Promise of jobs sparks hope
HOYT LAKES -- Not too many years ago, Palm's Town Pump was one of the busiest corners in town. "We used to open at 6 a.m. and we'd be open until eight at night," said Mike Palm, owner of the Phillips 66 service station in the heart of this Iron R...
HOYT LAKES -- Not too many years ago, Palm's Town Pump was one of the busiest corners in town.
"We used to open at 6 a.m. and we'd be open until eight at night," said Mike Palm, owner of the Phillips 66 service station in the heart of this Iron Range city of about 2,000 people. "We had three full-time technicians and were booked three to four weeks in advance."
But the 2001 closure of LTV Steel Mining Co. changed that and a lot more in the town built during a 1950s mining boom. Hoyt Lakes was staggered by the loss of 1,400 jobs at the taconite plant and pension cuts of 35 percent to50 percent for more than 4,000 LTV retirees.
"Right now, we're only open five days a week from 8 a.m. to five," Palm said. "You can get in for a repair in one or two days, and we have only one full-time technician and two part-time. It doesn't pay to be open like that anymore."
But Palm and many residents are optimistic their small town could soon be standing tall again.
They look with hope to PolyMet Mining Corp., a Vancouver, B.C.-based mineral developer that plans to develop a $379.6 million copper-nickel and precious metals plant at the former LTV site. From the residents' perspective, PolyMet means new life pumped into their city by construction, mining jobs and economic spin-off.
And they resent questions by environmentalists about copper mining's potential harm to the region's natural resources.
Environmental groups and tribal authorities have said that mining copper could send acidic runoff into waterways for years to come. Some rural Floodwood residents, where new wetlands would be created to replace those destroyed by mining, have voiced opposition to the wetlands plan.
"We need jobs -- that's the biggest thing," said Palm, who worked 30 years at the taconite mine before retiring and buying the service station in 1997. "I'm not worried about environmental effects. They've (PolyMet) been up-front with us. They're not going to harm the environment. They're going to help it, if anything."
Others echoed his sentiments, scoffing at environmentalists' worries.
"They said the same thing about taconite plants," said Al Dahlman, a Hoyt Lakes resident who retired from LTV in 1991. "I don't believe it's going to ruin the environment or affect my hunting or fishing. I think there are enough environmentalist tree-huggers out there who would oppose anything. Around here, I don't think you'd find a handful of people opposed."
If permits and financing are finalized, PolyMet plans to be mining and processing copper, nickel, gold, cobalt, platinum and palladium by late 2008. It would be the state's first commercial base- and precious-metals mine.
PolyMet officials have said the company is committed to meeting or exceeding state environmental standards.
Environmental risks "are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion," Mayor Marlene Pospeck said of the potential for sulfide runoff into area swamps, streams or lakes. "It's a closed-loop process. There will be some acid leaching that they need to contain, but they have a good plan. It's not like copper mining that's been done in Wisconsin or Ontario. There's a big misinformation campaign going on and they're using scare tactics that aren't legitimate."
But environmentalists say that no copper mine in history has left the environment unscathed. They point out that the new technology PolyMet plans to use hasn't been proven in a full-scale mining operation.
'DOWN IN THE DUMPS'
Richard Wallace of Hoyt Lakes worked almost 34 years at the taconite plant.
Since LTV closed, Hoyt Lakes has "pretty much been down in the dumps," Wallace said.
"I'm all for it," he said of the PolyMet project. "It's going to pick the whole town up."
Construction would employ 1,000 workers at peak. At least 400 good-paying permanent mining jobs would be created along with an estimated 500 spin-off jobs.
According to a 2005 report by the University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School of Business and Economics, the project at capacity would generate new spending, beginning in 2009, of $242 million annually within St. Louis County.
During a typical year of operation, the project would mean a total of 1,058 new full-time, part-time and temporary jobs.
Of those, about 472 would be at the mine, 232 in indirect business such as professional and scientific (119); transportation and warehousing (14); wholesale trade (12); management of companies (11); accommodation and food services (11), and in waste services, finance and insurance, entertainment and recreation, utilities, information and government.
In a typical year of operation, PolyMet would pay about $17.2 million in federal taxes and $14.5 million in state and local taxes.
Wallace, too, said he thinks environmental issues have been overblown. The 27 pellet furnaces that LTV once operated posed more of an environmental threat than PolyMet's operation would, he said.
Wallace said the remaining waste dumps created by the LTV operation probably contain some of the same material that would be mined by PolyMet. Drainage from the dumps into groundwater has been occurring for decades, he said.
"There's 100 miles of swamp out there and we've been drinking that water for years," said Wallace. "If it was going to get us, it would have by now."
HOUSING LOTS PLANNED
At VFW Post 8144, many members are in their 70s and 80s, and some are dying, said Cathy Bartholomew, club manager. Most VFW members talk positively about the potential mine with hope it will attract a new generation to the community, she said.
"I've heard from some people who are not customers that are concerned about it, but basically most everyone I've talked to is for it," Bartholomew said. "They're hoping that it will start soon. Hopefully, it will bring in some families. I hope it takes off."
The average age of Hoyt Lakes residents is about 55, the mayor said. An influx of new families would boost school enrollment and property values, increase property tax collections and revitalize business, Pospeck said.
In preparation for what could be another mining boom, new lots are being planned in different parts of town for single-family homes and multi-unit living quarters.
"A lot of the people from LTV have found other jobs, and others were close to retirement age," Pospeck said. "But I think there are a sizable number of young families that would love these jobs and love to come back to this area."
Arnold Krueger of Embarrass worked 45 years at the taconite plant and said he maintains an organic garden at his home in Embarrass.
Developers, the state and environmentalists should work together to take a "reasonable" approach to permitting and operations, he said.
But, he said, the jobs are needed.
"We've got to have it," Krueger said. "What would you have up here if you didn't have mining? What are you going to do (without jobs), eat dinosaurs?"
Joni Stutzman, owner of the town's IGA Foods store, said his grocery business has been hurt by the LTV shutdown and the advent of large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kmart. PolyMet officials have stopped by his store several times to introduce themselves and buy goods, he said.
"The No. 1 thing about PolyMet is the integrity of their officers," Stutzman said. "I have never heard a single negative word around here about PolyMet, and I go back to the days of other projects like Endotronics and the chopsticks factory. This is a lot different. Everything is done the way they say it's going to be done."
Stuzman sees the future of the town's only grocery store hanging on what happens with PolyMet.
"In all honesty, this is life and death for me," he said. "If it goes, we will be able to stay alive."