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The View From Ely, Minn., Ahead Of Midterms


We're continuing our midterm coverage through swing districts across the U.S. I've been in Minnesota's 8th District, and there's a fight over the economic future of some of the small towns up here, including a town called Ely. It's so controversial that some of the people who said they'd talk to me later said no.

It centers on the remarkable natural areas here the Iron Range, where a lot of mining is done, and the Boundary Waters, a million acres of wilderness including forests and lakes. The Trump administration is involved in this local controversy. Vice President Mike Pence was in the district this summer, and here's what he said.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And we are clearing the way as we speak for new mines to bring Minnesota iron...

KING: Pence was promising to expand mining, including copper-nickel mining. Great, maybe, if you're a miner or want to be one. But one of the proposed places for this mining is by those lakes. This story is often presented as a fight between miners and people who love the environment, but people we spoke to said that's wrong. But it is about different views on how this region should move forward economically. We heard one vision earlier this week when we pulled into a taconite mine.


KING: Hi, you guys. Steve? Nice to meet you.

STEVE: Nice to meet you.


RON: I'm Ron.

KING: Ron? Nice to meet you.

MERLIN GERT: I'm Merlin.

KING: Merlin? Merlin, like the wizard.

Taconite is an iron ore that's used to make steel. Taconite mines have been around for generations up here, and at this point, they're not controversial like copper-nickel mines. It was really beautiful up by the mine.

GERT: The lakes, the forests, just the country. I love the country.

KING: Is this mine beautiful?

GERT: This mine is beautiful. It keeps us working.

KING: That was Merlin Gert (ph). The guys here say mining supports a lot of other jobs in this region.

STEVE BIONDICH: You guys have noticed there's been a lot of traffic coming in and out here? You know, without us, these guys are out of a job. You know, we're their lifeblood, as well.

KING: Steve Biondich (ph) maintains machinery at the mine, and he told me taconite mining is a good job up here. You can make a lot of money. He says he's made $86,000 so far this year.

BIONDICH: You know, I could go to Minneapolis right now and I'd be paying all my money in rent. I wouldn't have, you know, three vehicles and a motorcycle and a boat and seven snowmobiles and all the things that I have because the cost of living is so high.

KING: Do you really have seven snowmobiles?

BIONDICH: No. I think I have, like, 12.

KING: Whoa.

BIONDICH: They're all vintage.

KING: It's a great life, especially if you like the outdoors. Here's Scott Polyner (ph). He's a welder at the mine.

SCOTT POLYNER: My dad and I, next - you know, this Friday are going to go deer hunting 'cause that's our annual thing. Our hunting shack is probably maybe a quarter-mile away from the Boundary Waters, one of the lines. We don't want to see it destroyed.

KING: What he's actually saying is, we don't want to see the Boundary Waters destroyed, either.

Could I drink that water down there?

PETA BARRETT: You could. If you'd go out into the lake where it's calm, things have settled, you could dip your cup and drink the water from the Boundary Waters without filtering it and do just fine.

KING: That's Peta Barrett. And here we get into the other economic argument. Peta runs a business that guides people on wilderness trips in the area. We took a hike with her earlier this week.

BARRETT: We are walking to the Kawishiwi Falls. It's where the river starts heading back towards the boundary Waters.

KING: Peta and others like her say not only do they love this wilderness as a retreat, it also helps keep them in business because it draws a ton of tourism. They're worried that copper nickel mining will pollute the Boundary Waters, and they say they've got good reason.

BARRETT: It has been proven time and again. And you look at anywhere where copper mining has been done. Here in this - let's start with this country, in Arizona. I mean, all of the copper mines throughout that state have contaminated the soil. They have contaminated the groundwater, the surface water. And that's not mitigated quickly.

KING: The mining company that wants to set up shop here says new technology has made things safer, but it's never been done here so nobody knows exactly what would happen. So between these two competing ideas on the economic future of this region - copper-nickel mining, or using the wilderness as an asset - is there a right answer? If only an economist lived in this town of about 3,400 people.

KRIS HALLBERG: I'm an economist.

KING: That is Kris Hallberg.

HALLBERG: Most of my career, I was in Washington, D.C., with the World Bank.

KING: And now you're in Ely.

HALLBERG: And now I'm in Ely. (Laughter). Yeah. If I say I worked at the World Bank, they say, were you a teller?


KING: Has that really happened?

HALLBERG: Yes. That has happened.

KING: She's worked all over the world.

HALLBERG: Ely is like this microcosm of what's going on nationally.

KING: She's really interested in the debate, and so she's looked at some research on job creation and mining.

HALLBERG: I think the number of jobs that would be created by those projects has been a bit overestimated.

KING: This is the new copper-nickel mines that we're talking about.

HALLBERG: Exactly.


HALLBERG: Exactly. So, you know, the mining industry is becoming more and more mechanized. And so in the future, you know, you might see - I don't know - driverless trucks, or something, doing a lot of the work in the mine run by somebody in front of a computer that's nowhere near the mining area.

KING: That was economist Kris Hallberg. And we're back now at Minnesota Public Radio's studios in Duluth. Aaron Brown is here with me. He writes the political blog Minnesota Brown, and he's a former Democratic campaign manager. I mean, Aaron, this issue could not be more divisive.

AARON BROWN: I always like to compare it to "West Side Story," the Jets and the Sharks, and the different moves people go through to really stand for their side. And, really, the issue is, is it's so cultural. People have a different reality based on which side of the argument they are. They all think they're fighting for the future and the way of life for their people.

KING: I heard some of that, people saying exactly the same thing, but using it to bolster a different points.

BROWN: Right.

KING: There was actually a big development in this state in the fight over copper-nickel mining just yesterday, right?

BROWN: Yeah. The first copper-nickel mine in the state, at the PolyMet mine, was permitted by the state of Minnesota. And that's been a long time coming. A long, drawn out process. More than a decade. And now it's a reality that we're confronted with.

KING: When I was talking to folks up in Ely, people who did not want mining coming into the region, many of them said to me, this is all about politics. This is about the Trump administration wanting to tell people up here, you know, we're going to bring jobs to this region. So we've got the midterms coming up on Tuesday and this mine approved. Do you think this is going to have a big impact?

BROWN: You know, with just a few days before the election, it's hard to say. I think a lot of attitudes on the issue are really calcified, and it's going to be hard to move people from their candidate. But it certainly is a tremendous, you know, bomb of information to be dropped right before the election. And in a very close race or a volatile race, we don't know what that outcome's going to be because of this.

KING: And for people in that region, we should say this copper-nickel mine that's been - the permitting that's been approved is not in Ely. It's on the Iron Range.

BROWN: Right.

KING: But for people there looking in a struggling economy could be very exciting.

BROWN: Yeah. And people in Hoyt Lakes, where this mine is located, their mine, their iron mine closed in the early 2000s. And they're looking at this as a huge opportunity. And realistically, that's true. For those specific communities, it is a huge opportunity. And that's why you see such a divide between the people who live there and the people who live other places.

KING: Aaron Brown, political blogger. Thanks so much.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.