I’ve been thinking! Once a Mining Town, Always a Mining Town?

Thinking about Ely

Always a Mining Town?

10 November 2011; Once a Mining Town, Always a Mining Town, by Mike Hillman

Some of my best friends have asked me why so many old town people seem so strong in their support of sulfide mining. It is a valid question that leaves many people scratching their heads wondering why any intelligent people would risk the future of their home town based on the empty promises of multi national companies who have one real interest; making as much money as possible. In order to answer the question one has to delve deeply into the psyche of the old town.

Ely is very proud of both its mining and logging heritage. There wouldn’t be an Ely without the iron that brought people here in the mid 1880’s. The truth is that without iron deposits, we might all be paddling out of Duluth. The same can be said about Ely’s satellite community Winton three miles to the east. The difference being that Winton owes its existence to logging. Both towns were established where they are because of location. Ely was built as close to the richest small deposit of iron ever mined anywhere in North America.

All you have to do is to go down to Miners Lake and you can see for yourself just how small the pocket of Ely’s iron deposit was. The dimension of Miners Lake pretty well follows the shape of the old deposit of rich hematite. It might have been small, but the deposit dived deep down into the earth’s outer crust. When the tonnage of iron was added up, over eighty two million tons of iron was extracted by the six mines that worked the rich deposit.

Winton was built where it is because of the number of rivers that flowed into Fall Lake. Back in the big lumbering days, we lacked the machinery to move all those logs to the mills. There was no powerful equipment to haul the logs to Winton. The best way to move the millions of logs that were harvested was to float them down the lakes and rivers to the mills operating in Winton. As in the case of Ely location was everything. It was no accident that the two towns were built where they were.

The major difference between the industries was that the iron mining involved a much smaller surface area than the logging did. The other major difference between the two industries was time; the iron mining lasted much longer than the logging did. Winton started cutting pine a couple of years after Ely started mining iron back in 1886. When the timber cruisers reported to the logging companies how vast the stands of red and white pine were in Northeastern Minnesota, the logging companies told local newsmen that there was so much pine in Minnesota, that it would be impossible to log it in a single lifetime. They wanted to give the impression that the timber would last for at least two generations. To say that was an overstatement is being very kind. In less than thirty years all of the great stands of white and red pines were gone, and the lumber companies moved west.

The Vermilion Range Mining enjoyed a bit more longevity. The Soudan Mine shipped its first iron in 1884, the last Vermilion Range mine closed in 1967 when the Pioneer shut down the pumps and gave up the iron to water and darkness. United States Steel closed operations in Ely as a cost saving measure. It was much cheaper to pit mine down on the much bigger Mesabi Range. There is still a lot of iron left under the waters of Miners Lake, but as soon as the company didn’t need the iron, they ceased operations and sold all their holdings in the City of Ely for a dollar. And then they were gone, leaving Ely and its loyal and hardworking people to their own devices.

I have no problems remembering and honoring the thousands of men who worked in either industry. They were good hard working people who earned their bread by hard back breaking work. Much of my writing and many of my stories are about those hard working miners and lumberjacks. They left us a colorful history that their descendents have a right to be very proud of. I don’t know how many lumberjacks were killed out in the woods, or riding logs down to the mills on the big log drives crossing lakes and shooting down dangerous rapids. They kept better records of the miners who were killed. We know that over two hundred men were killed in mining accidents on the Vermilion Iron Range. I have nothing but respect for those hard working loggers and miners. Their hard work made it possible for their children to get an education and enjoy the chance of a better and easier life. Looking honestly at the companies who employed them is an altogether different matter.

When Theodore Roosevelt sent foresters to survey the soon to be created Superior National Forest, they reported back to him that there was no forest to manage. The big logging companies had taken it all with no regard to the needs future generations. After operating from Maine to Minnesota for close to two hundred years, it didn’t occur to them until 1900 that there wasn’t enough white pine seed in America to reforest the land for future generations. In an act of desperation, they imported seed from England in order to plant a new generation of white pines. Unfortunately the imported pines brought the devastating white pine blister rust to America. So many white pines were deformed by the imported blister rust, that it is still impossible to sustain a logging industry today. All anyone need do is to take a walk around Ely’s forests to see the legacy of deformed white pines. After years of research, we still haven’t found a cure for this crippling disease.

The iron mining left a much better legacy for future generations of Elyites. Looking back on the eighty three year history of the Vermilion Iron Range all any reliable mining historian can say is that we were very fortunate the iron mining was as benign as it was. Part of the reason for this was the iron mining around Ely was limited in size. Because of the vertical configuration of the iron, the Vermilion Range was spared the vast open pits that scarred the Mesabi Range. All that is left of Vermilion Range Mining are the few open pits at the Soudan Underground Mine, Miners Lake, and two small pits near Section Thirty. The rest of the mining is hidden from sight because it was all done underground. But what of the residual effects of that mining, surely there must have been some negative impact from eighty years of iron mining.

Nope. There is nothing bad to be said about it. As far as mining goes, Ely was about as lucky as it could possibly be. None of the lakes and rivers suffered any damage from the waste rock that was dumped near there shores. In fact one can even point to the large pile of waste rock dumped right next to Shagawa Lake to prove the point. That waste rock came from the Pioneer Mine, and it now provides the firm foundation of The Grand Ely Lodge. The Shagawa Lake Boat launch was built on more of that waste rock. Looking at it in this light, one could even make the point that mining is actually providing a firm base for our current tourist driven economy.

The six Ely mines provided most of the town’s economic base for eight decades. When the Pioneer Mine closed four hundred and fifty men had to seek employment else where. Looking at our mining history in this light, is it any wonder that many old town people are in favor of returning to mining to jump start our flagging economy? If we did so well with the iron mining, and with all the advances in mining technology, shouldn’t we welcome the proposed sulfide mining with smiling happy faces and grateful open arms?

Not so fast. Comparing our old iron mining to the proposed sulfide mining is like comparing a potato to a carrot. Yes, they are both vegetables, but one look at them, and anyone can see the differences between the two. While many people would love a breakfast of ham, eggs, and fried potatoes or hash browns, how many people would care to get rid of the potatoes and have a side order of fried carrots instead? It is about the same thing comparing iron and sulfide mining. Yes, they’re both forms of mining, but if anyone thinks that sulfide mining would be as kind to future generations as the iron mining was is either very desperate or very stupid. We were very lucky in the past, but if we open Pandora’s Jar, and allow these foreign owned companies to start operating near the Kawishiwi River our luck is going to run out.
When we mined iron there wasn’t much of a process involved. All we had to do was blast the iron and crush it into workable pieces. In Ely we didn’t have do even do much of that, because nature had already pre-crushed the iron for us. All we had to do was to haul the iron to the surface and load it on the train. Our iron was all over sixty five percent pure, and it was the best iron anyone ever mined in the world. We never had to process any Vermilion Range Iron it was good to ship just as it was.

Sadly, the same thing cannot be said of the vast deposit of sulfide ore lying along the shore of the Kawishiwi River. If we start mining copper and nickel, the process will involve a lot of beneficiation. Don’t be frightened by a big word. All beneficiation means is that before any copper, nickel, gold, or platinum can be successfully mined here, but it will need a lot of processing, and there is the big rub. Before we can ship any of this ore to market it’s going to take a lot of work to get it ready, and that has always been the rub with this type of mining. The problem isn’t with any of the metals we would mine it is with the process and what will be left behind when the mining is finished.

Processing the copper and nickel on the Kawishiwi Range would be much closer to they way we process taconite rock today on the Mesabi Range. There are people in Ely who work on the Mesabi Range. Many of us have visited a taconite mine to see how the low grade iron is mined and processed. The first thing that needs to be done with the rock once it is drilled and blasted, is to separate the iron from the rest of the waste rock. Almost all the taconite rock mined in Minnesota is less than thirty percent iron.

The rock is loaded into trucks and then hauled to a crusher. From the crusher, the smaller pieces of rock are put on a conveyer belt where they go to a big building called the concentrator. The rock enters large mills that turn around like big hollow metal wheels. The mill wheels keep turning and the rock is ground into sludge. From there the sludge is passed through large magnetic separators. The large drum like magnets takes the iron and separates it from the other rock which is then sent out to the tailings basin. Any one who has never seen just how large a tailings basin is should take a flight over one of the taconite mines and see just how large an area it takes to deal with all that pulverized sludge.

The main difference between taconite mining and sulfide mining comes in the separation process. Copper, nickel, platinum, and gold are non magnetic, so we need a different way to separate the minerals we want from the rest of the rock which is wasted. In place of magnetic separators sulfide mining passes its pulverized slurry through tanks filled with thousands of gallons of either potassium or sodium cyanide. The cyanide acts as a bonding agent that keeps the desired minerals while the rest of the sludge is sent out to a tailing basin where the heavier rock settles to the bottom of the pond and the water left over is recycled to be used again in the process. It is this waste product that has always presented a problem for sulfide mining, because it leaves a lot of sulfur exposed to the elements. When water combines with sulfur, it makes sulfuric acid which is bad stuff.

In order to be fair to the sulfide companies I will be generous in the comparison between the desired minerals which will be kept, and the other components which are considered to be waste. The highest concentration that the sulfide mining companies will keep for profit is five percent or less. This means that out of a ton of rock, they will keep about fifty pounds of copper or nickel. That leaves 1950 pounds of waste that will be left behind. A small percentage of that waste product contains sulfur. There isn’t much the mining companies can do about it, and still make a profit. It is the nature of the beast.

The best that can be said about the proposed sulfide mining, for anyone who cares about the areas vast resources of fresh water, is that the sulfur content of Minnesota’s rock is less than the rock previously mined in parts of the western United States. Out west places that once gave sulfide mining a try are still dealing with bright orange colored creeks and rivers that are still polluted with sulfuric acid over a century after the mining was finished. One company employee of Twin Metals tried to pacify my concerns by reassuring me that in the worst case scenario, the acidity of the water that will eventually flow into the Kawishiwi River will only have the acidity of a cup of orange juice. It sounded pretty benign until I tried to put minnows and leeches in a gallon of orange juice. We might be able to drink orange juice, but nothing can live long in a glass of orange juice.

I know that companies like Twin Metals have assured us that everything that can possibly be done will be done in to make sure that when the mining is finished in a couple of generations that we won’t be left with the same legacy that they have left in other places all over the world. They like to throw out terms like new technology, to assuage our fears, but in truth there is no technology in the world that will keep the acid from entering our water and flowing into the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area and eventually polluting the Rainy River Water Shed. Look out Canada, because sooner or later this water will make its way all the way to Hudson Bay.

In the past decades Iron Range Resources has poured millions of dollars trying to help the Mesabi Range diversify its economy. They have built elaborate golf courses, the Iron Range Interpretive Center, and the Giants Ridge Ski area, but nothing they have tried has ever turned a profit. The Mesabi Range made a great sacrifice to America’s history. They have a right to be proud of that generous contribution to our nation, and they are still making that contribution today. They have little choice but to continue to mine whatever else can be mined. Every year the huge open pits will get wider and deeper, the piles of waste rock will grow higher and higher, and the tailings basins will spread and deepen across the land. It is too late to change the fate of the Mesabi Range.

But we fortunate few living north of the Continental Divide do have a choice. We can say no to sulfide mining. Ely was a mining town, and it should be proud of its history, but if anyone thinks that sulfide mining will leave us a future nearly as bright as the iron mining did is sadly mistaken. For over forty years we have been a tourist based economy and a place where people come to retire, because we are one of the few unspoiled and under exploited places left in the world. If we stick with the beautiful bird that we have in hand, Ely will continue to have a future with no end in sight, but if anyone thinks that sulfide mining and tourism can co-exist they need only to look at places like Virginia to see the eventual ruination that sulfide mining will bring to our future. We can be one thing or the other, but we can not be both.

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