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Copper mining supporters turn out in force at third Forest Service hearing

Hundreds of pro-mining supporters march to a public hearing at Virginia High School after a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 8
John Arbogast of the United Steelworkers Local 1938 breaks a cellphone during a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. Abrogast was making a point that many of the metals used in cellphones come from copper-nickel deposits. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 8
Brad Carlson of Ely, a former miner, speaks Tuesday in favor of a proposed moratorium on mining on more than 234,000 acres of land in the Superior National Forest. Carlson opposes copper-nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 8
St. Louis County commissioner Tom Rukavina speaks during a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 8
Hundreds of pro-mining supporters march to a public hearing at Virginia High School after a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 8
Hundreds of pro-mining supporters gather during a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)6 / 8
Pro-mining supporters carry signs during a march to a public hearing at Virginia High School after a rally organized by people supporting copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)7 / 8
Jen Pearson of Duluth, a family physician, speaks Tuesday in favor of a proposed moratorium on mining on more than 234,000 acres of land in the Superior National Forest. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)8 / 8

VIRGINIA — Hundreds of people walked down Third Street South behind a large sign, carried by children, that stated, “We support mining!”

A large crowd of supporters of copper-mining projects near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness rallied on Tuesday afternoon at Field of Dreams Park in Virginia, calling for people to speak as “one Range, one voice” and to “stuff the box” with pro-mining comments on Tuesday evening during the U.S. Forest Service’s public hearing on its plan for a two-year moratorium on the issue and a generic environmental review of potential copper-mining impacts on the regional watershed. At one point during the rally, John Arbogast of the United Steelworkers Local 1938  broke a cellphone in half and threw it on the ground to indicate that if people don’t support mining, they shouldn’t use such devices because of the mined minerals they contain inside.

Kathi Croft, who has five generations of miners in her family and whose husband works at Minntac, said they value their life on the Iron Range.

“We are a proud, hardworking people who respect our heritage and love the communities we live, work, worship and volunteer in. We want nothing more than to continue our mining heritage and to provide quality jobs for our children, all while continuing to maintain the love for our forests, lakes and our outdoor heritage,” Croft said.

Her husband’s job supports their family of five and they know and appreciate everything mining has done for their family and community, she said. She added that she believes there’s a misconception that Range residents aren’t concerned about the environment.

“Well, that’s just not true. We live here and we play here and we plan to stay here,” she said. She added that copper-mining opponents come to the Range “with their big money” while they have environmental problems in their own communities in southern Minnesota and she suggested that they focus on issues “in their own backyard.”

Hundreds of people fill the auditorium at the Virginia High School during Tuesday's public hearing. (Clint Austin / DNT)

After boycotting the Forest Service's public hearing in St. Paul last week, copper-mining supporters packed the public hearing in Virginia on Tuesday evening. It was standing-room only on the auditorium floor of Virginia High School, the crowd overflowing into the auditorium’s balcony, with many supporters wearing pro-mining T-shirts, hats and stickers. Speaking to loud applause from the audience at times, many of the supporters said that copper mining will be regulated for safety and that responsible mining can coexist with responsibility for the environment. Supporters also pointed out that the Iron Range is home to both mining operations and some of the cleanest lakes in the state.

Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, said he hopes he can fish with his young son someday in a reclaimed mine pit.

“To me, that’s a phenomenal example of how past generations have left it for us and moving forward, that our generations can leave it for the next ones coming forward,” he said.

Mines in the region meet or exceed standards and work with the “utmost science,” Metsa said. Not giving a business the chance to show that they can meet government standards isn’t the Minnesotan or American way, he said.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed in the fact that the politics have gotten, in my mind, far too out of control in terms of banning a simple exploration,” he said.

Dozens of people turned out in opposition of copper mining near the BWCAW and some were laughed at and heckled by audience members while speaking during Tuesday’s public hearing. Before the hearing, supporters gathered in the high school’s cafeteria to don Save the Boundary Waters T-shirts.

Ely resident Brad Carlson was raised in Virginia with a father and grandfather working in the mines and he himself worked at Minntac. His father wouldn’t support copper mining if he were still alive, he said.

He asked the Forest Service to consider the impact a “giant mining complex” would have if it were located on the edge of the wilderness.

“The result could be the end of serenity in the wilderness, categorically ruining the experience for which everyone goes out. This place, more so than ever, belongs to everyone,” he said.

Bill Hansen, whose family has owned Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on the Sawbill Trail for 60 years, was attending his first hearing on copper mining near the BWCAW on Tuesday. Speakers were chosen to talk through a lottery system and before the hearing, Hansen said if he had an opportunity to speak, he would encourage the Forest Service to consider the science of whether copper mining can be done safely.

Signs hanging on the wall of the Virginia High School Tuesday display contrasting views on copper-nickel mining.

He wants the Forest Service to consider topics such as hydrology, biology and sustainable economic development, he said. He said he believes a copper mine will create jobs in the short term, but he’s skeptical that those jobs will be sustainable in the long term because of emerging technology such as automation. He suggested that the Northland needs to focus on jobs for skilled workers that will diversify workplace opportunities and create a stronger economy.

“It’s betting on the wrong horse as far as I’m concerned. But that said, we need to do aggressive economic development because people need jobs,” he said.

Jennifer Byers, representing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said companies deserve a fair and equal process, and need the opportunity to compete on the state. The Forest Service’s actions are “the first of its kind” and circumvent the normal review process, she said. A decision to ban copper mining could cripple the economy in northeastern Minnesota and impact residents throughout the state, she said.

“Minnesota Chamber members support strong, science-based and fair standards. Mining development, strong economy and a pristine environment can coexist. It’s not an either-or option,” she said.

Copper mining supporters told the Forest Service on Tuesday that a ban on copper mining would hurt much more than the Iron Range’s economy.

Mesabi East Superintendent Gregg Allen pointed out that the Forest Service was holding Tuesday’s hearing in a school building funded by the Iron Range’s mining industry. Range schools receive funding via production tax on the mines, he added.

“If the mines are running at full capacity, schools receive funding based on the amount of minerals produced from the mines. However, when the mines are struggling, the production is low and schools see a reduction in revenue. Therefore, school districts have to make up the difference by taxing homeowners and businesses at a higher rate or by going without,” he said.

A ban on copper mining in the region could cause “a devastating hardship” on future students, he said.

“I beg you to reconsider your proposed ban. Allow students on the Iron Range equivalent opportunities as other parts of the state to have funds,” he said.

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