WASHINGTON – While a federal moratorium and other obstacles had extinguished nearly all possibility for a new era of hard rock mining near the Boundary Waters, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has just given a subsidiary of Twin Metals a new opportunity to explore the viability of mining copper and nickel in the Rainy River Watershed.
The DNR on Monday decided to approve a request from Franconia Minerals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota, to conduct exploratory drilling in an area near Birch Lake that’s on private property.
“Franconia holds valid state mineral leases for the proposed exploration locations and, in accordance with state law, has a right to conduct mineral exploration activities on properties they have leased from the state,” the DNR said in a statement.
With its plan to explore for nickel, cobalt and other minerals on non-federal land, Twin Metals has made an end run of a 20-year federal moratorium that dashed its efforts to mine in the Superior National Forest, whose watershed feeds into the Boundary Waters.
“It’s a perfect example of why we need protection on both state and federal lands,” said Ingrid Lyons, executive director of Save the Boundary Waters, of the DNR’s decision. Her organization has been fighting the establishment of hard rock mining in the Rainy River Watershed.
Minnesota has a rich history of iron ore mining. But mining for copper, nickel and other metals has never been done before in the state and carries a much higher risk for severe water pollution and other environmental degradations.
Twin Metals argues hard rock mining can be done safely through the imposition of certain safeguards. Still, if Franconia Minerals decides to go forward with a new mine, it must go through a rigorous environmental review process – as well as meet certain federal clean air and clean water standards.
The DNR said it “conducted a thorough natural resource review” of Franconia Minerals’ exploration plan, which was submitted in September, and “considered all comments submitted by interested groups and individuals.”
The agency said it had determined that special conditions were needed to protect two state-listed threatened species, one a type of fern and the other a rare wildflower called Franklin’s Scorpion-weed. It also said it required Franconia Minerals to take additional steps to protect water resources and minimize noise and light from the exploration activities.
“With the special conditions in place, the DNR has determined there is little potential for risk to the environment from the approved exploration activities,” the DNR statement said.
The DNR also said “exploratory drilling is not mining and poses little, if any, risk to the environment.”
Lyons, whose organization lobbied hard for the Biden administration to put cobalt and nickel mining off limits on federal land, said Save the Boundary Waters will continue to battle the state in court over what it says are flawed environmental protections.
“Minnesota’s rules against hard rock mining are inadequate to protect the Boundary Waters,” Lyons said. “We want additional protections.”
When Franconia Metals submitted its exploration plan in September, Twin Metals Vice President Dean DeBeltz said the company had “an ongoing commitment to gaining additional knowledge and data about our mineral resources, especially as the demand for these materials is increasing exponentially to help build the metal-intensive clean energy technologies we need to combat climate change.”
Mining interests like Twin Metals have argued that there are critical metals underground in the Iron Range that are needed to combat climate change. They also say mining in the United States would be done under strict environmental safeguards and labor protections and that the alternative is U.S. reliance on dirty mining overseas and increased use of child labor in those operations.
However, environmentalists say there is no clean way to mine for nickel and copper and that mining sulfide rock releases acid and toxic metals and contaminants that can remain in groundwater for years.
In another blow to efforts to establish hard rock mining in the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June revoked a clean water permit for the proposed NorthMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, formerly known as the PolyMet project.
Twin Metals said the core samples obtained through exploratory drilling near Birch Lake will be logged into its “detailed database” and housed in a core storage facility in Ely. It also said some of the core samples will be sent to the DNR’s Drill Core Library in Hibbing.