PolyMet's salvage project (www.startribune.com).
by Steve Timmer
Jan 11, 2016, 9:00 AM

If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark

How are you going to stop them?

In December, the Strib ran an editorial series about the “urban-rural divide.” The final installment in the series was written by Lori Sturdevant and titled, Iron Range seeks empathy as it reinvents.

The photograph above is what the Rangers see as reinvention. It’s the old LTV taconite plant, shuttered for fourteen years after LTV went bankrupt. (A mining company went bankrupt, and left the miners, creditors, and the environment holding the bag? Say it ain’t so, Frank Ongaro.)

It comes complete with its own already-leaking tailings basin, polluting the St. Louis River watershed, and therefore Lake Superior, and probably the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, too.

What’s proposed, of course, is PolyMet’s copper-nickel sulfide mine that will use the LTV facility and tailings basin to process ore — well, you can hardly call it “ore,” since it’s 99% waste — from a proposed pit mine some six miles or so away. There is going to be a lot of waste rock and tailings (from the crushing operation at the plant shown in the photo) going into that leaking tailings basin.

But this all old news. What is news is that some people think that building another mine qualifies as reinvention. Way back in the ’40s, when Harold Stassen was the governor — and even before I was born, so that ought to tell you how long ago it was — Minnesota began to worry about reinventing the Iron Range and preparing for the day that mining petered out. That’s when the IRRRB was formed.

We’ve been reinventing the Iron Range ever since by building new mines and providing incentives to do it. A quote from Sturdevant’s piece sums it up pretty well:

“Mining is who we are and what we do,” said Lory Fedo, CEO of the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce.

I submit, my friends, that is not visionary thinking. Substitute the president of the buggy whip manufacturers’ association speaking in 1905; you get the idea.

As Sturdevant points out, mining employment has been in decline for a long time, and it is presently in a crisis. It is in crisis around the world, not only iron mining, but other kinds of mining, too, including, especially copper mining. Remember, too, that PolyMet’s plant — which would still need extensive refurbishing — used to be a taconite plant. The trend line is not encouraging.

Miners are being laid off and mines are closing. Legislators and the governor are wrangling about a special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits to laid off miners on the Range. One of the questions is: how long?

In the face of all of this, as Sturdevant reports, the Range wants us to permit a new and environmentally-hazardous kind of mining, just to show them we love them. I think we could find better ways to do that.

As my favorite Range editorialist, Marshall Helmberger of the Timberjay newspapers, recently pointed out, a PolyMet mine would produce little occupation tax benefit to the state’s coffers. But the state will sure be on the hook for economic assistance in the bust times, as well as cleaning up the messes the mine will inevitably make.

Which brings us finally to Yogi Berra’s quote in the hed and subhed, and a competing one that Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams, hears: Build it and they will come.

In the Hollywood movie, Kinsella builds a ballpark in the middle of a cornfield, and people magically show up. (We went to the Field of Dreams once; we were the only people there.) Yogi’s view, in describing attendance problems in baseball, is a little more jaundiced:

If people don’t want what you have to sell, you can’t make them buy it.

Hoyt Lakes isn’t Hollywood, but PolyMet is a Field of Dreams. Really, it’s more like Yogi’s stadium with a thin crowd.

Author’s note: I’ve been busy with several things these past weeks. It is my hope to starting writing more at LeftMN soon.

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