Sulfide mining advocates say they’ll deliver jobs, but how many?

By: - July 8, 2021 6:01 am

Wetlands just of north of the tailings dam at the PolyMet site. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

The late Gov. Rudy Perpich, the favorite son of the Iron Range, coined the phrase, “jobs, jobs, jobs” in response to the downturn in the mining economy in the 1980s. It’s been the dominant theme of politics in northeastern Minnesota ever since. 

And it’s driving debate about two controversial copper-nickel mines proposed in the Duluth Complex, home to large undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt and other critical minerals. 

These metals are key components in green technologies, including solar, wind and electric vehicles.

After years of a shrinking iron ore industry, mining advocates say the projects would bring back hundreds of jobs to the region and thousands of spin-off jobs in health care, manufacturing and retail. Polymet, which remains immersed in a permitting battle over its planned mine at the old LTV taconite site, estimates the project once completed would produce 360 mining, engineering, mechanical and other professional jobs. Twin Metals Minnesota said it will create more than 750 long-term jobs during the period of operation.

Opponents of the projects say 1,100 jobs — albeit good paying, with good benefits — is hardly worth the risk of environmental catastrophe. A tailings dam similar in design to the one proposed by Polymet resulted in one of the worst mining disasters in Canada’s history. The Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia failed in 2014, sending 25 million cubic meters of tailings into waterways, expanding the nearby creek from its usual three-feet width to more than 150-feet wide, overflowing with toxic water waste. (Twin Metals Minnesota has proposed a different method of tailings storage).

In the scheme of the Minnesota economy, 1,100 jobs isn’t many. UnitedHealth Group, for instance, currently lists nearly 800 job openings within 25 miles of Minneapolis. 

But for many people in struggling cities and townships of northeastern Minnesota that have lost both jobs and people, the proposed projects feel like a lifeline. Although both Twin Metals and Polymet projects are currently stalled in regulatory stasis that hinges on those environmental risks, mining proponents are encouraged by the strong priority placed on copper, nickel and critical minerals.

Minerals across the political spectrum 

In the decades to come, as the economy shifts away from dependence on coal, oil and natural gas and toward green technologies, critical minerals will be as valuable as oil is today, according to David S. Abraham, author of “The Elements of Power,” which details how these rare metals will shape the future.  

“At no point in human history have we used more elements in more combinations and in increasingly refined amounts. Our ingenuity will soon outpace our material supplies,” writes Abraham.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency provided key guidelines for countries to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050. Under this timeline, “the total market size for critical minerals like copper, cobalt and various rare earth metals grows almost sevenfold between 2020 and 2030,” according to the report. IAE’s findings are significant because the international agency advises countries on energy policy and spending.

Mining jobs for Minnesotans

Despite its almost mythical place in the state’s history and culture, mining accounts for just 0.02% of Minnesota’s current employment. The jobs pay an average of $90,000 per year, however, in comparison to the Arrowhead region’s overall average of $43,000, according to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“From a regional standpoint, we need employment here that doesn’t pay $8 an hour over three-and-a-half months a year,” said Joe Baltich, founder of Fight for Mining Minnesota, referring to seasonal tourism. “I grew up in this business. It is part-time employment. No matter how you cut it.”

Seagull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail. The Boundary Waters and surrounding Superior National Forest are home to 20% of the freshwater in the national forest system. Critical mineral mining has resurrected the generational debate on the direction of job growth in the region. Photo by Christina MacGillivray/Minnesota Reformer.

Baltich is a third-generation owner of the Northwind Lodge in Ely. His grandfather built the first cabin on the property in 1939 and would later retire after 16 years of underground mining to run the business full time.

“My first official job here was when I was 6 years old,” Baltich said. He described shimmying under a cabin to secure a gas line connection as a child. “My dad was scared that if I got stuck he’d have to saw the floor of the cabin to get me out.”

After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in Business Administration in 1983, Baltich returned to the family business to serve as a guide for tourists to the Boundary Waters. He watched his family business decline decade after decade.

The family business grew through the 80s but then faltered in the 90s and 2000s.

“Nobody that has a lot of money starts a resort,” he said. “If you have a lot of money you get a 401(k). If you have a resort all you get is a lot of work.”

After the Obama administration announced a stay on the Twin Metals project in December 2016, Baltich was furious. He was not alone. He started the Facebook group Fight for Mining Minnesota with the goal to organize 300 locals to tweet to then President-elect Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s decision upon taking office.

“I put it out there for people to join. In 24 hours we had 10,000 members,” he said.

Fight for Mining Minnesota began with the goal to reverse the Obama administration’s decision. “It took us two-and-a-half years. But we got it done,” Baltich said.

At 60 years old, Baltich doesn’t want a mining job, but he wants to see good opportunities for his community based on the resources available in the region.

“We are sitting on a half-trillion dollars worth of copper-nickel, and we are getting our nickel from China and copper from (Chile),” he said. “What the heck are we doing that for? Why aren’t we employing our people?”

But skeptics question the true number of jobs the mines will bring to the region, as well as whether the jobs will remain.

“Those numbers may well have been made up,” said Aaron Brown, Iron Range native and journalist who writes a monthly Reformer column. “If you are building a new mine, you don’t build it for a large workforce. You’re building for highly automated systems because that’s the best technology available now.”

A frequently cited study by Harvard economist James Stock looked at more than 70 different economic models projecting 20 years into the region’s future under two scenarios: If the mines moved forward and if they did not. In nearly every scenario a service economy based on tourism yielded stronger long-term economic job growth for the region over the short-term boom-bust cycle associated with mining.

Critical minerals are high priority for Biden

At the national level, President Joe Biden has framed the transition to a green economy through the lens of job creation.

“Climate change is more than a threat. It also presents one of the largest job creation opportunities in history,” he said at the Summit on Climate Change in April 2021. Biden’s agenda puts an emphasis on job creation through expanding wind and solar — both of which require copper and nickel.

The United States is dependent on imports for its supply of most critical minerals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China controls the production of an overwhelming number of the minerals our economy is increasingly dependent on, a vulnerability made acutely apparent with increased trade tension between the United States and China during the pandemic.

The Senate passed a landmark bill in June 2021 allocating nearly a quarter-trillion dollars to increase competitiveness with China. The bill, which had wide bipartisan support, includes funding for the development of critical minerals in the United States.

“As long as we cannot stop the fear that China can cut us off, it gives permission to continue to develop these mines,” said Roopali Phadke, chair of environmental studies at Macalester College. Phadke led a multiyear National Science Foundation study on the future of mining. 

This line of reasoning can be used to create an exaggerated sense of anxiety because it moves mining into the realm of national security. This is familiar and comfortable terrain for people on the Iron Range, who are quick to recite the role the Range played in helping the allies win World War II by providing more than three-fourths of the iron ore used in the war effort. 

“There’s a false narrative in there that says that the only way to move forward to initiate the green energy economy we want is by saying yes to these kinds of mines,” Phadke said.

Environmental advocates believe recycling minerals is a more sustainable method than extracting new ones near pristine places like the Boundary Waters. The United States recycles 38% of its copper, wrote Pete Marshall, a spokesperson for Friends of the Boundary Waters, citing the U.S. Geological Survey’s annual copper report.

He added: “If the U.S. raised the recycling rate to just 50%, it would produce more copper each year than would be extracted by nine Twin Metals or 15 PolyMets.” 

The European Union currently meets 50% of its copper needs through recycling, indicating it is a feasible goal, although recycling copper in the United States can be more expensive than extraction.  

If the United States could improve its recycling, making Twin Metals and Polymet unnecessary, an estimated 1,100 workers would have to find their livelihood elsewhere.

This story has been updated to correct the percent of copper recycled in the United States.

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Christina Macgillivray
Christina Macgillivray

Christina MacGillivray is an independent filmmaker and journalist from Minnesota. She is a former President William J. Clinton fellow, led migration media and reporting projects for the UN Human Rights Office over eight years and has reported from a dozen countries. When she's not reporting she is crafting, walking and spending time in northeast Minnesota.