The deeply disturbing footage is easy to find online, from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. The videos show children as young as 4 crawling through dirt and dust, hunched over in knee-deep mud and water, and being lowered by grownups into cramped holes. Pawing and digging with their fingernails, the children can be seen “mining” for mineral deposits that our modern world craves for our gotta-have cellphones and laptops and even for “green” technology like hybrid cars and wind turbines.
“That is not how I want to get this (cellphone) in my hands. We have a big responsibility here,” Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals Minnesota, said this fall during a visit to its facilities in Ely by members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.
Twin Metals has been working for 10 years and has invested $450 million-and-counting to develop a better way, a safer way, and an environmentally friendly way to extract the strategic minerals the world needs and is getting now via sometimes-dangerous and too-often-unscrupulous means.
The company is sitting on the world’s third-largest nickel deposit, our globe’s second-largest unmined copper deposit, and veins of other minerals like cobalt, platinum, and palladium. Twin Metals is confident that with 21st-century technology and best practices it can safely and effectively operate in a region where underground mining dates back to 1889.
Twin Metals is working to open the Ely area’s first underground mine in more than half a century. The last was the Pioneer Mine, which closed in 1967, its 500 jobs lost triggering decades of economic decline.
“We have a responsibility as a state (and) as a country to take ownership of the needs that we have and the metals that we need,” Padilla said. “We can mine them far more responsibly here with high labor standards (and) with high environmental standards.”
Once open, the Twin Metals mine is expected to employ 700 people. Another 1,400 spinoff jobs are forecasted. That’s with Ely’s current population at just about 3,400 people. Mining jobs pay $89,489 a year, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. By comparison, jobs in tourism pay $20,796 a year. Twin Metals officials said they are working already with Ely-area schools so local residents can be educated to fill the highly skilled positions.
“We have the potential to reignite industry (in the Ely area, providing) opportunities for people to stay here, to raise families here, and to fill up the schools again. So it’s really important to us,” said Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals’ director of operations and safety. “It’s a very significant economic-development project not only for this area but for Minnesota as a whole.”
But can the mine operate without harming the environment? In the face of skeptics as vocal as the nearby Boundary Waters is vast, company officials say yes, of course they can.
“The two sources (of) acid drainage are waste rock and tailings,” Padilla explained. “Our waste rock (will be) zero. And our tailings will have so much of the sulfides removed that the sulfur content remaining will be below the threshold of acid generation. So there’ll be no potential for acid generation. It’s one of the unique things about this geology and our processing, and it gives us a different story than much of the geology and operations in other parts of the country.”
Twin Metals will, of course, have to convince state and federal regulators of all that during at least five to seven years of permitting, environmental review, and public and regulatory scrutiny. That clock hasn’t started ticking yet. The company hasn’t even submitted its mining plan yet. It hopes to before the end of the year.
All the naysaying and protesting to this point have been purely speculative. Opposition has been to what might be proposed.
“What we want to do is something that we can be proud of and this area can be proud of and the industry can be proud of,” said Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne. “Our industry needs to evolve, to be more responsible, and more sustainable. There’s a lot of effort here to do just that.”
Once operational, the mine will have to continue to convince regulators and the public of its ability to operate responsibly and safely. Unlike elsewhere in the world, in Minnesota and in the U.S., modern mining is one of our most tightly regulated industries.
That is part of the reason why such mining can be welcomed here rather than in places where children are lowered into holes to paw at the earth with their fingers. No one’s smartphone is worth that.