Northeastern Minnesota mining opponents find hero in state auditor

ELY -- Rebecca Otto may not quite be a household name in the Northland, but she could get there. Otto, the usually unassuming second-term state auditor, came to the north woods Tuesday to explain her October vote against mineral exploration by mi...

Rebecca Otto
State auditor Rebecca Otto talks with copper mining supporter Gerald Tyler of Ely on Tuesday after luncheon meeting at the Grand Ely Lodge. (John Myers /

ELY -- Rebecca Otto may not quite be a household name in the Northland, but she could get there.

Otto, the usually unassuming second-term state auditor, came to the north woods Tuesday to explain her October vote against mineral exploration by mining companies in parts of Northeastern Minnesota where the state holds mineral rights.

The mineral exploration leases went ahead anyway; Otto's was the only no vote on the five-member state Executive Council. But she said she wanted to make a point, and she did so; becoming Minnesota's first statewide elected official to raise any opposition in the state's move toward copper mining.

Otto's ceremonial vote caused an uproar in the pro-copper mining community, even among fellow DFLers on the Iron Range, some of whom have suggested finding a candidate to run against her next year.

On Tuesday, Otto got a taste of that rancor in person. Someone overnight erected "Dump Otto" signs high up on several utility poles leading from downtown to Grand Ely Lodge on Shagawa Lake. That's where Otto was the keynote speaker at the usually noncontroversial Tuesday lunch meeting of local retirees, business owners and city leaders.


"Actually, I'm OK with those signs because, in a way, they get right to what I'm talking about," Otto said after her talk. "I'm trying to avoid dumping (copper mine) cleanup costs on taxpayers."

Too many times with too many copper mines in other places, Otto said, mining companies folded tent and left taxpayers footing the bill to clean up an environmental mess.

Otto spoke of trying to build a bridge between ardent copper mining opponents and vehement supporters, saying her role as state auditor is to keep an eye on government spending, protect taxpayers and make the process of government open and transparent. She said when asked if she's pro-mining or anti-mining, she responds "neither."

"I'm pro-taxpayer," she said, adding that her goal is not to stop copper mining but to make sure there's more than enough financial assurance in place before mining starts -- she calls it a damage deposit -- to pay for any mess that mining companies may leave behind.

She criticized state and federal agencies handling current mining proposals for being less than transparent about how financial assurance will be demanded. And she said the agencies, mining companies and supporters of copper mining should embrace an open, public discussion of how much money is enough to be set aside for that damage deposit for the region's clean water.

The state should insist on "cash or cash equivalents, not promises" before mining begins, she said. If that's not acceptable to the mining companies "does that mean that their business model doesn't work anymore? Because, if it does, we as a state need to have a frank discussion about this."

Otto says she knew ahead of time that her vote would spur both support and hard feelings among people "with deep emotions on both sides of the issue." But she may not have been prepared for her new rock-star status among those questioning whether copper mining will work in Northeastern Minnesota.

"The work you are doing is so important. I hope some people are listening to you," said Richard Watson of Ely, an outspoken copper mining critic.


Another supporter asked from the back of the room "Would you ever consider running for the U.S. Senate?" to loud applause. Otto blushed a bit and brushed that praise aside.

Not everyone at Tuesday's luncheon was supportive.

Bernice Norregaard, mayor of Babbitt and a retired taconite plant employee, commended Otto "for standing on your principals." But Norregaard said that the insatiable consumer demand for products that require copper means it's more responsible to mine the mineral here, with

Minnesota's strong record of worker and environmental protection, than mine it overseas.

"If we don't get the precious metals in our state, they'll have to go to Third World countries," Norregaard said. "Don't you think it's better to do it here?"

Gerald Tyler, executive director of Up North Jobs, a pro-mining group based in Ely, said after Otto's talk that taxpayers have much more to gain from copper mining than they have to lose -- from royalties and taxes paid by the mining companies to the taxes paid by workers. He said the jobs promised by multiple copper projects would renew a region that has seen stagnant job growth.

"You drive down Sheridan Street (in Ely) and half the buildings are dark," Tyler said. "We need the jobs these mines will bring."

Other mining supporters said Otto's vote was misplaced, noting that the mineral exploration leases aren't necessarily tied to any future mining. But Otto didn't back down.


"Exploration leads to mining," she said, noting her vote on the Executive Council is about the only time she's sees the mining issue in her job as auditor. "I had to take a vote where I have an impact."

The leases, when the DNR annually auctions off the rights for mining companies to explore for copper and other minerals, had been on hold for a year while environmental groups challenged the need for an environmental review. The state Appeals Court eventually ruled no review was needed, so the executive council approved the leases.

Gov. Mark Dayton, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie -- like Otto, all DFLers -- all voted to approve the leases. Otto voted no.

It didn't help her standing among copper mining supporters when Otto's re-election campaign staff quickly sent out a fundraising request that focused on her pro-environment vote. Otto said she didn't know about that fundraising request before it was sent out. Some Iron Range residents accused her of grandstanding.

Her supporters disagree.

"All she's saying is that she thinks the state needs to take a close look at the taxpayer liability in the years to come," said Ely outfitter Paul Schurke, a vocal critic of copper mining in the Northland.

"She's doing her job and wondering what the liability will be for taxpayers if the mine closes and the company leaves town. She's asking who's going to pay to clean it up? ... And for raising those questions, now she's worried about her re-election."

Tuesday's luncheon in Ely came 10 days before the public will get another look at the revised environmental review for the proposed PolyMet copper mine near Hoyt Lakes, what would be Minnesota's first copper mine with more than 300 jobs. It also comes as the mining industry expands a public relations campaign to soothe Minnesotans' concerns that copper mining often causes environmental damage, especially from acid mine runoff that can pollute waters.


Supporters say they won't let that happen in Minnesota. Copper critics say there's no way to be sure and that the risk isn't worth the short-term benefits.

Someone placed a Dump Otto sign on a power pole on the road into the Grand Ely Lodge where State Auditor Rebecca Otto was defending her vote against allowing copper mining exploration on Tuesday. (John Myers /

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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