Potential Sulfide Mines
Other than PolyMet, the Twin Metals project is the only mine that has submitted a mine plan to Minnesota regulators. Although the Twin Metals mine is currently proposed as an underground mine, its economic feasibility as a small underground mine is uncertain. Former state regulators caution that mines often begin underground, but expand to open pit mines when economic conditions threaten closure if expansions are not permitted. An open pit mine is shown below.
Twin Metals (Antofagasta) Mine
On December 18, 2019, Twin Metals Minnesota, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, submitted its mine plan for a copper-nickel mine on Superior National Forest lands in the Rainy River watershed on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The proposed Twin Metals mine would be located on the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, within three miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). All water from the proposed mine site would flow into the BWCAW.
Twin Metals property interest map (by Twin Metals)
Twin Metals’ current mine plan proposes mine facilities on 1156 acres of wetlands and forests (almost two square miles). Tailings would be stored on-site on 653 acres. The plan proposes that mining operations would be underground – from 400 to 4,500 feet below the surface, blasting with explosives adjacent to Birch Lake.
Twin Metals location detail (Twin Metals Mine Plan Fig. 2-2)
On June 15, 2020, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) concluded that Twin Metals’ initial submittal for environmental review was incomplete.
Tamarack (Kennecott/Rio Tinto/Talon) Mine
The Kennecott/Talon potential sulfide mine would place many critical resources at risk, including Wildlife Management Areas and state parks, state and federally-designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, a federal national wildlife refuge, and high quality wild rice waters. A Tamarack sulfide mine could affect tribal resources retained under the Treaty of 1837 and the Treaty of 1854 and communities of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Sandy Lake Band of Ojibwe.
The high concentration of ore at the Tamarack site is also correlated with high sulfur concentrations. Adverse impacts of sulfide mine discharge on mercury contamination of fish could affect downstream land owners and communities on the Kettle, St. Croix, Tamarack, and Mississippi Rivers.
The Kennecott/Talon mine would be economically attractive because of its rich ore body. Talon’s 2020 Preliminary Economic Assessment (NI 43-101) projects a pre-tax profit of 41%. Community members must become informed about this potential sulfide mine.
“Talon is proposing to mine a ‘massive sulphide mineralization’ at the headwaters of the Big Sandy Lake watershed, an hour southwest of Duluth. This watershed enjoys clean water and fresh air, abundant wild rice protected by treaty-reserved rights, treasured lake retreats, forests, and wildlife. It is a hunter’s and angler’s paradise.”
Non-Ferrous (Not Iron or Taconite) Mineral Leasing
The State of Minnesota owns mineral leases on 13.5 million acres, representing approximately 24 percent of the entire acreage of Minnesota. Some state-owned mineral rights are beneath public lands, and some are beneath private property. Non-ferrous minerals include copper, nickel, gold, and platinum group metals. In 2016, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) mapped exploration for non-ferrous minerals across many areas of the Duluth Complex in northeastern Minnesota. In 2020, the area under active exploration had focused on several distinct potential mining areas. Non-ferrous mineral exploration acreage may fluctuate, but applicable laws place both natural resources and private property at risk.
Drilling for copper, nickel, and other metals can contaminate groundwater, pollute surface waters, damage wetlands, and disrupt resort businesses and communities with excessive noise. In addition, mineral leasing could open sensitive areas of the Cloquet and St. Louis Rivers and the Lake Superior, Boundary Waters, and Mississippi River watersheds to potential sulfide mining. Once leases have been granted, vested interests of the mining company holding the lease prevent regulators from screening out sensitive locations or asserting that land surfaces cannot be impacted.
Under Minnesota law, no environmental review of leasing decisions is required. Although the Executive Council (the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Auditor) “approves” leases after they are bid at auction, in fact at that point the Council has little discretion to disapprove them and has never done so. In addition, under Minnesota law, if the state grants leases beneath private property, mining companies have the power to condemn private surface land.
Advocacy to Protect Lands and Natural Resources
From 2011 through 2012, WaterLegacy participated in a U.S. Forest Service environmental impact statement process related to non-ferrous mining leases in the Boundary Waters watershed. Initially, the Forest Service planned to bootstrap future leasing, without additional environmental review and to allow exploration with few protections of wetlands.
The result? The Forest Service adopted many of WaterLegacy’s recommendations, requiring future leases to have an independent environmental review and setting several conditions to protect wetlands, water quality, and wild rice.
The result? The Court of Appeals found that leasing was not a “project,” so did not require environmental review. However, after the decision, DNR increased the quality of information available to the public regarding location of proposed leases and created a portal allowing members of the public to sign up and obtain notices of proposed leasing.
The result? These actions did not prevent Council approval of leasing. But, in recent years, DNR mineral leasing has shifted away from leases beneath private lands.
The result? The Council approved the leases. But Lieutenant Governor Flanagan took DNR managers out in the hallway and then stated on the record – naming the Bois Forte and Leech Lake Bands of Chippewa –that this Administration would require consultation with tribes on conditions for mineral leases.
Mineral Leasing Advocacy Timeline
June 1, 2012
• Limiting the prospecting EIS to only the permit applications specifically identified for the project (ROD-4)
• Requiring that any future permits and operations plans must require a separate and complete National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) compliance process. (ROD-6). This includes mineral bulk sampling. (ROD-18)
• Ensuring that the prospecting EIS does not authorize any mining or minerals development, including, and that such a proposal would require a new and separate NEPA process. (ROD-16).
• Preventing impacts on water quantity resulting from cumulative withdrawals of water from the same water body by multiple companies and explorations. (ROD-16).
• Increasing protection of natural stands of wild rice in lakes, rivers, and streams. (ROD-16).
June 16, 2012
WaterLegacy also filed an administrative appeal to the Forest Service asking for more protections against noise near the BWCAW, seasonal restrictions on drilling, and better sealing of any boreholes containing brackish water (water with elevated chlorides and specific conductivity). This appeal was denied.
Sept. 25, 2012
Nov. 8, 2012
DNR denied the citizens’ petition for environmental review of non-ferrous mining leases. Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy’s advocacy director and counsel, assisted the citizens pro bono in appealing DNR’s decision.
Sept. 9, 2014
Sept. 9, 2015
DNR proposed Vermillion Gold leases in 1855 Ojibwe ceded territory affecting wild rice waters and other special features on three-fourths of the proposed acreage. WaterLegacy submitted materials to the Executive Council and testified on February 26, 2020, focusing on the issues of impacts to wild rice, the need to set leasing conditions, and the lack of tribal consultation. The Lieutenant Governor stated on the record that tribal consultation on mineral leasing conditions would be required by the Administration.