What Values are Most Valuable?

Mesabi Misadventures
June 23, 2010

Give me paper, but spare the forest.  Give me steel, but spare the landscape.  Give me culture, give me skyscrapers, give me convenience, but spare the riparian zones, the wetlands and the prairie.

A few months ago I attended a professional conference where Jim Miller presented information about the Duluth Complex, the geological formation providing Northeastern Minnesota with a mother lode of metals and a bit more than a dash of controversy.  In the audience sat a gentleman and his wife who are not professionals in the field the conference was intended for, but instead are environmental activists on the Iron Range.  As I listened to the presentation, I gazed over at him to watch his reactions because I had more than a suspicion that they'd be slightly different than my own.

As Jim discussed the inevitable mining of this resource (which you can also read here in an awesome MPR article), the gentleman across the room furrowed his brow and shook his head.  Whether it was in anger, sadness, frustration or a combination of all three, I really can't say, but I'd safely venture a guess that it was one of them.  And I felt for him at that moment because the thought of mining this area for metals that have never before been mined in Minnesota bashes against his priority values.  And values don't rearrange just because of a well-done PowerPoint presentation.

What values are most valuable?

Mining proponents do not all tie beautiful women to train tracks while wearing top hats and twirling handlebar mustaches, cursing "foiled again!" when another obstacle is placed in the way while trying to obtain permits.  Not every mining opponent wears hemp necklaces, smells like patchouli oil and cares more about the peatlands than your neighbor's opportunity to support his family.  We are more similar than we care to admit and our values overlap more than they may seem.

We don't want to recognize our common ground, because then we'd have to admit that we aren't that different than the other side.  The vast majority of us have the same values with our battles arising because of individual ranking systems.  As humans, it is inherent in us to care about the Earth, our health, our fellow creatures, our families, our ability to provide for those families, our neighbor's ability to provide (partly so that they aren't asking for handouts, but I digress).

What values hold the greatest priority for us though and for what are we willing to sacrifice?  It is easy for a retired person with a comfortable pension or a person with a desk job that is far removed from raw material extraction to rearrange personal priorities so that job creation on the Iron Range is low on their list.  "Easy for you to say" goes the saying.  It is also easy for those of us blessed to live on the Range to rearrange our priorities so that not impacting wetlands (in an area of the country absolutely LOADED with them) is pretty darn low on our list.  These rearrangements don't mean that the pensioner doesn't care about jobs or that I don't care about wetlands.  It's just that those aren't our top priorities based on our personal situations or points-of-view.

I am (obviously) a mining proponent.  I believe in environmentally responsible mining and no, I do not believe that is an oxymoron.  I believe that we can extract society's necessary raw materials in an environmentally-conscious manner that provides for this generation, while also looking out for the future generations.  I believe in being global citizens, which means that we should pay the environmental cost for our consumption habits.  I believe in environmental justice; poorer countries should not suffer because Americans choose to be greedy and selfish.  I believe that people have a right to earn a living and that people should not have the right to dictate what may be done with land that they choose to use only as a playground.

Give me all that I want, but ask for nothing in return.  Give me all the material goods to support my quality of life, but ask me to make no sacrifices.  Give me a clear conscience, but make it a delusion.

Another impact study might be in future of PolyMet project

Duluth News Tribune
June 20, 2010

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may bow to pressure from federal pollution regulators to take another run at the environmental impact statement for the PolyMet copper mine project.

The Environmental Protection Agency in February blasted the report, saying it didn't consider the issue of setting aside money for cleanup after the mine closes, and that the study didn't adequately address water quality threats, endangered species and wetland destruction.

Since the EPA comments were filed, state and federal agencies and the company have been deciding how to proceed.

The U.S. Forest Service also has joined discussions related to its proposed land exchange for the PolyMet mine site, now part of the Superior National Forest.

"One of the options under consideration includes the release of a supplemental draft EIS for public comment," Stuart Arkley, project coordinator for the DNR, told the News Tribune. "The agencies have given serious thought to a number of options but have not yet made a final decision. Such a decision would be a joint decision between the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. We have been in regular communications with these agencies."

LaTish Geitzen, spokeswoman for PolyMet, said that "the state and federal agencies have been working hard to determine the best path forward to advance the process."

More work might be done to better calculate the likely impacts of a PolyMet mine and processing plant, Arkley said.

The $600 million PolyMet project would create 400 or more jobs for about 20 years and has been praised by Iron Range leaders as a critical step toward diversifying the region's dependence on iron-ore mining.

But the EPA in February rated the environmental review "environmentally unsatisfactory-inadequate" and threatened that, if the EIS was not upgraded, the agency would oppose the project and move it to the president's Council on Environmental Quality.

"Our review has identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that EPA believes the (PolyMet project) must not proceed as proposed," EPA acting regional administrator Bharat Mathur wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Estimated $1 trillion in the ground, but mining critics are concerned about BWCAW

Duluth News Tribune
June 20, 2010

ALONG THE SOUTH KAWISHIWI RIVER – Just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilder­ness, deep below the lakes and streams that have defined this area's value for centuries, lies a fortune to be made.

Everyone involved in Minnesota's copper mining controversy agrees there's an incredibly rich deposit of nickel, platinum, palladium, copper and other high-demand minerals under this rugged land.

"The Duluth Complex is perhaps the world's largest untapped resource of (copper, nickel and platinum group metals) with multibillion tons of geologic resources estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion," stated a 2007 report by geologists at the Natural Resources Research Institute of the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Findings reported in recent months by Duluth Metals, a small Ely-based exploratory mining company searching for copper-nickel deposits along Minnesota Highway 1, indicate even the $1 trillion number may be too small.

What Duluth Metals has found is nothing short of earth-shattering for geologists – an estimated 900 million tons of copper, nickel, platinum and other valuable metals that are among the richest yet found in Minnesota.

"This is an exploratory success story that comes around once every couple of decades," said David Oliver, geologist and project manager of Duluth Metals. "I've been doing this for 35 years, and I've had a lot of success… but nothing like this before."

The finding, just a couple of miles outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, may be three times bigger and twice as rich as the better known PolyMet project proposed about 30 miles to the southwest.

The debate starts when the value of those minerals, and the possibility of long-term water contamination from acidic mine runoff, is weighed against unspoiled wilderness, recreation and clean water. From ancient peoples to voyageurs to BWCAW campers, it's always been the water that has been most important here.

"What's the value of all this clean water and wilderness?" asked Deborah Huskins, a cabin owner on the Kawishiwi. "I don't think anyone has ever done a study on that. Maybe it's more than the copper for a lot of people."

Based on test drilling conducted in the 1960s, Duluth Metals secured mineral rights to about 3,000 aces of federal, state and private land along Minnesota Highway 1 near the Kawishiwi. Since 2006 it has drilled more than 170 holes below the forest and found copper in almost all of them – at an average of 3,500 feet below the surface.

But what has pushed Duluth Metals into the Minnesota mining forefront is a Chilean mining conglomerate traded on the London Stock Exchange.

Antofagasta PLC last winter announced it would pump $130 million into Duluth Metals to pay for engineering studies on how and where the mine will be built. The company has promised up to $227 million as the project moves into environmental review, likely within a couple of years, Oliver said.

Oliver said the deal with Antofagasta will be complete later this summer. In exchange, the foreign company will get between 40 percent and 65 percent control of Duluth Metals. The mine almost certainly will be underground, Oliver said, and could employ more than 400 people for decades.

Too close for comfort?

The location and now apparent faster-track of Duluth Metals has some local residents and environmental groups concerned.

"With what they have found, and now that they have the infusion of capital, Duluth Metals could very well move ahead of even PolyMet in the race to mine copper in Minnesota," said Betsy Daub, policy director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters group.

Whenever copper-bearing rock is exposed to air and water, there's a chance for sulfuric acid runoff that can leach toxic metals into waterways. That's happened at hundreds of copper mines worldwide over the centuries.

Mine supporters say the unusually low sulfur levels of the local Duluth Complex rock, along with local mining company's commitment to protecting the environment, will make copper mining different here than where waterways have been ruined. They also say Minnesota laws won't allow them to pollute.

But skeptics of mining company promises say that there's no room for error with mining on the edge of the most popular wilderness area in the country.

Kawishiwi, mining opponents note, is Ojibwe for endless waters. While the PolyMet project is in the Lake Superior watershed, Duluth Metals is in the BWCAW watershed that flows north to Hudson Bay.

"The Boundary Waters is like one giant river flowing in and out of little lakes, that will flow right past all this (Duluth Metals) mining activity and then right back into the Boundary Wasters," said canoe guide Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely. "Anything that happens here will spread."

Along a recent canoe trip sponsored by critics of copper mining, other wilderness supporters explained their concerns.

"No one is suggesting that these companies would pollute the water on purpose. But after BP and the coal mine disasters this year, it's pretty clear that things happen that no one plans for and that they can't stop." said Tyler Fish of Ely, youth program coordinator at the Out­ward Bond Camp on the Kawi­shi­wi River. "People come here because it's a place apart. How can it be a place apart with a mine across the road?"

Oliver said the concerns are unfounded, and he expects Duluth Metals and other copper projects to restore the area's mining industry to prominence without contaminating any water.

"Ely is a mining town, and this is going to restore that proud history," said Oliver, a St. Paul native and University of Minne­sota graduate who said he "bleeds maroon and gold." "There is an intent and desire by people in this industry to do it right here."


According to Duluth Metals geologist David Oliver, the copper, nickel and other valuable minerals in the Duluth Complex in North­eastern Minnesota are trapped in rock 1.1 billion years old, up to a mile below the surface in some areas, that's up against rock 2.69 billion years old.

Way to go Michigan on Copper/Nickel Mining Project

Mesabi Daily News
June 19, 2010

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan received some great news last week – news that has been long awaited for far too long on the Iron Range.

The Kennecott Eagle copper/nickel mine has received final environmental approval to go ahead with production. That has triggered Rio Tinto – an international mining group – to invest $469 million in construction of a new underground mine and rehabilitation of an old mill.

All of that means a lot of jobs for Michigan's UP. A lot of paychecks to be cashed in communities in that area. More children in the schools. And more families shopping with local merchants.

Good for that area that has a mining kinship to the Iron Range. And good for the people of the area who will now have more opportunities to stay and live where they desire in a beautiful area of northern Michigan.

Meanwhile, the PolyMet copper/nickel/precious metals operation within the footprint of the former LTV Mining Co. plant has yet to get the go-ahead, despite about five years of environmental review at a cost of more than $20 million. That project alone would create about 400 new good-paying jobs; hundreds more in spin-off positions; and 1 million hours of construction work. And there are other nonferrous projects also being developed.

It's absolutely ridiculous that Michigan is moving forward, while Minnesota is doing the bureaucratic/environmental two-step.

We would hope this would be an embarrassment to the office of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. While the governor has been running for president for the past year or so, he has not had time to be a strong advocate for the PolyMet and other nonferrous mining ventures on the Iron Range.

Governors can make a big difference in such ventures. Gov. Pawlenty has chosen not to do so in this case and that's pretty sad.

Rio Tinto Allocates $469mn to Build First New U.S. Primary Nickel Mine

June 16, 2010

After several years of protests, litigation and delays attributed to the global economic downturn, the U.S. is about to get its first new primary nickel mine in years in the historic mining region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Rio Tinto announced Tuesday it will invest $469 million in the development of the Kennecott Eagle Mine.

Located northwest of Marquette, Michigan, Eagle will be the only primary nickel mine operating in the United States. It will be the first new mining operation to be built in Michigan in years.

Rich copper and iron ore deposits were first discovered in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan in the 1840s.  Mines in the area yielded more mineral wealth than the California Gold Rush.  American Indian casinos now draw a tourism crowd to the U.P.

Rio Tinto's funds will enable construction of a new underground mine and its associated surface facilities, rehabilitation of the existing Humboldt Mill, and development of a multi-use access road.

Site work on the property began last month.  The company had recently relocated a small group of Native and non-native American protestors who had been camping on the site since mid-April.

"We respect their right to protest and call attention to an issue they feel is important," Kennecott's Matt Johnson. "Their presence has made it possible for us to have conversations with them that enable us to gain a better understand of their priorities and concerns."

"At the end of the day we all want the same thing: confidence that the mine will be built and managed in a way that is compatible with the U.P.'s environment and way of life."

The Eagle mine is the first mining project to be permitted under Michigan's 2004 nonferrous metallic mine law. Construction of the mine and mill will begin this year and first production is expected in late 2013. The main focus of work this year will be construction of an advanced water treatment plant and related environmental control system.

Kennecott hopes Eagle will produce separate nickel and copper concentrates containing an average of 17,300 tonnes of nickel and 13,200 tonnes of copper annually over six years.  Ore will be transported to the old Humboldt Mill now undergoing rehabilitation. The mill was part of Cleveland Cliffs' Humboldt iron ore mine operation near Champion, Michigan.

Rio Tinto is exploring for additional resources in the immediate area.

Terra Progredimur – From the Earth We Prosper

Mesabi Misadventures
June 16, 2010

The billboard welcoming visitors to Wabush, Newfoundland and Labrador proudly proclaims  "From the Earth We Prosper."  From any house on the hillside of Wabush, Wabush Mines and the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) are within view.  As you cross the bridge over The Narrows, Labrador City greets you with the iconic image of a shovel emptying a load into a production truck.  Their motto?  The Naskapi word "Kamistiatussett" or "Land of the Hard Working People."

Wabush and its neighbor across the bridge were developed in the late 1950s as settlements for the miners arriving to scoop up the vast, rich deposits of iron ore.  From an spruce-filled wilderness to a home for thousands of people, all courtesy of mining.  The residents recognize their origin and celebrate their contribution to the rest of the world.

On the Iron Range of Minnesota however, there seem to be some folks who struggle to be proud that the Range's roots, trunk and several branches are the result of natural resource extraction.  Hibbing has adopted the motto "We're Ore and More" but there are still some who choose the less-than-celebratory version "We're More than Ore."  If you do a Google search, you'll discover that there are still some folks who didn't get the memo.

"We're more than ore" sounds like a desperate plea for attention and a little like we're the embarrassed high-schooler whose mom is showing our new boyfriend pictures of us in the tub as a baby.  Why deny, Peter?

Unless you directly work for a Mine or are a direct supplier/vendor/contractor, you may not think that the Mines are significant.  After all, you don't need them for your job.  Or do you?

A recent article in the Duluth News Tribune (that unfortunately is now archived) discussed the plan for a local Mine to mine underneath Highway 53.  A 1960 agreement between the Mine and the State of Minnesota places responsibility of the move on MNDOT.  The comments were fiery (as expected) and a local columnist detailed his not-so-in-favor-of thoughts about the subject in the Hibbing Daily Tribune (luckily his blog is still free, considering the paper isn't!).  However, the commenters and the commentator have too easy of a target (seriously, have you seen Avatar? Cue "The Imperial March" the next time you see a mining employee) and there appears to be a lack of appreciation for the undeniably positive impact of these Mines on our economy up here.  Six degrees of separation between your job and the Mines, wanna' play?

I will agree that the Range needs to have a plan in place for the eventual end of mining and having survived the last year on the Range, I will agree that the downswings can be scary, but where in the U.S. last year wasn't it scary?  It's a finite resource, nothing too complicated to figure out there.  However, in the meantime, why not embrace and accept and celebrate that we are blessed to live somewhere with resources that people all across the globe want to get their hands on?  Heck, they even give us money for it.   How many jobs are being supported by money that originated somewhere far, far away?  Thanks to a certain generation I will not name, other than to say their initials are B.B., our nation lost a lot of its ability to make people in other countries pay us for a product, but guess what?  They're still paying us for the raw materials (maniacal laugh).

Mining is at the bottom or the top of the economic food chain, however you choose to look at it.  Without those raw materials, we have nothing.  Every single person reading this needs mining, unless you're omniscient, in which case, please step out of my head.  The Range needs mining for the awesome-paying jobs that span a lot of disciplines, for the taconite taxes that we fight to keep up here, and to form our backbone whether we like to admit that or not.  Even a powerhouse (pun intended) like Minnesota Power relies on the Mines with the six mines drawing a lion's share of their electricity.  The State of Minnesota needs mining for the school and university trusts.  The Nation needs mining so that perhaps we won't import every single thing we own.

Repeat after me, all ye' Rangers (of which I wish I could be, but I was born in Duluth, not my fault) – I live on the Iron Range of Minnesota and not only am I okay with that, but I am proud of that.  I am proud of the folks who came before me who built these communities with their hands and colored them with their souls.  I am proud of the miners who built the US through their hard work, who supplied the ore that grew our Nation's largest cities, formed our farmers' tools, and sailed our grandfathers to Iwo Jima.  I am proud of our present and I am hopeful for our future.  I am a Ranger and that's okay.