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Mining debate boils at City Hall

by Tom Coombe

There were no action items related to copper-nickel mining Tuesday at City Hall, but the contentious divide over the hot-button issue played out both at the start and tail end of the regular city council session.

Two mining advocates and one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of proposed copper-nickel projects near Ely addressed city leaders, who heard the remarks without comment.

Gerald Tyler, who heads Up North Jobs, charged that opposition to mining is a significant reason for local school enrollment declines and dwindling city population, and took aim at an assortment of groups and entities including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and area resident Becky Rom.

“The facts are clear and irrefutable,” said Tyler. “Rom lobbied (U.S.) Interior and BLM officials to convince them to reject Twin Metals’ application to renew its leases on federally owned land and to issue an order to conduct a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study.”

Tyler used his full 15 minutes after being placed on the agenda  under the business item “request to appear,” while Rom countered at the end of the meeting during the council’s open forum.

Rom hailed recent actions by the Biden Administration that effectively curtail Twin Metals Minnesota’s efforts to develop a precious metals mine south of Ely. The company is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, a point addressed by Rom during her brief response.

“The science speaks for itself,” said Rom.  “As far as national and state policies it’s time to move on. It’s time for Antofagasta to go back to Santiago.”

Rom also contends that Tyler “seems to give me a lot of credit,” and incorrectly referred to her as an attorney.

“It’s been more than 10 years since I retired from the practice of law,” said Rom.

The issue also attracted a third participant, Ely native and veteran Steve Saari.

Like Tyler, Saari has supported proposed mining projects and talked about swimming earlier in the day at Miners Lake, which once was a mine pit. He added he also had lunch at Grand Ely Lodge, which “was built on a mining dump.”

“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with mine reclamation,” said Saari.

Saari blasted mining opponents, saying “the hypocrisy I see with these groups is unbelievable.”

“These people are trying to cut our throats,” said Saari. “They’re hurting our heritage, our culture.”

The remarks stemmed from the initial address by Tyler, who for several years has led the non-profit group promoting economic development in the Ely area.

In a prepared statement, he lamented school enrollment and population declines and the losses of Ely’s car dealership, taxi service and radio station.

He also provided an extensive timeline that he believes led to the rejection of federal mining leases held by Twin Metals, and alleged it “was the result of extensive lobbying of government officials by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and Becky Rom, in collaboration with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.”

Tyler highlighted developments back to 2006 and opposition to  copper-nickel mining here by the Minnesota Center of Environmental Advocacy, and a 2013 meeting between federal officials and Rom, her husband Reid Carron and polar explorer and Ely business owner Paul Schurke.

Tyler charged that Rom, who heads the national Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, was influential in gaining both federal opposition to the project as well as opposition by former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

The Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, also was influential, according to Tyler.  He alleged that after an editorial writer spent a week in Ely interviewing mining activists “a program to kill Twin Metals’ mine was planned and the message was spread statewide.  He cited a three-page editorial headlined  “Not this mine. Not this location.”

Tyler said the newspaper published at least 20 editorials against the Twin Metals’ mine and “failed to embrace and follow the principles of good journalism with its relentless, baseless attacks intended to kill Twin Metals Minnesota.”

Rom defended the newspaper in her response, noting that an array of newspapers have come out editorially against the Twin Metals project, ranging from the Tower-based Timberjay to publications elsewhere in Minnesota as well as the New York Times.

Tyler said he believes that “killing Twin Metals’ mine will irreparably damage our communities, our schools and northeastern Minnesota’s economy.”

Rom disagreed and invited council members to take a pontoon boat ride on Birch Lake, near where Twin Metals intends to mine.

She said the development of the mine, which promises to employ hundreds of people, would destroy other businesses that depend on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Rom pointed to the Voyageur Outward Bound School and River Point Resort as two examples.

“There are over 30 businesses in the path of the pollution from this mine,” she said.

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