Skip to main content

Proclamation raises a stir

Mining foes take aim at city’s “Twin Metals Appreciation Days,” say city should ask company to leave and “return to Santiago”

by Tom Coombe

A mayoral proclamation, recognizing Twin Metals Minnesota’s financial support for local charities, stirred backlash in Ely this week from opponents of the copper-nickel mining project.

Shortly after Mayor Heidi Omerza read a proclamation declaring July 28-30 to be Twin Metals Minnesota Appreciation Days, three people pushed back and said the proclamation wasn’t appropriate or needed.

“Honoring an international mining company that has no place in the future of Ely is wrong, divisive and makes no sense,” said Becky Rom, an Ely area activist who leads the national Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

The proclamation, which has also been made in previous years, is symbolic, and salutes Twin Metals for its contributions of more than $550,000 to area charities and causes since.

Other language recognizes the company for providing “a continuing stream of employment with well-paying jobs” and that it “has already had a significant impact on job creation and economic development in northeastern Minnesota.”

While still years away from a mining operation and with significant political, permitting and financing obstacles still to clear, Twin Metals has had offices in Ely since 2010 and owns a pair of buildings in the city’s business park,

But opponents of the project charged that recent setbacks have effectively ended the project and that it’s time to move on and for Antofagasta, the Chilean mining conglomerate that owns Twin Metals, to do so as well.

“Let’s unite around asking Antofagasta to leave Minnesota and return to Santiago, Chile,” Rom told the council.

Rom called Twin Metals’ charitable giving in Ely “pocket change” and said the company spent twice as much last year for lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

While Rom and two others spoke in opposition to the proclamation, one of the area’s prominent copper-nickel mining supporters, Gerald Tyler of Up North Jobs, used the open forum session at the end of the council meeting to respond.

Tyler said that the speakers “shamelessly forget what Twin Metals has done for Ely,” pointing to the charitable giving and contributions to Ely’s veterans memorial and to fund protective gear for the Ely Police Department.

Yet council members heard and did not respond to those who say the recognition is inappropriate.

Rom reiterated arguments that a copper-nickel mine south of Ely, as proposed by Twin Metals, would pollute the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and devastate the area’s amenity based economy.

A Twin Metals mine would “destroy much of what we love about our community,” said Rom, who added it “would lead to loss of longstanding and valued businesses and the loss of jobs.”

She also poked holes at contentions a Twin Metals mine would rejuvenate Ely’s economy, contending that “mining companies are rapidly automating” and noting that the taconite mining industry in the region has gone from 14,000 to 4,000 jobs in the last 50 years, without losing productivity.

“There are no jobs at the end of a Twin Metals rainbow,” said Rom. “The talk about 750 jobs is just talk and is not something for anybody to take to the bank.”

Rom also questioned the city’s taking note of Twin Metals’ contributions.

“Based on these standards are dozens of local businesses who are far more worthy of appreciation,” she said. “Many of these businesses will suffer if there ever was a Twin Metals mine.”

Those prospects are all but dead, Rom said, given environmental studies by federal and state governments and regulatory agencies’ rejection of the Twin Metals project.

“Accept this reality, there is no Twin Metals mine,” said Rom. “It has no federal leases. It has no place to put its waste.”

Jay Gustafson, store manager at Ely’s Piragis Northwoods Company, also spoke against the proclamation.

“What is your goal in declaring and signing this proclamation?” he asked. “Who specifically in the Ely community benefits? I’m struck how this process continues to drive a wedge in this community.”

Gustafson told the council that there “is no Twin Metals mine” and that city leaders need to “accept there never will be.”

“No local Ely jobs will be created because of this proclamation,” he said. “People will not relocate to Ely because of this proclamation, and actual Ely businesses that are the backbone of this economy are under appreciated because of his proclamation.”

Gustafson said Piragis Northwoods Company has “62 people on our payroll as of today,” and that the council would be better served by working on other issues, including the pursuit of more affordable and sustainable workforce housing.

Madeline Fahnline of Ely, the northern regional organizer for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, told the council that she “fell in love with the Boundary Waters, the Quetico and Ely” and appreciates living in the community.

“My overwhelming impression is how wonderful this little town is and how passionate everybody is,” she said. “Everyone wants to see Ely thrive. Everyone wants to see Ely better than it already is.”

She said “I feel like there’s an increasing frustration on all sides and all parties about this issue and it seems like we can’t move past it even though this mine is a non-starter and isn’t moving forward.”

Fahnline also said Ely needs “to set aside some of this vitriol.”

Tyler, who was instrumental in the start of Twin Metals Minnesota Appreciation Days, which usually include a table and tent set up near Whiteside Park during the Blueberry/Art Festival, said critics misunderstand the purpose of the proclamation.

“This isn’t about the future it’s about what Twin Metals has done in the past,” said Tyler. “Twin Metals is an important valuable member of this community.”

He charged that opponents “should consider doing something for Ely.”

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates