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Local View: True sustainability involves more than emotion

While I was working as a member of the local media more than 25 years ago, the merits of a pulp mill modernization and expansion project in Cloquet received a healthy amount of ink and airtime.

During public hearings, we heard dire predictions from project opponents about impacts to human health, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Opponents of the project painted pictures of pending environmental calamity.

The $500 million-plus investment by then-owner Potlatch Corp., included modernizing the mill, expanding production, and improving environmental outflows and emissions.

After much debate, the state approved the project. Today, the 119-year-old mill is still in business. The world-class facility is competitive and viable and operates in our own backyard. It employs 700 people. The community remains vibrant. There have been no questions or disputes about the promises of cleaner air and water since completion of the project.

The state Department of Employment and Economic Development recently presented Sappi, the mill's current owner, with an award recognizing additional investment and the company's economic and community contributions in Cloquet.

State Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the plant is one of the most innovative, creative, and environmentally conscious in the United States. The mill remains a vital part of our regional economy.

With history as our judge, we can ask: Who shared the facts and the truth? And who outlined the need as well as the benefits during the public hearings? These questions are relevant today because it's easy to be swayed by emotional appeals, dramatic characterizations, and crowd-sourced tactics when debating new industrial projects and investments.

The effort to win hearts, minds, and public opinion is prominent on multiple fronts currently with proposed pipeline, mining, and mineral-exploration projects. For those in the opposition camp, the script is well-established.

When the dramatic elements of a "good story" draw you in, it's easy to align with those who say they hold the moral high ground. But does that mean all proposed projects are inherently bad? Does the drama and emotion always produce results that benefit the common good?

Amid the emotion, it's easy to forget that we have established laws, rules, regulations, and processes to ensure public safety, to safeguard promises, and to minimize environmental risks. If recent history and fact are any indication, it can be argued that economic justice (in the form of investments and new projects) can coexist with social and environmental justice.

It doesn't make for a compelling script or news story, but we've seen companies invest in our region — in technology, people, communities, and the environment. As a result, working families, local counties, and local communities benefit from living-wage jobs and local revenues that produce healthier rural townships, communities, and reservations.

Controversial comments and actions attract attention and cast a shadow over fact-finding and public hearings. It makes for good media. But it's important to separate fact from rhetoric.

Cultures and communities have co-existed and have lived sustainably with our environment for as long as mankind has hunted, fished, trapped, traded goods, cut trees, farmed, and mined in this region. Somehow we're still here.

In the process, we've seen investments that made the environment around us better, enhanced our quality of life, sustained working families, and improved rural communities.

Before we judge — or prejudge — proposed projects, corporate motives, the need, benefits, or impacts, we have public processes in place that allow for opinions and facts.

Facts may not make much of a story in the present tense, but I'm hopeful the process will yield long-term results that benefit the environment, the economy, and the greater good — just as history has shown in Cloquet.

Mike Birkeland

Mike Birkeland of Midway Township is director of member service and community relations for Lake Country Power, a rural electric cooperative serving 43,000 members in northern Minnesota.