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Coalition concerned about copper mining waits for next move

It started in October with a few Duluth business owners concerned about plans for copper mining in Northeastern Minnesota and then grew fast to 64 members from across the Northland.

But the Downstream Business Coalition may have run its course, one of its founders says, and is sitting mostly quiet as the PolyMet copper project awaits approval.

“We did what we set out to do. We put our names out there and let the County Board and the governor know … that there is a segment of businesses and employers here that want to make sure we don’t harm what we have going,” said Greg Benson, CEO of Duluth-based Loll Designs, a manufacturer of outdoor furniture and other items. “But it was never intended to be something that went on and on and on. We have businesses to run. … I’m not sure what more we might do.”

The group organized as the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet copper mine was released, with critics saying the mine and processing plant could release pollution into the St. Louis River watershed that could find its way downstream to Lake Superior.

The coalition’s position is in contrast with the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, which is on record supporting the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes. But Benson said the threat of tainted water simply isn’t acceptable to business owners in the coalition — from breweries, restaurants and retail shops to tourism and recreation-based outfitters — many of whom make their living off the region’s mostly unspoiled forests, air and waters and the people who come here to enjoy them.

Duluth’s economy is thriving, coalition members said, because of the scenic, recreational and manufacturing opportunities that start with clean water.

“We’re saying that all of us are here, creating jobs in Duluth, because of the environment. Because of clean water. And that we think sulfide (copper) mining has a real possibility to ruin that economic engine,” Benson said in October. “People are moving here because of the water and the woods, not because of mining.”

PolyMet steadfastly has promised to meet all state water-quality regulations and repeatedly vowed that its operations will not cause any harm to waterways while helping to diversify the economy with 300 high-paying jobs.

“The Final Environmental Impact Statement speaks for itself. It shows that our design will meet tough state and federal environmental standards and be protective of the environment and human health and safety,” said PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson. “It shows that our plan appropriately addresses legacy environmental issues from historic mining. It’s one of the reasons we have such great support on the Iron Range and the Northland. Those folks care about the environment as much as anyone, and they have confidence in the regulations, in our ability to meet them, and in our ability to bring good jobs and significant economic benefits to the region.”

The project’s environmental review is expected to receive final approval in February with the company then applying for permits later this year that would allow them to start construction and, eventually, start mining.

Fast start, then backlash

The coalition first made headlines in the News Tribune in October when two of its members appeared before the St. Louis County Board asking the board to protect clean water.

Commissioners took no action (they are on record supporting PolyMet), but the newspaper story had immediate reactions that organizers hadn’t expected.

First, dozens of other businesses called to say they wanted to join the effort. The list grew to 64 business owners who employ thousands of Northland residents — in Duluth and Superior, on the North Shore and in Ely — all on the record opposing copper mining.

Second, some Iron Range residents got mad. Several liquor stores, bars and restaurants across the Range let it be known that they would no longer carry Duluth-brewed Bent Paddle beers, noting the company’s owners were founding members of the coalition.

There also was some effort to get Iron Range residents to boycott members of the coalition, but Benson said no members have reported any noticeable decline in business.

“We’re still getting positive comments from people about this. Far more than negative,” Benson said.

Coalition members tried to make it clear that they do not oppose traditional taconite iron ore mining. The coalition also sought to create stronger economic ties between their thriving small businesses in the Duluth area and small businesses owners across the Iron Range.

In one success story, the Duluth Grill, one of the founding members of the coalition, linked up with the Sunrise Bakery in Hibbing and is carrying their Iron Range-made goods at their Lincoln Park restaurant known for its organic, sustainable business model.

“It’s been good for both of us. There’s some issues with getting their product down here. But it’s a significant purchase, and they seem to appreciate the business,” said Tom Hanson, co-owner of Duluth Grill. “We have some other Iron Range suppliers. … It’s the kind of thing we need to see more of” between Duluth and the Range.

But Benson said the coalition’s call for working with Range businesses fell mostly on deaf ears. He noted it became clear that the loudest opinion echoing from the north was that, if you don’t support copper mining, you don’t support the Iron Range.

“We joined the coalition to be part of a business voice raising concern about this and other clean-water issues of our region. We built our brewery on the shores of Lake Superior because of the quality and abundance of clean fresh perfect brewing water and the surrounding lifestyle that it brings to our local economy,” said Laura Mullen, a co-owner of Bent Paddle, in a prepared statement to the News Tribune. “We depend on the quality of Lake Superior water for our product, brand and livelihood. As employers, business people and community-focused Duluthians, we don’t apologize for this. We are not anti-mining, we’re pro-clean water. It’s really the only issue for us.”

Mullen declined to offer any details on the impact of the boycott but said the company’s stand against copper mining has actually helped generate sales.

“In terms of the Range boycott of all of the Downstream Business Coalition member businesses including Bent Paddle, of course, for a small business, any loss of business is a concern. But more importantly for us, it’s not about how much business they bring — these aren’t just business customers; they’re relationships we will miss and hope to get back in the future,” she said. “Thankfully, we have also had a huge outpouring of support about this issue, and (that) support generated sales.”

Benson said the coalition will keep its Facebook page and website (downstreambusinesscoalition.org), and he envisions future activities to take “positive steps” for the region’s environment and clean water; maybe tree-planting efforts or beach cleanups.

The Duluth Grill’s Hanson said coalition members feel they needed to take a public stand against copper mining before the issue was settled, and he’s hopeful the end result of the coalition could still be a more positive relationship between Duluth and Range businesses.

“Greg made this comment at one of the (coalition) meetings that we are going to be on the right side of history,” Hanson said. “Our business hasn’t been affected one bit. We’ve received so many positive comments, people commenting on seeing our name in the stories, that I have no regrets about being part of this. … If we don’t protect our water, we don’t have any economy here.”

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