Will Mining Save or Destroy Northern Minnesota?


As he leaves a small cafe in Ely, Gerald Tyler approaches two middle-aged women and whispers a joke. They smile politely.

He walks gingerly, a leftover cost from his years in the military. In a patterned sweater that appears to have 30 years of mileage on it, he appears more the goofy grandfather than major mining activist.

But when he's through the doors of his main street office, a transformation occurs. This is the headquarters of Up North Jobs, a group devoted to finding new economic opportunities for this struggling town. And to succeed in this quest, Tyler must play the warrior, fighting to bring back the jobs that have slowly slipped away from Ely over the past 50 years, courtesy of the decline in mining.

Lawn signs lining the walls telegraph Tyler's strategy to restore Ely. "We Support Mining!" one reads. "Mining Supports Us," another one says.

"This is our livelihoods," he explains.

Tyler comes loaded with a war chest, a sprawling mess of economic data, newspaper articles, and ads. They show how a new type of mining — for precious metals like copper and nickel — could save this town.


But this kind of mining has a repelling history, one that's left streams and lakes bathed in acid and devoid of life. Tyler ignores the critics. He says it's worth it.

He pulls out a three-page document titled "OPPONENTS OF COPPER/NICKEL MINING." It's an enemies list of 18 officials and organizations who oppose his crusade.

Tyler detests all of them. He goes down the list, one by one, his thumb jamming into each name.

WaterLegacy, based in Duluth. Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, based in Minneapolis....

Some aren't even in Minnesota, he says. They don't get Ely. They don't understand what life is here. He knows the environmental risks. But aren't the schools, the jobs, and the hospitals just as important?

"The arguments just don't make sense!" he yells, rising from his chair and slamming his notes on the table for emphasis. "It's all bullshit!"

This is what the fight has turned into — neighbor against neighbor, pitted over the fate of towns across the Range. There's no gray area. These new mines will either be the last shot at a golden age, or the first blow in its demise.

Copper-nickel mining is the ultimate risk-reward proposition. Since copper deposits were discovered below Minnesota's soil in the 1940s, companies have flocked to the Mesabi Range, lured by the valuable minerals beneath.

But each time a company showed up, the state chased it away with moratoriums and grueling environmental regulations. Until now.

The latest proposals, from PolyMet Mining of Toronto and Minnesota's Twin Metals, could be different.

PolyMet wants to spend the next two decades drilling into soil over nearly 17,000 acres near Hoyt Lakes. The company would create three giant pits ranging in size from 50 to 320 acres. Huge shovels would load ore into gigantic trucks, then to rail cars, sending it to a nearby processing facility.

The ore would then be punched and pulverized before being mixed with a water solution to separate out a range of valuable metals — copper, nickel, palladium, gold, cobalt, and platinum. The pulverized remains — a toxic liquid sludge — would be dumped onto a two-square-mile basin, which has been used for years to hold the waste from a closed steel plant.

PolyMet's first proposal was flatly rejected by the EPA in 2010. But a revised pitch received a passing grade this year. The state, however, has lingering questions, and has yet to give a final green light. PolyMet is expected to deliver a final environmental impact statement next year. Only then will the permit process commence.

The Twin Metals plan is another beast entirely. The company foresees a giant "underground city" with tunnels spanning miles. A processing facility would capture copper, gold, nickel, palladium, and silver. Waste rock and some of the toxic sludge would then be sent back to the mine, the rest to a holding facility in Babbitt.

The reward could be even greater. While PolyMet claims it will provide a few hundred jobs, Twin Metals believes it will hire more than a thousand people.

But standing in their way is science. When water and air interact with the waste rock from copper-nickel mining, it creates sulfuric acid, a toxic solution that, if not contained, could spell trouble for nearby watersheds.

Ojibwe elder Mushkoob Abiid shares a story and a smoke as he drops off a day's worth of harvesting

Ojibwe elder Mushkoob Abiid shares a story and a smoke as he drops off a day's worth of harvesting

Leaking sludge from the PolyMet project could end up in the St. Louis River — and eventually Lake Superior. A leak at Twin Metals could threaten the Boundary Waters.


The giant map of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Jason Zabokrtsky's outfitting shop in Ely shows lakes, hills, winding tributaries.

"There's just so much water," Zabokrtsky says in awe, tracing his fingers along the colored borders.

He remembers the first time he saw these waters, when he was fresh out of college in 1997.

"The clean water, the boreal forest, the granite bedrock," he says. "You could drink straight from the lake. You could paddle these pristine waters. You could go out exploring and adventuring just like you could 500 years ago."

He now spends most of his time showing the world these beautiful sights. When he hears about the mining proposals, all he can think about is that water, so close to chemicals and acids that could leak and invade.

Thomas Howes, the Fond du Lac tribe's natural resources manager, shows off a grain of wild rice that his tribe considers sacred

Thomas Howes, the Fond du Lac tribe's natural resources manager, shows off a grain of wild rice that his tribe considers sacred

The history of copper-nickel mining isn't pretty. In California, there was the Iron Mountain Mine, full of copper, gold, and zinc. Now it's a Superfund site. The waters around it have transformed into a toxic murk with no life to speak of.

In Colorado, the Summitville Mine delivered rich gold. It also contaminated nearby water. The government spent $155 million cleaning it up.

This has been the story of nearly every precious metal mining town: A company barges in, prospers, then leaves others to clean up the mess.

No mine the size of those proposed in Minnesota has ever managed to close without leaving polluted water as a parting gift.

When Becky Rom sees Ely, she doesn't see a town in its death throes. She sees canoe outfitter after canoe outfitter, leading trips into the deep wilderness of the Boundary Waters.

In today's Ely, it's the beauty of those waters that keeps the city alive. More than a dozen guide companies operate from here. Visitors pack resorts and hotels with names like Canoe on Inn. Some 250,000 people visit the BWCA each year. The city's income from lodging taxes skyrocketed 68 percent from 2000 through 2012.

It may not be the most robust economy, Rom says, but it's working. She points to the town's median income, which is thousands of dollars higher than in the mining-dominated towns only a few miles south.

Workers at Bruce Savage's farm in Sawyer, Minnesota, scoop up pounds of rice to be toasted, cleaned, and ultimately eaten

Workers at Bruce Savage's farm in Sawyer, Minnesota, scoop up pounds of rice to be toasted, cleaned, and ultimately eaten

It's a solid life, and she doesn't want it threatened by a few new companies. That's why Rom founded Sustainable Ely, a group dedicated to preventing this wilderness from turning into another Summitville or Iron Mountain.

It's a worry that's shared by supporters across northeast Minnesota — that the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior will perish as mining rises again.

"We're not anti-mining. We're not even anti-copper-nickel mining," says Rom. "But don't do it next to America's most popular wilderness area. It's not speculation. It's real."

Both mining companies insist things will be different this time around. PolyMet points to its state-of-the-art water treatment process to filter out toxins and scrub out chemicals.

"There is no argument that legacy mines had their issues, but that was a different time and era when the knowledge and technology we have today simply didn't exist," says PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson.

Yet even the company admits it will need to treat and monitor nearby water for at least 500 years. There's certainly no guarantee PolyMet will be around long enough to finish the job.

Don Waters's eyes hang low as he gazes down a deserted main street. It's midday, but only a few cars line the sidewalks. He sighs and makes the 20-foot trek to his small outfitting business.

Waters arrived on these streets more than 50 years ago, and the deep wrinkles in his face tell stories of the town's decline. World War II brought prosperity to towns across the Range. Ely had a bustling downtown as iron miners flooded bars and restaurants.

"The big industries were mining, logging, and tourism," Waters sighs. "They all got along fine. And that was part of the charm of the town!"

But since its mid-1900s peak, Ely's population has fallen by thousands. The last nearby taconite mine shut down in 1967. Others in Range towns have replaced workers with computers and trucks that perform the work of 10 men.

Ely isn't the only wounded town. In 2000, LTV Steel closed its plant in Hoyt Lakes, 50 miles south, leaving 1,500 workers to scramble. From 2008 through 2012, St. Louis County's poverty rate was 40 percent higher than the state average.

"The real tragedy is most people are too afraid to acknowledge it publicly," Waters says. "But I feel very strongly, based on a long time being here, that Ely can't survive without [the new mines]."

Supporters know the risks. But Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry trade group, notes that minerals like copper and nickel are essential to a new, greener economy, critical to products like cell phones, batteries, wind turbines, and electric cars.

Instead of digging up metals in countries like Chile, doing so under stricter regulations in Minnesota could actually make mining safer. "We can hold ourselves as a model to the world," he insists.

Proponents dream of a truly sustainable project. "Just imagine what it could be down the road," says Mike Forsman, chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners. "This is a real vision for the future."

But 100 miles to south, the issue isn't discussed in hypotheticals. There is precedent for fear.


Walking along the edge of Perch Lake on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation feels like you're in a deserted wilderness, not a few hundred feet from civilization. A maze of wild rice grows from the depths. The only sounds are the cries of geese and the gentle buzzing of black flies, zooming in figure eights within the tall grass.

This is sacred ground to the Fond du Lac band of Chippewa. Untouched by industrialization for thousands of years. To intrude feels wrong.

In late August each year, Native rice harvesters head out in twos, one to pull the boat with a large pole, and another to smack rice seeds free with wooden knockers. The tiny seeds sit on the end of each sinuous stalk, begging to be set free and knocked into the boat.

"It's kind of magical," says Sarah Agaton-Howes. "When I'm out there, I feel like it's where I'm supposed to be. It's like this meditative state. You're just knocking and knocking and knocking, and you end up with just this perfect food in your boat."

"This is why Fond du Lac is where it is," Thomas Howes, the tribe's natural resources manager, says of his ancestors' decision to make camp here. "We saw it has everything. It has this river, the lakes around, the rice. So we knew this will work."

Howes grabs a pinch of shredded tobacco leaves from this shirt pocket. He kneels at the edge of the lake and sprinkles the plant slowly, letting each leaf meander through the air before falling gently to the water. He closes his eyes, whispers a quiet chant, a prayer to the rice and to the Creator, so he can help them as they've helped him.

"I feel like this has given me my rice and this job that I have," Howes explains. "So I ask for it to tell the right kinds of things."

Wild rice is the beating heart of the tribe. In late summer, hundreds of members will take to rice-filled waters across the state. A single day can bring in a hundred pounds.

It's used for everything: religious ceremonies, funerals, selling, and bartering. Most important: It's dinner.

"One of the cultural practices here is you pick 100 pounds of rice for each member of your family, and that's just so you don't starve," says elder Mushkoob Aubiid. He estimates that a few weeks of ricing are worth nearly $5,000.

Even when the band gave up its land in an 1854 treaty, it kept the right to "hunt, fish, and gather" in much of the territory. The state moved to protect these traditions in 1973, when it set sulfate limits in wild rice waters.

The rule was based on the science of biologist John Moyle, who saw rice perish and fish poisoned when levels elevated. His findings were backed more recently by a team of scientists from the University of Minnesota commissioned by the state.

Yet 40 years later, the state's wild rice waters are flooded with pollutants — most notably sulfates, which break down into sulfides in the lake's sediments and restrict rice stalks from reaching their full potential. Waters outside the reservation used to brim with seeds. Now, say elders, full, robust plants are scarce in some areas.

The reasons are varied: climate change, wastewater treatment plants, invasive species, and more. But the Fond du Lac band puts much of the blame on a single industry: mining.

"There are places up there where, literally, there's a mine where 50 years ago there was a wild rice lake," says Nancy Schuldt, the tribe's water projects manager. It's nearly impossible to protect rice when you're blasting and drilling only a few miles away.

The state has largely enabled the pollution, Schuldt contends. One of the most egregious examples is the Minntac tailings basin — basically a pile of leftover waste rock from a U.S. Steel ore mine in Mountain Iron. Despite leaks that have sent pollutants into waters downstream, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has allowed the basin to expand.

According to Schuldt, the MPCA's lax permits have resulted in wilting plants and mercury levels so high that pregnant women and children can only eat fish once a month.

It wasn't until 2010 that the agency began enforcing the wild rice standard — almost 40 years after its enactment. And it plans to use it to protect what's theirs.

MPCA Commissioner John Stine admits the standard has been inconsistently enforced. Yet he claims mines aren't the only source of pollution, so pulling permits won't likely fix the problem.

But if the state can't control pollution from existing mines, Schuldt asks, why should it be trusted to protect the tribe from new ones?

The years of broken promises are marked on Jeff Savage's face. When he encounters someone from outside the tribe, his eyes narrow in a once-over to decide if they're friend or foe.

To Savage, the biggest injustice of mining involves the coveted land known as the Hill of Three Waters.

It's a geologically fascinating place, a meeting point of three separate watersheds — one heading north to Hudson Bay, another flowing south to the Gulf of Mexico, and a third east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

"Sacred" is the word Savage uses for it. It's been a Chippewa meeting place for centuries.

The good part is that the hill is still standing, left as nature intended. The bad part: It's enclosed on all sides by a huge Hibbing Taconite mining operation, accessible only by smacking on a hardhat and dodging your way between trucks.

Savage sees the operation as a lack of respect, leaving him wary of any new proposal.

"Every promise they've made, they've broken," he hisses. "So why are we gonna trust the next vicious thing they'll do?"


On an early September morning, U.S. Senate candidates Al Franken and Mike McFadden meander their way across the floor of the Duluth Playhouse. Their eyes may be dreary, their feet a bit sluggish from campaigning, but here, at their first debate of the 2016 election, they push the cobwebs away to gear up for attack.

They jab over government shutdowns, partisanship, the Keystone pipeline. But where they barely differ is mining.

When the question inevitably arises about delays to the PolyMet project, Franken is ready. His eyes light up. He presses his thumb and forefinger together and motions at the audience, making sure to emphasize how important the issue is. He wants it done, and he wants it done right.

"Mining is so important to our state," Franken says. "We need sustainable miners, er, sustainable mines. Sustainable mining. And that's what I'm for."

To McFadden, nuance is out of the equation. Mining is red meat for his business-hungry base. So he attacks.

"The fact that this has taken nine years and over $200 million in regulatory review is not acceptable," McFadden spits out. "It is crazy. It is crazy."

Nine days later, the same fight unfolds in the gubernatorial debate. There's Republican Jeff Johnson, saying the project needs approval. Now.

"Those are literally hundreds of really good paying jobs up there. They are desperate for those jobs up on the Range," says Johnson. "...I don't think PolyMet will open if the governor is re-elected. I will do everything I can to get it opened if I'm governor."

Mark Dayton, the DFL incumbent, defends himself with a more subtle take, trying to balance his environmental roots while not estranging Range voters.

"It's taken too long, no doubt," Dayton says. "But to jump in now and throw in whole hog and just say, 'Well, forget about all the environmental considerations and everything else, so we're just gonna, y'know, pander to northern Minnesota, trying to get their jobs,' I think is really irresponsible."

It's not a "yes" to the latest proposals, but it's not a "no" either.

This is the power of the Iron Range in Minnesota politics. The union stronghold, developed over the course of more than a hundred years, still runs deep in the minds and pockets of DFL candidates. With the latest projects a potential boon for the region, it's no wonder that even progressives like Franken and fellow U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar have come out in support.

"It may not be the most important issue" to the Iron Range, says U of M political science professor Larry Jacobs. "But it's up there."

Think of it as old school versus new school. So far, old school's winning.

Only two statewide candidates have come out against PolyMet. One is Green Party attorney general candidate Andy Dawkins. The other is State Auditor Rebecca Otto, the only Minnesota official to vote against selling leases to mining companies, citing the long-term risk of disaster.

Her stance has led to backlash, most notably the rash of "DUMP OTTO" signs spread across the front lawns of the Range. But Otto may realize something her colleagues don't: The Range isn't the monoculture politicians make it out to be.

Aaron Brown, a Star Tribune columnist and author from Itasca County, says modern miners are more likely to be found behind a steering wheel or computer, not getting dirty underground. And new technology has radically shrunk the industry's workforce.

"It's still an important part of the economy," says Brown, "but it's not the same."

These days, Ely is a tourist hub. Duluth is driven by health care and education. Residents care about other issues, Brown insists, like the environment and getting high-speed internet. They won't simply follow any politician who can hand out a few more mining jobs.

That leaves candidates — DFLers especially — in a quandary. Go one way and lose the union vote. Go another and lose the environmentalists. Which leads to mealy-mouthed debate rhetoric that doesn't seem to say much at all.

Bruce Savage swings open one of the six rotating steel drums in his backyard on the Fond du Lac Reservation. He pours gallon upon gallon of fresh wild rice into the smoking containers. A small terrier nips at his toes, making Savage, a hulk of a man, look comically large in comparison.

It's been a tough day. Business is light. Savage has received only a few shipments of rice to toast and finish. He lights a smoke and spreads out on a wooden chair near the burning coals. The topic turns to mining. Like many in the tribe, he's sick of hearing about it.

"Fuck mining, man," he sighs.

He hears the political rhetoric, the talk of "jobs, jobs, jobs" and sustainable mining. But he just wants the voices he hears every day — the voices of the rice, the tribe, the water — to be heard. This is his livelihood, and it needs protecting, the same as the miners and outfitters.

"We're always the villain," Savage says. "But could they just listen? Just once?"

Maybe this time, with science and history on his side, things could be different.

Savage isn't holding his breath.