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Firmness In The Right; by Mike Hillman

During the last local election, the candidates running for a seat on the town council were asked the question about where they stood on the issue of sulfide mining in Northeastern Minnesota.  I listened as the other candidates conducted to what amounted to a mini debate with themselves that placed each firmly, and safely, on either side of the issue:  On one hand the region was in an economic slump and needed almost any jobs it could get.  Having the opportunity to mine the second largest undeveloped reserved of copper and nickel in the world would almost certainly bring badly needed jobs to our region.  Then most of the other candidates went on to say, that the mining had to be done in an environmentally sound way, or they were not in favor of it.  The problem was that once you found out the mining couldn’t be done in an environmentally sound way, it would be too late for our water.

Before I knew it, it was my term to address the issue of sulfide mining.  I looked out at the crowd of people gathered in Vermilion Community College Fine Arts Theater, and I noticed the school’s Wilderness Recreation Club was attending the debate.  The club had invited me to speak to them earlier that autumn, and the question of sulfide mining came up.  One of the club members asked me how I felt about sulfide mining.

My answer was simple.  I told Vermilion’s Wilderness Club that in my opinion the area could be one of two things; It could become a sulfide mining center on a scale none of us can imagine, or it can remain a wilderness recreation area proud of maintaining one of the world’s great resources of fresh water, but it can’t be both.  It was the same answer I gave at the public forum a few months later.  When I finished the debate friends told me that my stand against sulfide probably cost me a seat on the town council.  One of my best supporters asked me why I couldn’t dance on either side of the issue like the other candidates did.  I looked at her and repeated a response Senator Henry Clay told a reporter when he lost a third bid for the Presidency of the United States; Henry Clay said, “I would rather be right than be  President.”  In my case it was a seat on the city council, but I felt the same way.  If I had to lie about how I felt, and tell people something I felt was wrong, then I needed to remember what Abraham Lincoln said about maintaining; “A firmness in the right, as God gave him to see the right.” It is my firm belief that mining sulfide ore in Northeastern Minnesota, is not the right thing to do right now.

Since that time, the issue of sulfide mining has come up again.  This year mining companies are asking for the right to mine sulfide ore on either side of the Continental Divide.  Ely is a very small place, and taking a public stand on an issue like sulfide mining, is a bold step, which many small town people aren’t willing to do, but people need to take a stand.

I don’t know if I am going to be a candidate in the next election or not, but this week someone reminded me, that if I wanted a seat on the town council come 2011, that I had better amend my stand on sulfide mining, or my next to the last place finish in the last election, would be looking pretty good come the next one.  What could I say?  I told him, that I would rather be right, than on the town council.  I then went on to say that I would make an effort to find a reason to support sulfide mining.

After months of looking for that silver lining the only positive things I can tell you is that sulfide mining would bring jobs to the area.  The biggest positive I could say in favor of opening a Pandora’s  Box full a noxious chemicals is that we haven’t started mining yet.  Sulfide mining is a Faustian bargain that will have lasting effects to our area’s water system, as well as it’s tourism, and retirement economies.  Once started, sulfide mining will impact the area for hundreds of years.  The small window of economic prosperity derived from sulfide mining, isn’t worth it.  Pro mining people tell me that they are sure we can mine safely here in Northeastern Minnesota, and my response to them is that if that were the case, it would be the first time in history that any sulfide mining company has ever been able to measure up to the promises they made, before they turned areas all over the world into sulfuric cesspools.  Show me one good example of how you can pulverize the rock, process it through vats of cyanide, take twenty pounds out of every ton of rock processed, leaving nineteen hundred and eighty pounds of sulfurous sludge, and not have it impact the area’s three major water sheds.  Maybe we should let the mining companies have a chance to develop the largest undeveloped field of copper and nickel in Africa, before we turn them loose in Northeastern Minnesota, so they can show us how they have mastered the sulfuric acid problem, before we trust them with all our clean water.

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