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Double down on mining

Before a packed house at City Hall, Ely council reiterates, reinforces opposition to Biden Administration’s 20-year ban

by Tom Coombe

For the second time in as many weeks, Ely’s city council requested the Biden Administration rescind recent action that effectively kills the Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mining  project.

But this time there was an audience.

Mining supporters and opponents, many waving signs, filled the council chambers beyond capacity Tuesday, as the council voted 5-1 on the issue, with Adam Bisbee opposed and Al Forsman absent.

The council supported a motion to send a letter - signed by mayor Heidi Omerza - asking the administration to reconsider its recent edict that bans mining activity for 20 years on thousands of acres of national forest land in northeastern Minnesota.

Also passed, with the same 5-1 vote was a resolution formally opposing the administration’s mineral withdrawal.

Council discussion was minimal given their same action a week ago while acting as the city’s economic development authority, but the group’s longest serving member - Jerome Debeltz - minced no words.

Debeltz, who has served continuously for 29 years, pointed to a series of earlier resolutions passed by the council in favor of Twin Metals and of copper-nickel mining development.

He also blasted mining opponents who live outside the city limits and said “I can’t speak at township meetings.”

Debeltz pointed to population declines and contended that “there’s very few people in the schools (towns are dying around here” while making the case that Ely needs the high-paying mining jobs promised by the Twin Metals development.

“We need more jobs,” said Debeltz. “We don’t have families (staying in Ely).  We keep chasing people out of town who can produce jobs. I’m against chasing people out so this town can at least move forward.”

In a statement released last week, Omerza said she was “personally disappointed” by the Biden Administration’s actions and called Twin Metals “a critical employer in our community and we hope that this action does not deter their continued development of their project.”

Council sentiment, however, was not unanimous.

Bisbee, Ely’s newest elected official, cast the lone vote against the majority.

Bisbee pointed to previous motions on mining passed with unanimous council approval and said “I don’t believe I was put into this position to vote on certain topics with all of the council members unanimously all of the time.”

According to Bisbee, a unanimous vote on mining “denies certain groups in our community a voice... and not what our democracy is designed for.”

“If I were to vote yes on this letter I would be making a great disservice to the community members who teach in our schools, that live among us,” he said. “This will likely pass 6-1, but when I ran for city council I expressed that my intentions were to stand for those people who don’t otherwise have the opportunity to stand. In my  no vote, I give them a voice.”

Kess questioned Bisbee’s rationale and said “my response to that is we as a council always welcome people to come and speak. People do have a voice. You should make a decision and say you’re opposed to this.”

Prior to the council vote, members heard from four speakers, three who were at odds with the majority and voiced support for the Biden Administration action.

Leading the charge was Becky Rom, the Ely area native who heads the national Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and a longtime environmental advocate and copper-nickel mining opponent.

“It’s time to move on,” said Rom. “Twin Metals does not have the leases it needs to mine, or the state lands it needs. It has lousy technology and no mine plan.”

She also outlined federal and state regulatory agencies’ opposition to the Twin Metals proposals on environmental grounds, and cited drafts that say the mine would put both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest at risk.

“Federal land managers say the Boundary Waters headwaters withdrawal is one of most important and necessary mineral withdrawals in the history of the nation,” said Rom. “Detailed scientific studies say the Boundary Waters would be damaged no matter what.”

Rom also charged that the council was on the wrong side of public opinion, noting polls that show 70 percent of Minnesotans against the Twin Metals project and celebrations that broke out across the state - including one in Ely that attracted about 80 people - in the wake of the Biden edict.

“I encourage the city council and mayor to celebrate this landmark decision and not pass resolutions based on opinions (and) erroneous facts,” said Rom. “The federal withdrawal removes a black cloud that has been hanging over Ely area businesses and families for more than a decade.”

The council also heard from Ely resident Frederica Musgrave, who complained that the council action took place in the dark and without needed public input.

“You don’t want to hear the other side,” said Musgrave.

She added “it’s almost a religious issue and it wasn’t treated as such. People didn’t know about it.”

Musgrave said she couldn’t find information including the economic development authority agenda online and said people found out about this week’s meeting “by accident.”

“I think some mistakes were made and I would like to see them corrected,” said Musgrave.

Musgrave also erroneously charged that the council “met in private” as the EEDA.  All meetings of that group are public in accordance with state law.

The third mining opponent to speak was Elyite Betty Firth, who told the council “mining is no longer the lifeblood of this region.”

Firth took issue with opposition to the administration action, expressed not only by the council but lawmakers including State Sen. Grant Hauschild (D) and State Rep. Roger Skraba (R).

According to Firth, the council and legislators’ missives “are full of inaccuracies, woefully short on facts and demonstrate no understanding of the approval process.”

Firth charged that regulatory agencies have decided “that the unique ecosystem in this region is not the appropriate place for sulfide ore copper mining” and that the process has been followed, counter to the claims made by legislators and the Ely council.

“Sulfide ore copper mining would cause irreparable damage with very few benefits except for the Chilean family (Antofagasta) that owns the mine,” said Firth.

Firth instead urged the council to promote “creative thinking” on economic development and said the “town is bursting with creative and entrepreneurial energy.”

The lone supporter of Twin Metals to speak was Gerald Tyler, who heads Ely’s Up North Jobs.

Tyler said the proposed 20-year mining ban was “fatally flawed” and proceeded step-by-step through a better than decade-and-a-half timeline of decisions related to the Twin Metals project.

Tyler pointed back to 2012 and a Forest Service finding  that mineral leasing and exploration could resume after a six-year moratorium, and 29 prospecting permits were issued to Twin Metals Minnesota and others.

Opposition came from environmental groups including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and later a coalition of groups that helped lead to a national campaign.

Tyler cited opposition from Gov Mark Dayton in 2016 and the Obama Administration’s actions the same year to reject mineral leases that were first issued in 1966 and then held by Twin Metals.

The leases were later restored by the Trump Administration and subsequently pulled by Biden, and are now subject to legal action.

Tyler charged that environmental groups have had an ally in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, contending that the publication has written 19 editorials against the Twin Metals project.

“So where do northeastern Minnesota  stakeholders stand today in all this?” asked Tyler. “Will we be known as the Incredible Shrinking Ely?”

Tyler rattled off a series of statistics and developments, ranging from the current struggles of Ely’s nursing home to the loss of services in Ely including a new car dealership and maternity services.

School enrollment in Ely, which was roughly 950 in grades K-12 in the mid-1990s, has fallen to about 540 this year while overall population in the city has tumbled by 40 percent in a half century.

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