Photo credit: Lars Hammar, Creative Commons
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency revoked the permit for West Virginia’s largest mountain top removal project, citing lasting damages that blowing up an Appalachian peak–to extract the coal below–could cause.
The mining project’s supporters protested, saying it was a $250 million investment that could have created up to 250 jobs. Mine opponents talked about the salamanders that would have been killed and the beautiful views of Appalachia forever reduced to toxic gravel plateaus.
As mining projects in northern Minnesota often do, this has conjured up the familiar “jobs versus the environment” debate.
In Minnesota, similar rhetoric surrounds copper-nickel mining in the Iron Range near the Boundary Waters. We’re not talking about blowing the tops off of mountains, but this type of mining has no precedent in Minnesota. Despite mining companies’ reassurances, these projects are notorious for acidic runoff that can harm people, animals and plants.
This particular case could not only threaten ecosystems, local communities’ water quality and outdoor recreationalists, but also has the potential to harm the harvest and sale of wild rice by indigenous peoples, arguably a smaller but longer term kind of economic development.
The typical set up of jobs versus the environment doesn’t reflect the complexity of economic development. In fact, there are multiple paths to creating livelihoods for Minnesotans. As in the case with mining, one form of economic development-providing a few hundred jobs for the life of a mine-can harm another by decreasing property values, decreasing seasonal income from recreationalists, and even affecting downstream businesses that rely on clean water.
Especially as short-term jobs are in greater demand as unemployment remains high, which type of development to support becomes an even tougher choice. But as the cost of mining jobs increase, we should search for multi-sector economic development strategies that employ people in northern Minnesota for longer than the life of a mine.