Twin Metals Minnesota submitted its official mining plan to state and federal regulators Wednesday, becoming the second firm hoping to tap copper-nickel ore on the Iron Range and launching the regulatory process for a mine that could forever alter the country’s most visited wilderness and the communities surrounding it.
The prospect of hard-rock mining so close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — a pristine network of lakes, wetlands and boreal forest — has alarmed environmentalists and regular citizens alike, producing the most sustained environmental debate Minnesota has seen in a generation. Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, and its supporters insist that the mine’s economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks and that it can operate safely.
In a briefing before submitting the plan, Twin Metals Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla called the proposal a “big milestone” for the company but another step in a regulatory journey that could take years.
“It’s another day in a long range of work for this project,” Padilla said.
The plan is now in the hands of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the federal Bureau of Land Management. The DNR has created a project site for the public at twinmetals.mn.gov.
If the DNR deems the application complete, then the agency will begin preparing an environmental-impact statement, or EIS, an in-depth independent review expected to take years. State officials said last month that Minnesota will conduct its own environmental review, rather than partnering with the federal government, in part because the Trump administration recently placed sharp new constraints on federal environmental reviews.
“The credibility of the EIS process for the Twin Metals proposal is critical to Minnesotans,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a news release Wednesday. “The DNR is committed to a rigorous, transparent, and neutral review of the proposal.”
A key question in the completeness decision is whether Minnesota regulators will have access to information from a U.S. Forest Service study, commissioned by the Obama administration, on the environmental impact of hard-rock mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. That study was aborted shortly before completion after President Donald Trump took office. Its findings have never been released despite multiple requests from members of Congress such as U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and news organizations including the Star Tribune.
In a call with reporters, DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore reiterated that the DNR will ask the federal agencies for the missing information if it is not included in the Twin Metals submission. “We will determine over the course of several months whether we have the information needed for the scoping process,” Naramore said.
Twin Metals spokeswoman Kathy Graul said the Twin Metals submission follows “well established rules and guidelines,” adding, “We are not in possession of any federal data collected by the agencies during previous studies.”
McCollum blasts secrecy
Even before Twin Metals formally submitted its plan, environmentalists were raising alarms. On Tuesday, former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr held a news conference and asked Gov. Tim Walz to stop the mine. Landwehr, who now leads a group called Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said Minnesota’s “check-the-box” process for permitting such industrial facilities is too narrow and was never designed to protect fragile and unique natural resources such as the Boundary Waters.
McCollum called the proposal a plan to “extract profits while poisoning Minnesota’s most pristine waters” and blasted the Trump administration for denying access to the study.
When pressed, Padilla would not guarantee that the mine would never affect the Boundary Waters.
“I can guarantee that in order for Twin Metals to get permitted, we will have to meet or exceed all state and federal standards that are in place,” she said.
Mining allies weighed in as well. Jobs for Minnesotans, an advocate for copper-nickel mining, issued a letter saying supporters welcome the mine. It was signed by more than 60 businesses, labor and community organizations and local elected leaders, including 19 Iron Range mayors.
“This project has the potential to help revitalize the economy of northeastern Minnesota by creating more than 700 high-wage mining jobs plus more than 1,400 spinoff jobs in the region,” it said.
The proposal was not expected to change the basic configuration of the mine that Twin Metals has described in the past. The operation would employ about 765 people, produce 20,000 tons of ore a day and run for 25 years. The underground mine would be near Ely, in the Superior National Forest at the juncture of the South Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, a reservoir. The South Kawishiwi River runs into the Boundary Waters.
The company has described the mine as a gateway to the “green economy,” as the copper, nickel and other precious metals mined are used in a wide range of products.
The processed mine waste would be piled in a mound on 430 adjacent acres.
Hard-rock mining involves extracting ore with precious metals from tons of sulfur-bearing rock, a process that generates sulfuric acid when the sulfur is exposed to oxygen and water, and can leach heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic into the groundwater, lakes and rivers. High concentrations can be lethal to wildlife.
Hard-rock mines have a long history of pollution violations, and most American copper mines are in the more arid western United States rather than in states rich with lakes and groundwater. A study of 14 U.S. copper mines found that all had suffered spills or released contaminants and that nearly all resulted in significant water impacts. Some of them will leach acid mine drainage into the surrounding landscape forever.
Padilla has said the mine would not generate acid drainage because the rock has a low sulfur content, the underground area being mined is relatively dry, and the crushed rock would remain underground where it’s less likely to leak pollutants.
DNR regulatory review is not the only hurdle facing Twin Metals. Earlier this year, a group of Minnesota businesses and conservation groups sued both the company and the U.S. Department of the Interior, asking a federal judge to rule that the Trump administration wrongly reinstated two mineral leases for Twin Metals after the Obama administration had rejected them. If the judge decides to nullify the leases, it could kill the project and spark more lawsuits.
Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for Friday in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683