Iron Range view: In imaginary boardroom, mining execs cook up propaganda to feed Iron Rangers

This lifelong Iron Ranger is no friend of the mining companies. Members of my family have labored in the mines for the better part of 100 years; some of them died there.

This lifelong Iron Ranger is no friend of the mining companies. Members of my family have labored in the mines for the better part of 100 years; some of them died there.

My grandfather told me stories about Cousin Jacks, Pinkertons, company houses, the company store and one atrocity after another committed by the uncaring mining companies at the expense of the men whose labors made the companies rich. When he was 85, my father's pension and supplementary health insurance were taken away by the mining company. The look on his face when he received the news is etched deeply in my mind.

Yes, things have changed in 100 years. However, human nature doesn't change. The nature of greed doesn't change. Based on what has happened to us at the hands of the mining companies and based on what they taught me about greed, I have formed an opinion about what might have happened at a board meeting that might have taken place in Toronto, Ontario, recently when the fictitious MollyMetalMining made its decision to mine copper/nickel on Minnesota's Iron Range:

John Foster Dulls, president and CEO of MollyMetalMining, sits at the head of a huge, deeply polished oak meeting-room table. His six-member management team is just entering the room.

Fossy, as he's known to his team, takes charge. "Gentlemen," he says, "I've been reading a report that was just completed by the Minnesota DNR. The report says that there are more than 4 billion tons of non-ferrous [non-iron bearing] copper and nickel ore near Aurora, Babbitt and Ely.


"I've also just looked at a study that I asked our corporate planners to complete. The price for copper right now is $3.50 a pound; nickel is $12.06 a pound. Our people think that we can mine copper for $1.50 a pound and nickel for $6.50 a pound. I'd like to hear what you gentlemen have to say about this."

Hubert Mumphrey, MMM's best metallurgical engineer and the only former Minnesotan in the Canadian company, speaks up right away. "I don't know, Fossy. Wisconsin has all but outlawed the mining of copper and nickel because it's encased in sulfide rock that emits sulfuric acid when it's exposed to air and water."

"That's no problem," counters John Dubois, the company's chief mining engineer. "You know that we can dig up that sulfide rock and stockpile it on an impermeable membrane. Then when we're done extracting the minerals, we can dump the sulfide back into the mine pit and cover it up. Then it can't get air. No air -- no sulfuric acid."

"That sounds like a good plan," Mumphrey says, "but you know it didn't work at Kennecott's Flambeau Copper/Nickel Mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. The Flambeau mine closed in 1997, and years later that mine is still leeching out Yellow Boy [sulfuric acid]. They don't know if or when it will ever stop."

"So what you're saying," Fossy says, "is that there's no 100 percent safe way to mine copper and nickel without creating sulfuric acid contamination of the surrounding air and water?"

"That's right," Mumphrey answers. "There's no known 100 percent safe way to mine the stuff."

"The hell with it," harrumphs Fossy. "Aurora and Babbitt are a long way from Toronto. What do we care if there's a little sulfuric acid contamination? Get a truck full of cheap respirators and another truck full of Sam's Club bottled water and park them in the Hoyt Lakes arena parking lot in case anything happens."

"But how are we going to get our permits and convince those Rangers how nice we are?" asks Michael St.-John-Smith, MMM's personnel director.


"I've got that all figured out," Fossy says. "We'll form a group of corporations and individuals, headed by a Ranger, to propagandize the locals with sayings like 'the bad old, good old days of mining are gone' and 'we are the front guard, or the right guard, not the rear guard.'

"Rangers are stupid; they'll believe anything we say for the chance to employ 800 people in what, most likely, will be short-term jobs. They let the old mining companies rape their land. They swallowed those lies about 100 more years of mining and passed the taconite amendment. They let the old mining companies give them mesothelioma and take away their pensions and health insurance, and then they believed the companies went bankrupt."

"What if the price of copper drops to less than $2.25 a pound and nickel goes under $7.80 a pound and it's not profitable to mine them anymore?" asks St.-John-Smith.

"That price drop can happen at any time," Fossy replies. "The market fluctuates. The minute that happens, we'll close the Minnesota mines. We'll immediately declare bankruptcy. I have our people working on that plan as we speak. They're camouflaging our assets. We'll do the same if the sulfuric acid gets out of control. Our best thinkers have told me that copper and nickel will stay at or better than their present price for at least five years. After that, who cares? We'll take our money and get out, eh?"

Mumphrey rises again to speak. "What about Teck Cominco?" he asks. "Didn't they just invest $265 million in a copper-mining project and then pull out before it even started? Aren't they part of the Minnesota group you're forming to propagandize the Rangers?"

"I've heard enough out of you, Mumphrey," Fossy growls. "We're going ahead with the project. Just to satisfy the legalities, let's do a show-of-hands vote."

Five hands go up in favor and one opposed.

"Good," Fossy says. "We'll be mining by late 2008 or early 2009 ... guaranteed."


A round of applause erupts for Fossy.

"And Mumphrey," Fossy turns to say, "will you stop in my office after the meeting for a moment, please?"

The other board members exchange knowing glances as they leave the room.

Joseph Legueri of Gilbert is a writer and a lifelong resident of the Iron Range.

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