Environmentalists and mining interests have long been at odds on the Iron Range. But ironically the one thing that might have been able to bring them together — beer — is now at the center of the conflict.
This fall a crop of mainly Duluth businesses formed a group opposing PolyMet Mining Corp.’s copper mine slated for Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. The Downstream Business Coalition, which includes popular Duluth beer-makers Bent Paddle Brewing Company, sent a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton warning that the mine could sully the clean waters they say they depend on.
Their opposition doesn’t sit well with some on the Range, where mining layoffs have left the economy limping. Some Iron Rangers have called for boycotting the 57 businesses not so stoked about the $650 million project that would net the area 350 jobs. While many of the coalition’s companies operate strictly in Duluth, Bent Paddle — which distributes its brews across the state — in particular has been targeted. In solidarity with the Iron Range’s ailing out-of-work miners, some bar and liquor store owners have dropped Bent Paddle.
“We on the Iron Range survive off of mining,” says Jerry Christofferson, owner of Virginia’s Rocket Liquors. “I suppose we just assumed that they weren’t too concerned about us up here.”
Christofferson decided not to carry Bent Paddle’s beers after returning from a November pheasant hunting trip. Admittedly, he hadn’t heard of the coalition’s push against the mine until his employees informed him when he got back. Rather than rush to a conclusion, Christofferson wanted to take a few days to consider whether or not he should keep doing business with the popular brewery.
“I had four customers come in and ask me why I was carrying it,” he recalls. “That made up my mind for me.”
Bent Paddle co-founder Laura Mullen says she feels for those on the Range struggling with the mining industry’s downturn. However, Mullen and her fellow brewery owners, which have made sustainability and the outdoors a part of their business plan and branding, see it as a clean water issue.
While the PolyMet project has passed an environmental review, environmental and health groups have voiced concerns that it could contaminate the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior — Bent Paddle’s water source.
Mullen says they expected to catch some flak for joining the coalition, though they’ve conversely gotten support from Twin Cities beer drinkers and liquor stores in Ely near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. While being boycotted is never cool, especially as a young small business, they have only lost a small percentage of their customers since they mostly sell to Duluth and Twin Cities bars and liquor stores.
“We are happy to be a business that has an opinion on something,” Mullen says. “We didn’t want to be a corporate bubble of a business.”