When Steve Piragis and his wife moved to Ely, Minnesota — a town of just over 3,000 people on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — they were struck by its charm and pristine beauty.
The one-million-acre area straddles the border between the United States and Canada and boasts thousands of lakes, dramatic rock formations, tiny islands and lush forests.
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Piragis relocated there in 1975 to work as a biologist with the US Environmental Protection Agency. In 1979, he and his wife started an outfitter company to lead tourists hungry for solitude and natural beauty on camping and canoe trips.
Piragis Northwoods Company has steadily grown ever since, but copper mining interests in the region threaten both the firm’s livelihood and the area’s diverse ecosystem.
Pro-mining advocates say the proposed mines will bring “family-sustaining” jobs and revitalise Minnesota’s Iron Range, which has suffered an economic downturn due in part to steel imports from China. Cheap Chinese steel has made it hard for Minnesota manufacturers to compete and has also drastically reduced the demand for the taconite pellets for which the Iron Range is known.
The result is a fight for the future of northern Minnesota that has been years in the making – and that is now infused with fresh interest and speculation as the environmentally friendly administration of US President Joe Biden takes the reigns from Biden’s industry-friendly predecessor, Donald Trump.
A treasure trove of minerals
Each year, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or BWCA for short, attracts over 155,000 visitors. Some reserve permits months in advance from around the US and the world to experience the serenity of backcountry camping on islands of wilderness that are largely accessible only by canoe and provide a haven for species that include the Canada lynx, grey wolf and moose.
Below the surface of the BWCA’s Rainy River watershed sits the Duluth Complex, a treasure trove of precious metals used to make a wide range of products, from roof gutters to aircraft engines. Mining Minnesota, a pro-mining advocacy organisation, calls the Duluth Complex “one of the largest undeveloped mineral deposits in the world” and notes that it contains more than four billion tonnes of copper, nickel and platinum group metals.
Most recently, two mining companies have been looking to tap into the complex and its mineral richness. PolyMet has secured the necessary permits to mine a deposit in an area known as the Patridge River Intrusion, a different, nearby watershed. PolyMet’s plans continue to be tied up in court, however, and a Minnesota Supreme Court decision recently sent the case back to the court of appeals.
The second mining company, Twin Metals Minnesota, has proposed mining an area just a few miles from Ely, boasting it would create “750 direct jobs and 1,500 spinoff jobs in the community”. But the Twin Metals plan has created a rift in the community as well.
A community divided
Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed mine has pitted the region’s two economies against each other: the small business-led outdoor industry that relies on the area’s uniquely pristine wilderness versus the goliath mining industry that is seen not only as a continuation of the Iron Range’s legacy but the quickest route to economic growth as well. It’s a conflict that has played out in Appalachia, and mining companies have made similar proposals in California, Texas and Wyoming.
A subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, owned by billionaire Andronico Luksic, Twin Metals Minnesota took advantage of the pro-business Trump administration and its reversals of many environmental regulations from the era of President Barack Obama to apply to renew its mineral leases in 2012.
But several lawsuits filed by organisations – including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, which Piragis founded in the 90s and continues to spearhead, and the Save the Boundary Waters campaign – have tied Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposal up in court.
While conservationists argue that the mine would pose an irreversible threat to the Boundary Waters, Twin Metals told Al Jazeera in a statement that mining has been the “backbone of northern Minnesota’s economy for more than 130 years, and it will continue to successfully coexist with other industries for years to come”.
We’re pro-mining because mining pays a living wage that provides the opportunity for a family to stay here in Ely.
“At one time, there were 11 operational mines in and around Ely, and mining and tourism together drove the economic success of the region. However, the area has experienced significant decline over the past several decades. Twin Metals Minnesota can now bring prosperity back to the families of the region,” the company added.
Twin Metals Minnesota also said its “private investment will benefit the region through local businesses thriving, increased enrollment in schools, and the reopening of much-needed services like healthcare.”
PolyMet did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Conservationists have used the court delay to get a “Prove It First” bill introduced into the Minnesota legislature – a measure that would require mining companies to prove that a similar mine has operated safely elsewhere.
Modelled after a previous Wisconsin law, the bill “basically says that if a sulfide mining company wants to open a copper sulfide mine, they have to prove that it won’t pollute by showing that a similar mine has operated elsewhere in the US for 10 years and has been closed for 10 years without causing pollution,” Pete Marshall, the spokesperson for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a conservation group, told Al Jazeera.
While Marshall doesn’t expect the bill to get a vote before this legislative session ends in May, he’s optimistic that it will pass in the coming years as his group and others continue to work to build support.
Twin Metals Minnesota, however, has outlined that its “21st-century mine” will deploy a dry stack storage method for the mine’s leftover silt, which the company describes as incorporating “best-in-class technology with safety as its number one priority – safety for workers and for the environment.”
Livelihood at risk
Beyond the environmental implications, many small outfitting businesses like Piragis’s are advocating for protections in part because they rely on the Boundary Waters for their livelihood.
Piragis employs around 20 full-time employees year-round and 35 full-time equivalent employees — part-time workers who together add up to 40 hours per week — each year, with that number increasing to 55 workers in the summer.
Many of Piragis’s employees have families “that we support”, he told Al Jazeera, noting “We pay good wages and have benefits and I think we’re competitive with what might be potential mining jobs. We feel our jobs are sustainable.”
A 2018 study by researchers at Harvard University reported similar findings (PDF), concluding that “the economic benefits of mining would be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreational industry and on in-migration”. The study noted conservative estimates that roughly 4,400 tourism jobs would be affected by mining, in contrast with the roughly 750 direct jobs and 1,500 spinoff jobs that Twin Metals Minnesota said it will create.
Piragis, who drinks unfiltered water directly out of the BWCA’s lakes when he traverses them, said his company’s jobs hinge not only on the BWCA’s existence but its reputation as an increasingly rare and pristine part of nature.
If there was “pollution or even just the image of pollution, that would flash through someone’s mind when they think about a copper mine next to our portion of water,” he said, concluding “we would suffer.”
On the other side of the mining divide, Twin Metals Minnesota has pro-mining advocates like those with Up North Jobs—a roughly 2,000-member strong non-profit organisation focused on economic development in Northeastern Minnesota—excited. The group views the proposed mine as a potential revitalisation of the area in the form of lucrative jobs, funding for local schools and tax revenue for the state.
After retiring in Ely in 2002 to spend his time fishing after a long and storied career in business, finance and economic development, Gerald Tyler has focused on leading Up North’s efforts since its inception in 2013. The group advocates for jobs in the mining and logging sectors, as well as the tourism, retail and service industries.
For Tyler, it’s all about securing jobs in a region that suffered heavily during the Great Recession and where 32.5 percent of residents earn less than $35,000 a year and 12.7 percent live below the poverty line.
“We’re pro-mining because mining pays a living wage that provides the opportunity for a family to stay here in Ely,” Tyler told Al Jazeera. “There is no other business, industry or company other than Twin Metals and PolyMet that will jump-start our stagnant Northeast Minnesota economy.”
A 2017 report by the National Mining Association (PDF) found that mining was responsible for creating 523,034 direct jobs that year and 1,008,294 indirect and induced jobs in related industries.
We pay good wages and have benefits and I think we’re competitive with what might be potential mining jobs. We feel our jobs are sustainable.
The Twin Metals Minnesota mine would have a 25-year operational lifespan, and Tyler estimates that “there is enough copper and nickel to mine there for 100 years.”
Tyler said he isn’t worried about whether the boom-and-bust nature of the mining industry will impact its economic longevity, because by then, “I’ll be long gone,” he said.
Tyler’s pro-mining stance is shared by many in the area, and the Ely City Council adopted a pro-mining resolution in March 2020.
“It’s symbolic, but symbols carry weight,” Marshall said.
While the future of mining and conservation efforts in Northeastern Minnesota remains a matter of debate, residents carry it out in their typical, live-and-let-live Minnesota fashion.
“A lot of people in Ely still look to mining as a major part of their heritage,” Marshall said. “I can’t blame them for it. As an organisation, we try to have conversations and open dialogues with people who live in Ely and are pro-mining. We realise we’re not going to change their minds and they’re not going to change ours, but we can work together on other issues.”