“You could see a body there, but you couldn’t recognize what it was.”*
On February 5, 1924 Minnesota experienced its most tragic mining disaster when 41 miners lost their lives in an underground mine on the Cuyuna Range. The mine lacked many safety precautions and was unwisely dug under Foley Lake. When the mine collapsed, the lake rushed into the mining shaft, killing all the miners except five who barely escaped with their lives as they scrambled up the only shaft to safety.
The resulting cleanup was a horrific effort where the recovery teams could only spend a short time working in the confines of the mine due to the stench. The shafts were clogged with mud and rancid water from Foley Lake that had completely emptied into the mine. It would be several months before the last body was recovered. 13-year-old Mike Zauhar was there hoping to identify his deceased uncle when he commented on the condition of the corpses.
One would assume after such a horrific mining disaster that there would have been widespread condemnation amongst the miners towards those that were managing the mine. Unfortunately, back then it was common for the mining industry to blacklist any miner who testified. Soon after the disaster there started to appear shady characters in the streets of the mining town making not so veiled threats, bullying prospective witnesses into submission. When the official investigation released its findings it was not surprising that they did not attribute blame to the mining company despite the glaring errors in safety precautions.
It’s sad that those connected to the mining industry still have a tendency to implement bullying tactics even some 80 years later against those who dare to challenge the industry. In the usually ho-hum DFL primary for State Auditor, the mining bullies finally received a very good push back from incumbent Rebecca Otto.
As a member of the Executive Council that oversees mining leases, Otto has been the most vocal member questioning the mining lease process. She has taken a strong stand in protecting taxpayers from abuses at the hands of the mining industry and wanting assurances that the environment will be protected. The attacks from the pro-mining newspapers on the Iron Range were quick and severe against Otto. The message was clear that if statewide politicians do not toe the pro-mining line there would be retribution on the Iron Range. Fortunately, Otto did not back down, holding her position of protecting the taxpayers and the environment, and calling the bullies bluff.
Despite an aggressive campaign on the Iron Range with “Dump Otto” signs and websites, that effort was a nearly complete failure. Otto beat her opponent who significantly outspent her, garnering 81% of the votes statewide. She carried what most presumed to be the most pro-mining congressional district (the eighth) with 75% of the vote. She only lost two Iron Range towns in Hoyt Lake and Ely where two of the mines are being proposed.
The message is clear from this result. The pro-mining crowd may be able to deliver a few votes in and around their local region but have very little impact statewide. Hopefully Otto’s courageous stance will strengthen the resolve of other pro-environment DFLers to maintain their principles and not to fear the bullying tactics of a few of the Iron Range newspapers and misguided activists.
*Quote from the book The Milford Mine Disaster, Berger Aulie 1994.