A wise man once said that lots of folks are sincere; only some of them are correct.
In his commentary on copper-nickel mining and the Boundary Waters (“A day of action for the Boundary Waters,” Jan. 28), Steve Piragis’ sincerity in wanting to protect our beloved BWCA is genuine and heartfelt. As fellow outdoor enthusiasts, business people and northern Minnesotans, we stand united with him on that front. However, he’s not correct in his characterization of what copper-nickel mining would bring to the region and deeply misguided in his belief that seasonal jobs can sustain families and build communities for the long term.
The commentary’s scorched-earth depiction of the Boundary Waters should copper-nickel mining occur is contrary to history and our reality. Various forms of mining and other human activity, including encounters with copper-nickel minerals, have occurred in and around the Boundary Waters watershed for more than 100 years, much of it long before 1.1 million acres were set aside as wilderness. Large taconite mines continue to operate within the watershed, yet the BWCA remains pristine and, in Piragis’ words, “awe-inspiring.”
If mining is as catastrophically destructive as Piragis wants us to believe, northern Minnesota long ago would have become a wasteland devoid of trees, blue waters, fish and wildlife. To the contrary, mining is northern Minnesota’s lifeblood. It has sustained generations of families, built our schools and communities, and educated our children. It is one of the state’s economic pillars and an important part of our heritage.
It is proof positive that environmental and wilderness protections do work and that mining — even modern copper-nickel mining — can coexist with our treasured wilderness.
One does not have to look too far to find examples of modern copper mining being done safely and within the strict confines of today’s environmental regulations. Across the border in Ladysmith, Wis., a modern, open-pit copper mine operated during the 1990s within yards of the Flambeau River and never once was cited for an environmental violation. The property has since been reclaimed and is now a public recreational site; it serves as a model of responsible environmental stewardship.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the new Eagle copper-nickel mine began operations last fall after a lengthy environmental review and permitting process in which regulators determined that mining could be done in a safe and environmentally responsible way.
Farther away, the much larger Safford Project open-pit copper mines located in eastern Arizona also have not received any violations for water or air pollution since beginning operation in 2007.
The combination of strong designated wilderness protections and stringent environmental laws provide the necessary framework to responsibly develop our state’s rich mineral resources — to produce the metals we use every day — while at the same time preserving our natural environment. These protections are working.
No new copper mine will be allowed to get a permit or operate in Minnesota unless it can affirmatively demonstrate that it can meet these laws and standards and provide substantial financial assurance as a backstop. Additionally, new mines must meet the state’s wild-rice standards for sulfate — a standard that is 25 times more stringent than drinking-water standards.
As children of mining communities and full-time residents of Iron Range communities, we agree that the BWCA is worth fighting for. So are the good-paying permanent jobs that mining brings — jobs that support families and communities, small businesses and schools. To characterize this issue as a choice between environment and jobs is a false premise. To suggest that a sustainable economy can be supported by seasonal and minimum-wage hospitality jobs is contrary to legitimate economic research and Main Street reality.
Our region already benefits from the tens of thousands of jobs and nearly $3 billion economic impact that mining and the supporting industries add to our economy each year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage for a Minnesota mining job is $83,359, more than $30,000 above the all-industries average.
We have an opportunity to double the number of overall jobs and economic benefit, and to truly sustain our region and the state for generations to come. For all Minnesota school districts, for example, the state Department of Natural Resources estimates that the royalties to the permanent school trust lands fund from all of the copper-nickel projects will generate over $2 billion. Any good economist will tell you that you do not replace the pie, you grow the pie.
The risk to Minnesota isn’t Armageddon from copper-nickel mining. The risk is in neglecting to create the kind of family- and community-sustaining jobs and opportunities that mining brings, in turning our back on our great mining heritage, and in not respecting a process that demands intense scientific review and public input.
We live here. We work here. We play here. (Not just on the weekends.) No one has a more vested interest than we do in creating good-paying mining jobs and protecting the environment.
Mark Skelton is mayor of Hoyt Lakes; Lory Fedo is president and CEO of the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce, and Joe Baltich Jr. is an outfitter in the BWCA, former Ely mayor and a longtime Ely-area resident.