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Town meeting all about mining

Mesabi Daily News
Bill Hanna 

MOUNTAIN IRON – Officials of Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration traveled to the Iron Range to hear what was on the minds of local residents.

What they got Monday night was an earful of what citizens discuss and debate each and every day – the ongoing and forever conflict between those who champion mining and the jobs it produces and opponents who see the industry as toxic to the environment and everyday life on the Range.

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon told about 50 people attending the two-hour session that the group had come to the Range to hear their concerns. About 10 people signed up to speak at a session focusing on jobs and economic development, and they were evenly split and equally passionate about mining, especially copper/nickel/precious metals projects on the drawing board.

 

Proponents of mining said there are hundreds if not thousands of jobs that will be created by nonferrous mining on the East Range.

“We are prepared and ready to create jobs like no other industry in the state. We have 10 companies ready to move ahead,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, which focuses on nonferrous mining.

Bill Travis, president of IDEA Drilling in Virginia, which does exploration work for copper/nickel/precious metals, said the permitting process has gone on far too long for the PolyMet project, which is the farthest along of several nonferrous projects. He said it’s been “an embarrassment to the state” that PolyMet has taken too long.

The PolyMet initiative near Hoyt Lakes is slated for the footprint of the former LTV Mining Co., which closed about 10 years ago, resulting in the loss of 1,400 jobs. Company officials project it will create 360 permanent jobs, at least 500 spin-off positions and 1.5 million hours of construction work. It is currently in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement process. Environmental review has gone on for more than five years at a cost of more than $20 million to the company.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Paul Aasen said there “is always a question about speed” of permitting.

Lt. Gov. Prettner Solon said one of the first executive orders Dayton signed was a measure to speed up the permitting process for projects throughout the state. He also signed into law a bill doing the same that was passed by the Legislature. “The governor shares your views” on expediting the permit process, she said.

State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said mining, including new projects, is vital to the economy of northeastern Minnesota. He said a recent University of Minnesota-Duluth study showed that mining is 35 percent of the entire region’s economy.

“We’ve had 130 years of mining and I hope we have 130 more,” he said.

But a harsh critic of any mining, Bob Tammen of Soudan, said the industry produces unhealthy communities.

“It creates a lousy economy. We’re within a rifle shot of three taconite plants. But these are not healthy communities here,” he said, pointing out the area has lost population and enrollment in the schools. “In Tower, our school is gone.”

Tammen, who testifies often at the Legislature in St. Paul against nonferrous mining, said the permitting process has taken so long for PolyMet for good reasons. He said companies that do copper mining design tailing ponds so they leak.

After the meeting, Aasen was asked if he believed there are proper and adequate environmental regulations and standards in place in Minnesota for mining. He hesitated for a moment and then said, “A broad brush answer is yes.”

A resident of Morse Township near Ely said the area will not preserve its heritage if copper/nickel mining is allowed to proceed in the region.

“I am concerned about the mining effects on our quality of life,” she said.

“I want a kinder, gentler future for our area,” said Elanne Palcich of Chisholm, who said an effort should be made “to clean up what’s left behind” from other mining “before mining new.”

But Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck, who was in office when her community was devastated by the loss of LTV, said mining has “sustained this part of northeastern Minnesota” and she doesn’t see copper/nickel mining being detrimental to the area.

She urged officials to work hard so PolyMet can happen and other projects can follow.

“Get on with what you need to do as fast as you can,” she said.

Researchers take water samples for wild rice study

Brainerd Dispatch 

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Researchers have begun gathering water samples for a study mandated by the Legislature on what the state's water quality standards to protect wild rice should be.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area is the first of 30 to 50 wild rice waters that will be sampled over the next month.

The data will feed into a larger, $1.5 million study into whether the state's existing limits on discharges of sulfates into wild rice waters should be relaxed, a change sought by mining and other business interests who note the current standards are based on research from the 1940s.

The MPCA says it's reviewing public comments on the draft study protocol and expects to name an advisory group for the study early next month.

GREAT IDEA! — Strong Job Growth for Company Doing Nonferrous Drilling on East Range

Mesabi Daily News
Charles Ramsay 

VIRGINIA — IDEA Drilling is a job growth success story built in large part on exploration for copper/nickel/precious metals on the East Range.

President Bill Travis noted Friday that when he started with the company in November, there were 68 employees. Now there are 105, and there are plans, if the drilling climate holds up, to expand to 150 workers.

Service and innovation are two key pillars of IDEA Drilling’s foundation it has built on the Range the past 13 years, and safety for its employees, environmental stewardship and relationships with local businesses and communities are others.

The tremendous expansion in exploration for nonferrous minerals in the area has helped as well, with much of the company’s new growth coming in that sector.

The company has been a bright spot on Virginia’s economic horizon for a while, moving out to Ninth Avenue North a few years back. There are plans to build a cold storage building in the works.

The company added four new drill rigs so far this year, and two in late 2010.

Travis listed three major areas where IDEA Drilling has made its mark:

• Large mining projects, such as PolyMet and Twin Metals.

• Exploratory companies digging in to the nonferrous Duluth Complex in Northeastern Minnesota. “We have a lot of those,” Travis said.

• Existing taconite mines.

Pam and Dick Backstrom helped start up IDEA Drilling in 1997, after he worked out west in mining, including Longyear in Utah for a number of years. He is originally from the Twin Cities, and has been in the business for 40 years. He was working in Montana before coming to the Range. Gold was $2.75 an ounce then, he added. It was $1,738 when markets closed on Friday.

IDEA Drilling is the company’s official name, but the capital letters also stand for International Drilling and Equipment Automation.

Pam Backstrom is a vice president and board member, while Dick Backstrom is board chair and CEO. Brian McCabe, vice president of operations, has been involved with the company from its earliest days also.

“We have a lot of drilling expertise,” Dick Backstrom said.

Ron Burns, general foreman, said the company has 17 drilling rigs that can go 8,000 feet deep, and then haul back tons of material.

Drilling bits go down until they reach a level where mineralization occurs, then IDEA Drilling uses one of its innovations by spreading wedges from the original core hole to take multiple samples in one effort.

The barge drilling on Birch Lake near Babbitt was another notable accomplishment, where samples were brought up from beneath the lake.

PolyMet has used IDEA Drilling since its own beginnings, early in the past decade. The drilling firm has also done projects for Franconia Minerals, now part of Twin Metals, and other outfits.

The recent economic recession hit the company hard, with the number of employees going down to eight. But the climate changed. “Things really started picking up” in late 2009-early 2010, Dick Backstrom said.

Several areas of change he has seen occur have been the emphasis on employee safety and environmental stewardship.

It’s vital in keeping a good reputation as a company, as just one major incident can blacken a company’s name, such as British Petroleum and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, Travis said.

“IDEA Drilling has built a strong reputation for service and innovation for our customers,” he explained. The company is growing, but is careful to grow as they need to expand, he added.

A statement on IDEA Drilling’s Web site says it is the premier core drilling company in the Midwest. Besides the Range, the company has done work in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and southeastern and western states.

Diversifying is another area that IDEA Drilling aims for, with surveying and geophysical technologies available as well.

The company employs at least 90 percent of its workers from the Range, “and I don’t see that changing,” Travis said.

Both officials said they are grateful to the city of Virginia, the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, and others for assistance they have received.

IDEA Drilling participates with local communities, working with local businesses in its projects and for things like supplies and repairs. The company made a donation to the Iron Range Veterans Memorial this year and was a sponsor of the Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Tour on Saturday.

“These projects are making a difference,” he said of drilling, for more jobs, the life of local communities and for families.

“They’ve got opportunities to invest in their kids’ future,” Travis said of local residents. “These projects are going to be around for a long time.”

 

OUR VIEWS: Mr. President, jobs are waiting for a go-ahead on the Range; come and tout nonferrous mining

Mesabi Daily News Editorial 

Here’s what the White House has to say about President Barack Obama’s three-day Midwest tour that includes a stop in Minnesota.

“While in the Midwest, the president will discuss ways to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class and accelerate hiring in communities and towns across the nation and hear directly from Americans, including small business owners, local families, private sector leaders, rural organizations and government officials. The president knows we must do everything we can to promote economic growth, restore confidence in our nation’s future and enhance the sense of optimism for future generations.”

Gee, maybe it would make sense for him to travel to the Iron Range and advocate for the copper/nickel/precious metals mining projects that would create thousands and thousands of jobs that would “accelerate hiring.”

And maybe he should travel here to tout projects such as PolyMet and Twin Metals that would “promote economic growth.”

If so, he would be helping to “restore confidence” and “enhance the sense of optimism for future generations.

Also, in so doing, he would be sending the right message for his “green economy” initiative,” after all, these are the metals to be extracted from the ground to make a “green economy” go.

A visit from the president would show his support for real jobs, American jobs, that are ready, willing and able to go.

And if he brought some of the EPA bureaucrats with him, perhaps they would hear from their boss that the agency needs to move aside and let American jobs on the Iron Range of Minnesota happen.

We strongly encourage DFL Iron Range legislators, DFL Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Tony Sertich, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack to join together in a letter to the president inviting him up here to celebrate the great history of mining in Minnesota and to promote what should be a great future of nonferrous ventures.

It’s way past time for all our elected officials to actively and aggressively be visible and vocal advocates for a new era of mining on the Iron Range.

For far too long the voices of anti-mining zealots have not been consistently countered by our elected and appointed representatives.

Legislators, IRRRB commissioner, governor, U.S. senators, U.S. representative” all of you talk eloquently about the need for more jobs on the Iron Range, in Minnesota, in the country. Well, here’s your chance to make some noise in unison nationally. Send such a letter with urgency to the president and we strongly believe you would get air time on network and cable shows and print in major publications.

Be bold.

And Mr. President, Minnesota has been strong Democratic country; the Iron Range overwhelmingly Democratic for decades and decades. So why not a little political payback. Come and push for so many jobs that are oh so close to being realized. You want some favorable attention? Then don a hard hat and let the cameras roll as you champion future mining jobs in Minnesota.

Be visionary.

If all of these powerful and influential people are silent or can’t come together in such an effort, then why should an Iron Range public growing weary of the lack of job creation in the area continue to listen to their political rhetoric? Why indeed.

We anxiously await a response, some kind of response, to what we believe would be a sincere effort to stimulate more jobs on the Iron Range and therefore in Minnesota and the nation.

ELY OPEN HOUSE A SUCCESS

Twin Metals Minnesota

On Aug. 5, Twin Metals hosted an open house to celebrate its new Ely field office. Approximately 600 people from local businesses and the surrounding community attended the celebration. Those in attendance included Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Tony Sertich, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Mark Phillips and Tim Olson representing Congressman Chip Cravaack. U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken also sent congratulatory letters which were read during the event.

The open house began with a welcome from Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals’ vice president of public and government affairs and was followed by words of thanks from David Oliver to the contractors who helped turn the vision of the facility into reality. Several local businesses and elected officials also spoke about the commitment Twin Metals has made to Ely and the economic impacts the mining company contributes to the community.

Visitors enjoyed food while exploring the new facility, and Twin Metals staff and board members mingled, answered questions and got to know local business owners, residents and their families. Twin Metals set up banners and handed out materials to help educate the community about the company and development of the project. Local radio station, WELY, broadcasted live from the open house and interviewed several key figures in the Twin Metals project.

Later in the evening, Mayor Skraba joined state officials and Twin Metals executives in a ribbon cutting ceremony in front of the brand new building. Reverend John Bonk of the First Lutheran Church in Ely also blessed the new Twin Metals facility. To commemorate the evening, contractors, elected officials and other VIPs signed a piece of core sample, which will be displayed in the Ely field office.

Twin Metals Minnesota opens Operational Headquarters building in Ely Business Park

Ely Echo
Nick Wognum 

The doors swung open to the public Friday for the new Twin Metals building in the Ely Business Park.

The 8,800 square foot building will serve as the mining company's headquarters and will also serve as a storage area for drill cores.

"The building is virtually completed with exception of solar panels to go on the roof yet, they'll be installed in about two weeks," said Twin Metals Site Manager David Oliver.

The building stands near the former site of the shaft used to extract ore from the Pioneer Mine, which closed in 1967.

Twin Metals Mining, a company that sprung from an alliance between Duluth Metals and Chilean giant Antofogasta,

Duluth Metals has operated for five years in Ely, setting up drill sites at its Nokomis find, south of the Kawishiwi Bridge on both sides of Highway 1, and occupying a home and garage on East Washington Street.

Twin Metals also purchased Franconia Minerals, giving the company over one billion tons in combined copper-nickel deposits.

Antofagasta has pledged over $220 million in developing a mine.

Now Twin Metals has a permanent home to operate from.

"This building was built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Our hope was for it to be an energy efficient building," said Oliver. "It'll have infloor hot water heat and the solar panels will provide 15 percent of our heating needs in the winter time."

While the Pioneer "B" shaft headframe was demolished decades ago, Twin Metals looked to the still-standing "A" shaft along with the Miner's Dry building across the lake for inspiration.

"We tried to be mindful of this history of mining in Ely and there are several nods to that. We used corrugated looking galvanized siding in the front. The intent was to pay tribute to the remaining buildings in the Pioneer Mine area, particularly the Miner's Dry," said Oliver.

"And the tower on the east end of our building was put in to emulate the headframe shape. And to the future we have various members of the periodic table, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum, palladium, gold and silver clad in copper."

"It's a historical shape with a future spin on it," said Oliver.

The majority of the space in the new building will go toward housing employees.

"We'll do core processing here, but we'll have geological and some environmental offices as well as administrative offices," said Oliver.

After leasing space for years, the idea was to show the community Twin Metal is here to stay and be a part of the community.

"It is our intent to use this building for many, many years to come and it's not merely symbolic, it's a real part of our commitment to the Ely area for now and for years to come," said Oliver.

The land the building sits on was purchased from the city of Ely for $30,000.

"We had great cooperation from the City of Ely to the extent they were helpful with permitting and issues relating to the administrative side of the building.

"The building was built with Bob Pinckney as the prime contractors and he used exclusively area contractors, most were from Ely.

"We had WN Plumbing, Cunningham Electric, Nickerson, Custom Theaters, Border Country Signs, Range Cornice and Roofing, St. Germain Glass and Cabinetry, Serena's Carpet, Warren Johnson Excavating and Starkman's."

"The cooperative aspect of this with regard to getting the building completed was very good. We're very pleased with the end product.

"We had a board of directors meeting here (Thursday) and the first order of business was to take them on a tour. Everyone seemed quite happy with the outcome.

"This is the beginning of a success story for Twin Metals in the area. Our humble beginnings on East Washington Street weren't adequate for the way our projects have grown," said Oliver.

While the building will become a focal point for the company, Twin Metals continues to define the deposits south of Ely.

"We have six drill rigs operating at the present time and Idea Drilling has purchased two new drill rigs for our program. These are larger capacity drills that can go deeper with a larger diameter core that allows us to collect tonnage if you will," said Oliver.

More drill rigs will be added in the winter as the company moves toward the next step in the process.

"The beginning of the pre-feasibility phase should happen toward the end of this year. We'll have to complete that to wind up with a project description which is what triggers your ability to begin environmental review."

Oliver said the pre-feasibility phase is projected to last between 15 and 18 months.

Twin Metals Milestones

WDIO
Renee Passal 

Twin Metals Minnesota just celebrated their 1st anniversary at the end of July, of being a joint-venture company.

It's made up of Duluth Metals and Chilean mining giant, Antofagasta.

And on Friday, they'll have something else to celebrate. The opening of their new Ely headquarters on Miners Drive East.

We checked out the building on Wednesday, which is cleverly designed to showcase their focus: metals.

At the top of the 8,800 square foot building are numbers and letters from the periodic table. The symbols are for some of the minerals they are looking at developing an underground mine for.

VP of Public and Government Affairs, Bob McFarlin, said the new building shows their commitment to jobs and growth and the project. He said they are finishing up a conceptual study for the mine, and then will eventually narrow the mining options down.

After that comes environmental permitting.

"It's not known exactly when we could be running the mine, but we are confident we can do it. We also consider environmental concerns to be legitimate, and we plan on addressing them openly and honestly," McFarlin added.

Also, the company is in the middle of the largest drilling operation in the state of Minnesota's history, according to site manager David Oliver.

Six rigs are working right now. In September, Oliver said they will likely hit the 1 million foot mark, for drilling core samples.

"It's not just an exploration process, now we're moving into the developmental process," he said from a drilling site near Ely.

The open house runs from 4:30-7pm. The address is 400 Miner's Drive East.