware that potentially massive mining projects could soon spring up near favorite northern lakes and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They call it sulfide mining because copper, nickel and smaller amounts of silver, gold and platinum are buried in sulfide-bearing rock that poses significant environmental risk if exposed to air and water.

"This is an extremely important decision that Minnesota will be making about its future," said Molly Pederson, public affairs director at Conservation Minnesota, one of the three environmental groups. "Every Minnesotan should be aware."

The state's decision on permitting the first of the mines has been years in the making and is still many months away. While the benefits and risks of mining are an old issue in northeastern Minnesota, the new campaign is designed to bring it home to those who care about the most beautiful corner of the state but don't live there.

In addition to billboards, the environmental groups intend to launch a social media campaign through a website, miningtruth.org, Facebook and Twitter. As the mining projects develop, new information and public documents will be posted through those sites, Pederson said.

"We want to keep the conversation going," Pederson said. "We want Minnesotans to form their own opinions on whether or not it's worth the risk." The other sponsors are the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a non-profit law firm, and Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry group, said the discussion about mining has been underway for several years.

"We will continue to talk about the benefits of [copper] mining on a statewide basis," he said. No one plans to mine sulfide, he added, though the environmental groups may have chosen the term "because it may instill fear rather than fact."

Valuable copper deposits

Two companies are seeking approval to mine copper and other metals from a huge deposit near the Iron Range. They say that with new techniques, regulatory oversight and legally required financial protections, the mines and the tons of waste sulfide rock they produce would pose little risk to the environment. Just as important, they say, the mines promise hundreds of jobs in a region hoping for a rebirth in a once-vibrant industry.

But it would be the first time such mining takes place in Minnesota. And hard-rock mining, which is different from taconite or iron mining, has a troubled environmental history across the country. Details of other mines that have gone wrong are detailed in a report that will be posted Wednesday on miningtruth.org.

"For every one ton of material that is taken out of the ground, there will be 99 tons of waste," Pederson said.

PolyMet, which was incorporated in Canada and is headquartered in Hoyt Lakes, has proposed an open-pit mine in a wetland and forested area now owned by the U.S. Forest Service near Hoyt Lakes and which drains to Lake Superior. The rock would be moved by train and processed at a retrofitted taconite plant nearby. PolyMet expects to complete a second environmental impact review in the fall; the first, in 2009, was sharply criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state would then decide whether to give the company a permit to mine.

"We are very supportive of educating people on the importance of mining and its impact," said LaTisha Gietzen, a PolyMet vice president.

The second mining company, Twin Metals, a joint-venture firm headquartered in St. Paul, is developing plans for an underground mine further north near Ely, on the doorstep of the BWCA. It will be years before the project seeks regulatory review, but company officials said public discussion can only be healthy.

The companies have been making their case in the mining region for some time. Twin Metals has built a new gleaming headquarters in Ely and provides financial support to dozens of community organizations, from food shelves to Little League teams.

"We need a lot of voices in this debate," said Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals vice president of public affairs. "It will make our project and other projects better."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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