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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Public support can't be engineered

In addition to having more than 10,000 lakes, Minnesota is home to world-class deposits of minerals that rival only South Africa in terms of their size, scale and value. Worldwide demand for these minerals has led to the funding of projects to explore the extent of the mineral deposits and the best ways to extract them. If these mining projects are successful, Minnesota stands to benefit from new revenue sources, thousands of new jobs, and new economic life for an entire region.

The mining industry has changed drastically over the past several decades. Scientists and engineers around the world continually find ways to improve processes and technologies needed to make mining projects more successful and more environmentally responsible.

Despite vast improvements in technology, the ability to understand, analyze and engage stakeholders continues to be just as important as good engineering work. Stakeholders – people who are affected by or think they may be affected by a project – have the power to derail projects if they are not engaged throughout the process.

Goff & Howard has been helping Crow Wing Power and its subsidiary Cooperative Mineral Resources (CMR) engage stakeholders in a new mining project in Emily, Minnesota. The city has one of the largest deposits of manganese in North America. The proposed project would involve a new type of mining that uses high-pressured water to extract the manganese, which is used to help make steel and a new type of filter on smokestacks.

Goff & Howard has been working with CMR to engage stakeholders in Emily through public meetings, a citizens advisory committee, websites, social media, e-mail lists, and other communication tools that provide venues to exchange information and ideas.

With the help of Goff & Howard, CMR also created an environmental responsibility committee to help share information with the community and address concerns long before the official approval and permitting process started. The committee met several times to learn more about the site and the project. The members of the committee then helped engage and inform their neighbors about the project as it moved forward through the permitting process.

By communicating with the public from the beginning of the project, CMR was able to gain public support for the mining project and secure the necessary permits for the demonstration project. Work will begin next month.

Minnesota has an amazing opportunity to turn world-class natural resources into economic opportunity. Making sure these projects gain public support, approvals, and permits is a process that can’t be engineered – it requires an engaged conversation.

Update: The Star Tribune published an editorial today about mining projects in northern Minnesota:

"The state desperately needs these jobs, but this issue is far more complex than that. Politicians and [mining firms] need to understand that Minnesotans will not trade the state's soul -- the BWCA, Lake Superior, the North Shore forest -- for economic gain. The Antofagasta/Duluth Metals project's eastern edge is just a few miles from the BWCA. Older nonferrous mines have an abysmal environmental track record. While technological strides certainly have been made, assurances that things are better now aren't going to cut it.

"Nonferrous mining companies don't just need to win over the regulators. They need to win over the public. Facts, openness and a willingness to work with their critics will serve them well, but the task ahead of them is formidable."