Minnesota's next mining boom has picturesque Ely divided

Talk of mining revival comes with hope of jobs – and fears for wilderness and tourism.

A town divided
Dean DeBeltz was one of nearly 1,000 people who turned out recently for PolyMet’s open house in nearby Hoyt Lakes. He stood inside a cavernous and now-silent taconite crushing facility, the first place he ever worked — before its owner declared bankruptcy. Soon, it might come to life again as part of a $475 million PolyMet mining project that promises to create 350 jobs.

DeBeltz grew up in Ely. His father and grandfather worked in taconite. Now he works for Twin Metals, the company exploring for copper-nickel along the edge of Birch Lake with the hopes of digging a vast underground mine, the first of its kind in the state.

“I think mining and tourism could really complement each other,’’ DeBeltz said.

Others around Ely feel differently. A few days later, dozens of people braved a frigid rain to paddle down the Kawishiwi in celebration of the grand opening of Sustainable Ely, a converted house on Ely’s main street run by volunteers trying to call attention to the economic and environmental risks from mining. The group launched their canoes from the Voyageur Outward Bound School, which for 50 years has taught visitors to navigate the wilderness with confidence. This past winter they had to reroute their dog sleds around exploratory drill rigs in the national forest, and now the board of directors might consider moving the school.

“That’s not an easy question,” said Jack Lee, the school’s executive director.

The bitter divide is a clear, bright line that runs through the center of the community.

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