Listen: Copper Nickel

MPR’s Paul Gruchow reports on debate over copper-nickel mining development in northeastern Minnesota. Report includes comments from residents and environmental officials.


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PAUL GRUCHOW: The development of Minnesota's copper nickel resources will be dramatically different than the development of either the iron ore or taconite industries. The difference will be that this time, development will take place under close public scrutiny, particularly from several of the state's new environmental groups.

Already, a group of university environmentalists has begun scrutiny of copper nickel development. The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group has released a report advocating caution. A state study group has been formed to consider what new laws might be appropriate as a result of the new industry. And conferences such as the one this weekend are under way.

The director of the State Pollution Control Agency is on record as opposing any copper nickel mining until better pollution control technology is perfected even if that takes a couple of decades. Citizens in chronically depressed Northeastern Minnesota however, who see the new industry as the answer to their economic woes, are frustrated by all of this attention. The conflict is sharp and complicated. Duane Krause, the young executive Secretary of the Ely Chamber of Commerce.

DUANE KRAUSE: I have chosen to spend my life in Ely. I am very discouraged by what I've heard this afternoon. And I have a problem. And if you'll pardon a little emotion, it is an emotional problem. I have to go back to my community. And I have to talk to that 17%. I have to talk to those families who are out of work.

Now, my question to the panel is, what do you suggest that I tell these families? I'm just wondering what kind of-- if Mr. Merrick was in my position, what he would say to those people. Now, you ask about what will we do 20 years from now if copper nickel came and went. I'm asking you, what do we do right now?

JOHN HERMAN: If people are to hear what the citizens of Ely are as destroy the environment if that's necessary because we've got to have copper nickel mining--


JOHN HERMAN: --response like this fellow over here. I think that there's a much more rational response, which is in between that. I think there's the response of environmental regulations that are tough that will protect the environment, that will ensure that we don't subsidize copper nickel mining by destroying the environment. And if copper nickel mining can come and meet those regulations, then it should come. And it's appropriate that it should come.

For example, the question of mine reclamation might well be solved and people's worries about it not being taken care of at the end of the mining assuaged by a strong state reclamation statute that required the posting of an adequate bond to take care of reclamation at the end. The cost of carrying that bond isn't very high for a reputable company, and it puts everybody in the public's mind at ease.

But I don't think that really answers the basic underlying economic problem of Northeastern Minnesota. I realize that right now, copper nickel mining looks like the one thing that might come in there economically of its own accord. And I think if we are concerned about those social environmental problems, that the rest of us who are concerned about preserving the environment there ought to start taking a hard look at whether or not we don't want to set up a regional development CORPORATION and subsidize the establishment of other industries that aren't going to hurt the environment.

GRANT MERIT: In our agency on the staff level, we looked at the human factor. We've looked at what's happening around the country where in the field of air pollution, we face national suffocation.

PAUL GRUCHOW: Grant Merit of the Pollution Control Agency.

GRANT MERIT: --that we're discussing here. Now, until the industry can prove-- and I think the burden of proof ought to be on the industry-- that there will not be this kind of environmental impact, I don't think there should be development. If they can prove that and the burden of proof is sustained, then I think that we ought to have copper nickel mining in Northern Minnesota. That's really what I'm saying.

And I think for the short term, the next few years or over this decade of the '70s, we ought not to have that development because we don't have the proper protection and proper assurances and the technology that's been proven. If we can achieve that technology and the burden is sustained, then I think copper nickel mining ought to proceed. And the economic impact would be felt certainly throughout the area.

I think another point pertinent to your question is that we have in Northeastern Minnesota, in my view-- maybe I'm biased having grown up there, having enjoyed the North Shore-- a unique asset. Lake Superior alone, of course, is the world's largest lake, the world's greatest body of freshwater. Copper nickel mining would have a substantial impact on Lake Superior, at least if power plants are located nearby and smelters are located near the lake. And obviously, there has to be transportation. In all likelihood, at least in part using Lake Superior.

Then you have the BWSA, which is also unique as so many speakers have stressed. And you have a very, I think, important tourist asset in the North Shore. The North Shore Drive, which I regard as even more spectacular than the Big Sur drive in California. And I think these are things that are so precious to Minnesotans that we ought to preserve them.

DEAN ABRAHAMSON: Now, during the last year a fairly large number of faculty members at the university have been meeting fairly regularly to discuss this issue and to discuss what posture, if any, we should take, what studies, if anything, we should take. Now, we did not ask representative Ely to come down and talk to us nor did we talk to the industry. That may be an oversight. But we did talk to Mr. Sims and his staff of the Geological Survey. We talked to the--

PAUL GRUCHOW: Dr. Dean Abrahamson of the University Center for Studies of Physical Environment.

DEAN ABRAHAMSON: --mineral research center at the university, people who deal intimately supposedly with this question. And one of the first questions that we tried to get resolved was how imminent is this industry, that is there a necessity for a crash study of some kind? Do we have 10 years? Do we have 40 years and the like?

And after substantial discussion and getting views from people that supposedly are intimately acquainted with the situation, the most that we could get was a statement that it might come within a decade. That is, nobody was willing to say that this industry will come into the state in less than a decade. Nobody would make that statement.

Now, what have the people in Ely been told? Are we grossly wrong? Is the geological survey grossly wrong? Is the minerals research center grossly misinformed? Is it imminent? Is this industry planning to be initiated in the state next year? On what grounds are the people in Ely expecting employment in the very near future?

PAUL GRUCHOW: So copper nickel mining raises conflicts between those who see the need for jobs and those who would preserve the environment. We'll examine these conflicts from the points of view of four experts in our reports this week. This is Paul Gruchow.


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