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Duluth businesses brew up controversy

Member of anti-PolyMet coalition says opposition to Range project misunderstood

BILL HANNA Executive Editor Mesabi Daily News  Posted: Saturday, November 14, 2015 9:00 pm

The owner of Rocket Liquors in Virginia was out of the area doing some duck hunting a few weeks ago and returned to find out that a Duluth Downstream Business Coalition anti-PolyMet movement had been born.

Jerry Christopherson said he wanted to look into the situation a little closer before determining whether to continue carrying a product of Bent Paddle Brewing Co., which was one of 40 Duluth businesses that founded the coalition.

He made his decision in just a couple days. He would no longer display or sell Bent Paddle beer. That had previously also been the determination of Silver Creek Liquors in Mountain Iron.

“We don’t have it,” said a Silver Creek employee on Saturday.

Christopherson said he was visited soon after by representatives of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.

“They gave me a six-pack of a new beer they were brewing and said they wished I would change my mind and put Bent Paddle back. I told them it’s not necessarily me they have to convince, it’s the workers and people who make a living on the Range,” Christopherson said in a telephone interview.

And what of their request?

“I certainly won’t put it back under these circumstances,” he said.

Christopherson said he also heard some places in Ely “are getting rid of it, too. I thought Ely could go either way, but they’ve had enough static.”

The coalition’s stance against the copper/nickel/precious metals near Hoyt Lakes, which would create 350 permanent jobs and hundreds more in indirect position and more than 2million hours of construction, has triggered a strong response on the Range.

A letter to the editor in today’s Mesabi Daily News Op/Ed section calls for a boycott of the Duluth businesses that formed the coalition.

Tom Hansen, owner of the Duluth Grill that is part of the anti-PolyMet group, said the coalition’s purpose is being misunderstood.

“We’re not against mining, one bit. In this age of social media, the division of the Iron Range and Duluth is misrepresenting our position,” Hansen said.

“We’re a big supporter of the Iron Range. We’re doing $25,000 to $50,000 with Sunrise Deli in Hibbing and $62,000 with Dahl’s Dairy.”

Hansen said the group is just “asking for concern for water.”

Frank Ongaro, executive director of MiningMinnesota, an advocacy group for nonferrous mining, said the entire regional economy, including Duluth, is dependent on mining.

“All the jobs and income numbers make that obviously clear,” he said. “It’s unfortunate a few uninformed, or misinformed small businesses are just plain wrong on the facts.”

But Ongaro said most Duluth businesses support PolyMet.

“Fortunately, the vast, vast majority of Duluth businesses support PolyMet and copper-nickel mining. Look at the strong resolution of support from the Duluth Chamber. Also, the Duluth Building Trades and Labor, and, the St. Louis County Board,” he said.

The Department of Natural Resources posted the PolyMet final Environmental Impact Statement on Nov. 6, which says the project meets all state environmental standards for a “safe” operation, including water treatment.

But Hansen said he and others don’t trust that process.

“I’m skeptical,” he said of the DNR. “People can influence other people. My skepticism comes from what is happening in our own government.”

Ongaro said that is very unfair to the regulatory agency and their workers who are doing their jobs for good public policy in the state.

“The state DNR is following the law. The FEIS shows PolyMet will not harm watershed.

“Their opposition to mining is certainly hypocritical. They all need these metals. Where do they want their metals to come from? Unfortunately, it sounds elitist,” he said.

Hansen said he can’t comment on whether he thinks modern technology has improved mining, or on whether he would want the metals needed for everyday life, including the green economy, to be mined where there are no environmental standards.

“I’m not an expert to comment on that. I just want to ensure that the environment will be held up to my kids and grandkids to have a wonderful life. And we can’t trade clean water and tourism for copper and nickel,” Hansen said.

Regarding the Iron Range, which always has a higher unemployment rate than other areas of the state, and its need for the jobs, Hansen said, “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Why not spend all that money on small businesses.”

As for his business, Hansen said it has improved 12 percent to 15 percent since the controversy has arisen. But he said waiting lines at the restaurant are often too long for too long a time, “… so maybe this will allow us to hit our sweet spot.”

The Duluth restaurant owner said those on the coalition should not be looked upon as dividing Duluth and the Range.

“We’re stronger as a northland than being divided. We make no apology for our stand. I wish everyone could just sit at a table and talk this out, including PolyMet,” he said.

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