In September, in a Duluth News Tribune-sponsored candidate forum, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said of copper-nickel mining, which promises to be a jobs and economic boon for Northeastern Minnesota: “In this moment, it is so important that we follow the facts and the science and the law and keep politics out of it.”
If so, the senator’s continued support for an is-it-a-good-idea study of non-specified mining near — and not in — the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a puzzler. Smith restated her support in a letter late last week to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsach.
It’s a puzzler because a sans-details study came off as pure politics when it was initiated by President Barack Obama during his final days in office, an apparent nod to his environmental-extremist supporters. It remained pure politics when President Donald Trump abruptly killed the study not long after taking office.
So, “keep politics out of it,” as Smith stated? The focus then ought to be on reviewing and critically considering the actual plan for an underground copper-nickel mine south of Ely that was filed by Twin Metals in December 2019. Instead of a more-general, what-ifs study, state and federal regulators, agencies, and, yes, politicians and others can focus on the specifics found in what Twin Metals is proposing.
Can its mining be done safely, without threatening the cherished and pristine nearby wilderness area? There’s no one who wants to see the Boundary Waters harmed. The question is critical, and, after more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeological, environmental, and other work and planning — as well as deflecting doomsday barbs based largely on speculation and assumptions — Twin Metals Minnesota deserves thorough and open-minded consideration. The company, with offices and facilities in St. Paul and Ely, has earned its legal right to be treated fairly.
After all, as a Twin Metals official pointed out when the plan was filed, Twin Metals is “proposing a mine in a place where mining is a desired condition” and where the company has “held minerals through 10 different presidential administrations."
In addition, the metals the company will mine are critically needed in our modern world. They’re used in everything from cellphones to catalytic converters to wind turbines. These metals now are extracted in often unsafe, unregulated ways elsewhere around the globe.
When operational, the mine is expected to employ about 700 people. Another 1,400 spinoff jobs are forecasted — and that’s with Ely's current population at just about 3,400. Mining jobs pay an average of $89,489 a year, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. By comparison, jobs in tourism pay, on average, $20,796 a year.
“We need to work with anyone sitting in those offices (of the governor, other elected officials, and the agencies conducting the reviews),” the company’s Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla said.
The study Smith supports is hardly working with the company, as our state and federal laws and processes set out.
Smith and other skeptics do have reason for concern. Copper-nickel mining has never been attempted in Minnesota, and even though every mine is geologically unique, copper mines elsewhere have polluted.
But stringent, thorough, years-long environmental-review and permitting processes are in place to ensure that any mining happens safely and responsibly. If Twin Metals can't show its modern operations, utilizing the latest technology and innovation, will be safe, its operations shouldn't be allowed.
The review and permitting processes, based on science and site specifics, and with ample opportunity for public input and feedback, are certainly preferable and more valuable than a politically motivated nonspecific study of mining in general in the region.