Talon Metals on Wednesday submitted its plan for an underground nickel and copper mine in Aitkin County to Minnesota regulators, launching the environmental review of a project that could become a domestic source of metals for electric vehicles but has also drawn skepticism from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
While the submission is just the first phase of what could be a lengthy process, it’s nevertheless a milestone for Talon and what it calls the Tamarack Nickel Project. It’s also a new chapter in a long and thorny debate between those who fear possible water pollution and those eyeing potential job creation in what would be a new industry in Minnesota.
The federal government has stopped two potential copper-nickel mines in Minnesota this year alone, saying the risk of contamination was too great for the projects to be built. Those two projects have become national political issues with complicated politics in Minnesota that divides DFLers and frequent allies like trades unions and environmental nonprofits.
Talon has tried to make its mine more politically and environmentally palatable, striking a deal with Tesla to ensure a local nickel supply chain for electric vehicle batteries and altering its project to transport ore to North Dakota rather than processing it locally.
“Our neighbors want to understand how we will contribute to the local economy, create good paying union jobs that can keep our kids in the region, protect the environment and cultural resources, as well as addressing America’s current dependence on China and Russia for the minerals required in the domestic battery supply chain,” said Jess Johnson, community outreach and government relations manager for Talon, in a statement.
Yet the Mille Lacs Band still has concerns with the potential for impact on wild rice waters and other resources, and local environmental groups have rallied to their side. No company has ever mined for copper and nickel in Minnesota, which has a long history of taconite and iron ore mining.
The documents submitted by Talon represent something of a first draft of the potential mine. It will likely be altered over time. But for now, here’s what we know about the Tamarack project.
What’s the scope of the project?
The Tamarack mine would be underground, and Talon would extract mainly nickel and copper, but also other metals like cobalt and platinum group metals over a seven-to-10 year period at the site in Aitkin County. The project is located just north of the small city of Tamarack, about 55 miles west of Duluth, and it sits within the watersheds of Big Sandy Lake and the Mississippi River. It would be on a combination of state and private lands.
The mine would take about 18 months to build, according to early estimates from the company. It would have a roughly 80-acre footprint above ground.
Why here, why now?
No company has ever mined for copper and nickel in Minnesota, but this is the third mine of its kind to formally enter the environmental review process hoping to tap into the state’s vast resources.
There is high demand for these metals around the globe, which are used in many products, including cell phones. But the mining companies have promoted the need for copper and nickel to power green technology like solar panels, windmills and electric vehicle batteries. Talon is the first to sign an agreement to supply Tesla with its potential nickel concentrate , meaning the company would be part of a domestic supply chain for EVs.
The other two projects — proposed by NewRange Copper Nickel and Twin Metals Minnesota — are further north in what’s known as the “Duluth Complex,” a massive deposit in and around the Iron Range. Those mines are currently halted at the hands of federal regulators.
Who owns and operates the mine?
Right now, Talon Metals owns 51% of the Tamarack project. The other 49% is owned by Kennecott Exploration Company, a subsidiary of the British and Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.
Talon is headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, but the public company is traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Several other companies have stakes in Talon Metals. The largest shareholder is the Pallinghurst Group, an investment firm headquartered in London.
Talon’s executive chairman is Warren Newfield, a native of South Africa and citizen of Grenada who runs a private investment company. The CEO is Henri van Rooyen, who is based in Toronto and was a member of Newfield’s firm. He also led a company that built the largest silica mine in South Africa and a large offshore diamond exploration project.
What would a mine mean for the economy of northeastern Minnesota?
Employment estimates from mining companies sometimes shift. But Talon predicts it would employ about 300 workers in Aitkin County during full production, in addition to another 100 people already working for the company in Minnesota.
Talon has agreed to use union labor to build the mine, and suggests its mine workers will be unionized. In 2021, Talon announced it would team with the United Steelworkers to plan for a workforce. A news release from the time says the project will need “a mix of experienced underground miners and “new age” miners with skills in automation, AI, and computer modeling.”
Talon says its project will generate more than $100 million in royalty payments — government fees on mining — for state and local governments, as well as local school districts, and another $7 million in taxes, primarily for local cities, towns and school districts.
Are there environmental risks?
Companies have long mined for iron ore and taconite in Minnesota, which carries some environmental risks and impacts like polluting air and water with mercury and sulfate.
But copper-nickel mining has the potential to create an acidic runoff, leaching heavy metals into water. That is commonly known as “acid mine drainage,” and it happens when sulfides bound in rock are exposed to air and water through the mining process. That can be a problem in northeastern Minnesota, home to abundant lakes, rivers and wetlands, along with plenty of rain and snow.
Talon has made an effort to design a mine that would limit the environmental risk of nickel mining. For starters, the mine is underground, meaning construction of the facility and the mining process would disturb far less surface habitat than NewRange and be less exposed to the elements. Mining would take place between roughly 500 to 2,000 feet below the surface.
Talon also plans to store nickel ore in an enclosed building and won’t crush ore on site. Instead, it would be loaded onto covered and sealed railcars and transported to a processing facility in North Dakota. The tailings would be disposed of at the Mercer County facility, too. That’s a much different plan than NewRange and Twin Metals, which wants tailings storage and processing on site. The company says North Dakota’s drier environment is safer than Minnesota. It also could make permitting less difficult in Minnesota. Last year, the feds awarded $114 million to Talon to help build the North Dakota facility.
The mine company says it will collect and treat water at the site. And it would not store any reactive stockpiles at the site when it’s closed. Talon has only outlined a broad plan for closure and reclamation so far but more details are expected in the future.
Still, the nearby Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has raised concerns over the project, launching a “Water Over Nickel” campaign in March. The tribe, and environmental nonprofits, have noted many copper and nickel mines have bad track records of pollution around the country and some contend Minnesota’s regulations meant to safeguard water aren’t strong enough. They also note Talon could expand in the future, which would require more environmental scrutiny by state regulators.
The tribe says parts of Big Sandy Lake have rich wild rice resources. And Rice Lake to the south is one of the largest rice beds in the area. The Mille Lacs Band says there are members living about 1.3 miles from the mining site.
“As a sovereign nation, the Mille Lacs Band must have an equal voice in this process and is entitled to equal protection,” said Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band, in a statement Wednesday. “The Band supports transitioning to a green economy but in a way that does not cause further harm.
Esteban Chiriboga, an environmental specialist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, said in March that tribes needed more detailed information submitted to regulators to fully evaluate the project. But initial concerns center on Big Sandy Lake, which in addition to being a source of wild rice, is the site of the Mikwendaagoziwag Memorial. That marks the death of about 400 tribal members forced to travel to Big Sandy Lake by the U.S. government for treaty payments. Many died facing harsh winter conditions with meager and spoiled rations.
“The problem here that becomes apparent, as it is with most other mine sites in the Great Lakes region, is complexity,” Chiriboga said. “This complexity makes water management at any mine site very difficult and greatly increases the pathways for contaminants to escape even the best engineering designs.”
How is this mine similar — and different from others proposed in Minnesota?
The other two potential copper-nickel mine projects are further north, much larger, and in different watersheds.
NewRange, formerly known by the name of its partial owner PolyMet, at one point had all the permits necessary to build a $1 billion open-pit mine near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt in the watershed of Lake Superior. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked a crucial permit earlier in June, citing water quality concerns for the St. Louis River raised by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, throwing the project into limbo.
Twin Metals Minnesota has proposed a large underground mine near Ely, but that project is also on hold because of a 20-year ban on such mining in the Rainy River watershed imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration. That watershed flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
By contrast, Talon is just beginning the environmental review process, and sits in a different watershed than either Twin Metals or NewRange. It does not have any implications for Lake Superior or the BWCA.
The Tamarack project is also a much smaller mining proposal with a shorter lifespan. Twin Metals would operate over 25 years. NewRange would have a much larger above-ground impact because it would be an open-pit mine, and would operate for 20 years.
Twin Metals would produce 180 million tons of ore over its mine life. The Tamarack project has committed about 75,000 metric tonnes to Tesla over six years, which is roughly half of what Talon might mine at the Tamarack project.
What happens next?
This is the very first step of environmental review in Minnesota, which leads later to a separate permitting process. Altogether, it can take years — and in the case of NewRange, decades — to complete. Part of that is because of many lawsuits challenging mining projects.
The Department of Natural Resources will scrutinize Talon’s application and determine whether it has enough information to begin working on an Environmental Impact Statement. That starts with what the DNR calls “scoping,” which includes looking at potentially significant environmental and socioeconomic issues needing analysis, alternatives to the project and potential environmental mitigation. Public documents posted by Talon say the project may need a federal EIS and other review as well.
Only after a detailed EIS is completed and approved by the state can Talon apply for necessary permits. That includes a broad Permit to Mine, and permits regulating impact on wetlands, air, and pollutants in water.
The company hopes to be operating by 2027 as part of its deal with Tesla. That could be an aggressive timeline. Jess Richards, DNR assistant commissioner, said the plan to transport ore to North Dakota and store tailings there might “take away some complications” for regulators. But Richards said that the scoping process alone can take more than a year.
“This is nonetheless still a complicated project that warrants thorough and extensive review,” he said.