Several Duluth business owners have formed an opposition group to proposed copper mining projects in Northeastern Minnesota saying the potential environmental damage from mine waste could harm the region's economy more than any mining jobs will help.

Calling themselves the Downstream Business Coalition, the business leaders, who say they employ more than 1,000 people in the Duluth area, addressed the St. Louis County Board on Tuesday to express their opposition to copper mining in the St. Louis River watershed.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The board took no action on any mining related matters, but it was the first of what organizers say will be a more visible and vocal opposition to copper mining.

"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," said Gregg Benson, CEO of Loll Designs, a manufacturer of outdoor furniture and other items, in an interview with the News Tribune.

"We thought it was important for the county board to know - and we're going to get this on to the governor, too - that some of us owners of real businesses think this is a bad idea."

The group formed just last week and held another organizing meeting Tuesday at Duluth's Bent Paddle brewery.

Tom Hanson, co-owner of Duluth Grill in Lincoln Park, said he's involved "not necessarily because I'm against PolyMet, but because I'm for the direction Duluth is going. The jobs created by so many small businesses override any benefit we might get from mining that contaminates the water," Hanson said.

Hanson said he's never been publicly active in social or political causes - he's never allowed political signs in his restaurant, for example - but that he wholeheartedly embraces sustainability in his work and life.

"Our region used to have a take mentality. They took the trees and took the ore and maybe created a few jobs for a while, but it was never sustainable. Look what happened in the '80s" when iron mines closed, jobs evaporated and residents poured out of the region looking for work, he said. "Now, Duluth has this make mentality, where we are making local things and creating jobs that are sustainable. Let's not do anything to hurt that."

In addition to Benson and Hanson, owners of Vikre Distillery, Bent Paddle Brewing Company, Duluth Running Co., Duluth Coffee Company, Swiftwater Adventures, Thirsty Pagan Brewery and Fitger's Brewhouse have joined the group. More local entrepreneurs are expected to join in coming weeks.

Benson noted that members of the Downstream Business Coalition already employs nearly three times as many people as the approximately 350 that PolyMet promises in what would be Minnesota's first ever copper mine and processing center north of Hoyt Lakes. The company is currently is awaiting final word on the project's environmental review and hopes to be permitted to start operations in 2016.

The company's mining waste would be treated and discharged into a tributary of the St. Louis River, which flows south to the Twin Ports where it enters Lake Superior. PolyMet has steadfastly promised to meet all state water-quality regulations and repeatedly vowed that their operations will not cause any harm to waterways.

But Benson said the region needs to move away from dependence on mining and that new mines will "only stop the momentum our economy already has. People are moving here because of the water and the woods, not because of mining."

Benson said it's the first overtly political or environmental action he's taken part in, knowing it may offend some people in the region where iron ore mining remains a large part of the economy. But Benson said he felt it was important for people not traditionally environmentally active to speak out.

"We are a company that has developed a brownfield site that was once polluted by a company that wasn't sustainable," Benson said. "There is no more downstream for waste. We are downstream. The days of simply throwing our waste into the river and saying it's gone away should be over."