The Ely City Council has waved its colors in the bitter fight over opening up northeast Minnesota to copper mining, adopting a resolution in support of the copper-nickel mines Twin Metals and PolyMet Mining want to build in the area.
The Iron Range town’s stand comes amid a boycott of businesses owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, which has come out in opposition to copper mining in the area, and the ensuing dispute over whether Ely’s mayor crossed a line in encouraging a boycott.
This week, Ely’s City Council unanimously passed a pro-mining resolution, with one council member absent. More than 100 people packed the council chambers Wednesday night, many bearing pro-mining signs — one wore his mining hard hat with a lamp on it — and burst into applause after the vote. Council Member Al Forsman had on a blue T-shirt emblazoned with “We Support Mining.”
A small group of environmentalists at the meeting tried to present a competing resolution, but the discussion and vote were tabled until March 31.
That resolution, brought by a group of five area residents opposed to copper-nickel mining, said that the city of Ely does not support boycotting the Bois Forte Band’s Fortune Bay Casino or any other businesses. The group includes Ely native Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which is a leader in the fight against the copper-nickel mine that the Chilean mining company Antofagasta wants to build near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The environmentalists first presented the “no boycott” resolution on Feb. 18, but the Ely City Council instructed them to follow certain procedures and present it again March 4. After a lengthy discussion about the Blueberry/Art and Harvest Moon festivals, the City Council told Rom’s group that it couldn’t have its 15 minutes to speak because the resolution lacked the proper printed resolution number and because Rom and two other group members live outside Ely city limits. The council accepted the resolution and said it would deal with it March 31.
During the council’s open forum, Rom scolded Ely Mayor Chuck Novak for encouraging the boycott of the Bois Forte Band in tweets and media statements, referring to Novak’s Feb. 14 tweet: “Thank you Senator [Tom] Bakk for canceling your annual event at Fortune Bay and moving it to Giants Ridge. IRRRB and the trades should follow suit. The Fun Run should follow suit.”
Bakk and Novak took action after the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which includes the Bois Forte Band, wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum supporting her bill pending in Congress to specifically ban copper mining — and no other kinds of mining — near the Boundary Waters. Pollution from the mine would threaten wild rice and raise mercury levels in fish, violating treaty rights in northeast Minnesota, the tribe said in its Jan. 31 letter. Such a ban would kill the Twin Metals copper mine project.
In response, Bakk canceled a major DFL fundraiser at the Bois Forte-owned Fortune Bay Resort Casino and Wilderness golf course on Lake Vermilion. Three other groups followed suit and canceled events.
Novak has said he has never used the term “boycott,” and reiterated that during the open forum at Wednesday’s meeting. He called Rom’s group a “posse.” He also addressed the flood of comments to his Feb. 14 tweet, many of them angry and calling Novak’s actions racist. Some commenters said they planned to boycott Ely because of Novak’s position. Novak said he objected to being called racist.
Novak did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Fortune Bay general manager Jenna Lehti, a Bois Forte member, said she appreciates the support residents are offering the band but she said she takes no pleasure in having the issue divide a community.
“Ely is very dear to us,” Lehti said. “We employ nearly 30 people from Ely, some of whom have worked with us for over 20 years.”
Lehti noted that Fortune Bay has spent or donated more than $380,000 to Ely organizations and businesses since 2015, not including support for fundraisers.
“Bois Forte also owns and operates WELY radio, which incidentally is the same radio station where Ely Mayor Chuck Novak takes to the airwaves once a week to talk about issues facing Ely. So having him ask people to boycott Fortune Bay is very disconcerting,” Lehti said.
Rom’s group issued a statement Thursday saying it was disappointed in the Ely City Council for not addressing Novak’s actions.
“Ely’s Mayor Chuck Novak has singled out one Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to punish for the exercise of the Tribe’s constitutional right as a sovereign nation to address a major issue affecting its people and treaty rights,” the group said. “Moreover, Mayor Novak seeks to punish the Bois Forte band for expressing a position that is shared by a majority of Minnesotans, including a majority of Minnesotans who live in northern Minnesota.”
A recent Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll found that statewide, 60% of registered Minnesota voters oppose building new mines near the Boundary Waters.
When asked if providing jobs or protecting the environment was more important when it comes to mining, 66% said the environment was a higher priority and 19% said jobs were.
Rom said the group will return to the council March 31.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683