Twin Metals, labor unite

Company, unions ink deal as supporters double down on project

by Tom Coombe
If Twin Metals Minnesota is permitted to develop a copper-nickel mine near Ely, it will be built with union labor.
That was the backdrop for a celebration Wednesday, as labor and company officials formally signed a project labor agreement at a ceremony that attracted about 100 people.
Dignitaries, elected officials and project supporters were on hand to hail a link between labor and industry - one that could lead to several million hours of work in the construction of Twin Metals’ proposed mining operation south of the city limits.
“This is about jobs that form the middle class,” said State Sen. David Tomassoni (D-Chisholm). “And it’s happening in Ely, Minnesota. That’s a really big deal.”
The agreement with the Iron Range Building and Constructions Trades Council assures that union labor will be used, should Twin Metals gain the state and federal permits it needs. According to a news release from the company, the project would be similar in scope to the construction of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Twin Metals has yet to submit a formal mining plan, and the permitting process is likely to take years and face both legal and political hurdles.
But Twin Metals has already invested over $450 million into a project that could lead to hundreds of permanent mining jobs, and company officials said this week that they’re here for the long haul.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” said Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne. “We want to build this mine, and we’re committed to doing this right.”
Earlier this year, Twin Metals gained a key victory when the Trump Administration reinstated critical mineral leases that were taken away by the Obama Administration in late-2016.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber cited that decision, as well as ongoing efforts by environmental groups to torpedo the project, during an emotional address at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“We would not be here today if we didn’t have an administration that understands the value of what mining does for a community,” said Stauber.
Stauber added that “today we bring labor and the future together,” contending that “mining is our past, present and future.”
He also took aim at environmental groups as well as political candidates fighting the project, including a thinly-veiled reference to opposition announced earlier in the week by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading contenders for the Democractic presidential nomination.
“Please understand our way of life and understand these minerals are critical to our every day life and to our security,” said Stauber.
Opponents contend that the copper-nickel mine proposed by Twin Metals is too risky for the region’s water-rich environment and too close to the neighboring Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
They contend waterways will be polluted and the region’s tourism economy will be damaged, but Twin Metals has pledged to meet environmental regulations and says the project will be subject to “rigorous and extensive environmental and scientific review by regulatory agencies.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak acknowledged the opposition and challenged those who are fighting the project “to come and see what’s really going on instead of dreaming things up.”
Tomassoni, who has five existing taconite mines in his Senate district and joked that he wanted to “adopt” Ely, pointed to technological advances. He cited an example of a mine worker using a joystick at ground level to operate an excavator far underground.
“Today’s mining is modern,” said Tomassoni. “It has the best technology.”
Yet before Twin Metals can mine for copper, nickel and other precious metals it must first gain permitting, and then put to use the deal signed this week that would pump tens of millions of dollars into the region’s economy.
State Rep. Rob Ecklund (D-International Falls) was a longtime union laborer and hailed the agreement between Twin Metals and the trades group.
“It’s a great day for Ely,” said Ecklund. “By signing this agreement, it’s something that ensures the project gets done the way it should be done.”
Osborne said Twin Metals was “proud to partner with Minnesota’s union trades” and that the result will be that “the construction phase of our project will be completed by professionals whose specialized skills are essential to the premier quality work we insist on.”
Mike Syvesurud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council, said the deal impacts everyone from asbestos workers to the Teamsters.
“This puts our people to work,” he said.
Syvesrud said the deal “continues a strong tradition of union labor on the Iron Range.”
PolyMet, which recently gained permits to develop the region’s first copper-nickel mine at the former LTV plant in Hoyt Lakes, signed a similar project labor agreement more than a decade ago.
“We are thrilled to celebrate this milestone,” Syvesrud said of the Twin Metals agreement. “It will ensure that unior workers and their families can continue to live on the Iron Range as the Twin Metals underground mine project comes to life.”
Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals’ director of operations and safety, looked back and ahead during his remarks on a windy morning.
A fourth-generation Elyite, Debeltz looked back to an era when Ely was home to the Pioneer Mine, pointing to the jobs it provided and the impact it had.
“It was mining money that built Ely’s schools and mining taxes that helped maintain them,” said DeBeltz.
DeBeltz is also the fourth generation in his family to work in mining, with a collective 110 years of industry experience.
“If anybody tells you, they’re short-term jobs, don’t believe them,” said DeBeltz.
He too acknowledged the opposition to the project and took aim at one of the core arguments.
“We’ve proven that mining and tourism can coexist, and we’ll prove it again,” said DeBeltz.