If you live in Minnesota, you've probably been hearing about the planned PolyMet and Twin Metals mines on the Iron Range. But even those who follow the news closely might have a hard time keeping the details of the two projects straight. Here are answers to commonly asked questions about the two mines and the controversies surrounding them.
What are the Twin Metals and PolyMet Mining’s NorthMet mines?
They are a pair of copper-nickel mine projects at different stages of the permitting process in northern Minnesota, being pursued by two international mining companies.
Where are they located?
Both mines would be located on the Iron Range in northeast Minnesota. The Twin Metals operation would be an underground mine on Birch Lake, just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely.
PolyMet’s NorthMet project would be an open-pit mine on Wetlands about 15 miles south of Twin Metals, on the site of an old taconite mine near Babbitt. It is in the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest tributary to Lake Superior, upstream from Duluth and the Fond du Lac reservation.
How soon will the mines be operational?
Though the PolyMet project was fully permitted at the start of 2019, the state Court of Appeals later suspended four of PolyMet’s permits amid controversies over regulation of the project.
Three of the suspended permits — the permit to mine with its financial assurance package, and two dam safety permits — were issued by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A hearing over requests to overturn the DNR permits was held Oct. 23 at the state Court of Appeals, and the court has 90 days to issue a decision.
The temporary holds on the DNR permits extended to Wednesday’s hearing, but the panel of judges gave no indication whether those holds will be extended or lifted.
A fourth PolyMet permit — regulating water pollution from the mine — remains on hold. That permit, issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), will be the subject of a future Ramsey County District Court hearing into alleged “irregularities” in how the MPCA handled it.
Who owns the mines?
The projects are operated by large, publicly traded foreign mining companies. PolyMet is owned by Switzerland-based mining giant Glencore via its 72% stake in Toronto-based PolyMet Mining Corp.
Twin Metals is owned by Antofagasta, a major mining company in Chile controlled by the Luksic family, one of Chile’s wealthiest families. Their ties to the Trump administration have drawn scrutiny: A real estate company in Washington, D.C., owned by the family is the landlord for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
A fundamental difference between the projects at this point is that the Twin Metals leases involve about 5,000 acres of federal public land in Superior National Forest, although the mine operations are on 100 acres of company-owned land inside SNF. The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service have jurisdiction because mostly federally-owned mineral rights are being leased.
By contrast, PolyMet is now on private land owned by the company following a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service in 2018. PolyMet traded about 6,900 acres of private forest inside Superior National Forest, and got about 6,500 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on which to operate the mine. PolyMet now owns the land and the mineral rights.
What are the controversies surrounding the projects?
Both mines have been the subject of ferocious debate because of their potential to pollute nearby waters — such as the St. Louis River, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters — with heavy metals and other contaminants. PolyMet is being sued by the Fond du Lac band, while both projects face litigation from environmental groups.
A flashpoint for the Twin Metals mine is the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to renew two long-held mineral leases for the mine, and cancel a U.S. Forest Service environmental review of mine impacts that was underway. This reversed an earlier decision by the Obama administration to not renew the mineral leases because of the risk copper mining poses to the Boundary Waters. The Trump administration argued that Bureau of Land Management did not have the authority to cancel the leases. The reversal attracted national attention, and environmentalists have sued over the matter in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The case is ongoing.
Opponents of the PolyMet project have voiced concerns about how state and federal environmental regulators handled a crucial water quality permit that regulates the discharge of pollutants such as lead, arsenic and mercury. Records requests, leaked documents and a complaint have raised serious questions about the process, which is now the subject of three different inquiries, including one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general.
A leaked e-mail revealed that a Minnesota regulator asked EPA staff not to file their written criticisms of the draft water permit during the public comment period, which had the effect of keeping the EPA’s serious concerns out of the public record. EPA staff read their comments on the permit to Minnesota staff over the telephone. A leaked EPA memo showed how a career EPA staffer documented the agency’s many concerns about PolyMet’s water permit, and showed that many concerns were not resolved before the state approved the permit.
Democratic state lawmakers have called on Gov. Tim Walz to suspend PolyMet’s permits, saying the state needs assurances “that the permits were not rigged.”
There are other concerns about the PolyMet mine, including the safety of the tailings dam it plans to use to hold contaminated mine processing waste.
Are there similar mines in other places?
Yes, all over the world. In the U.S., most copper mining is done in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana.
How many jobs are they promising?
PolyMet estimates 360 full-time jobs; Twin Metals estimates 700 full-time jobs.
How long would the mines be in operation?
PolyMet says it intends to mine for 20 years, though its permit to mine does not specify that time limit. Twin Metals plans to apply for a permit to mine for 25 years. The number of years the mine actually operates could be less.
How long will the jobs be around?
While the mine permits are for 20-25 years, it’s not clear how long the mines will operate. When the mines close, the jobs go.
How will the mines impact the surrounding environment?
That is the million-dollar question. Although the mining companies insist they can mine safely, research and their track records indicate that hard-rock mining is a disruptive process carrying serious environmental risks to nearby waters from polluted main drainage carrying heavy metals. Large industrial operations have other impacts such as noise, lights and traffic.
I hear people saying that these mines are in the Lake Superior or Boundary Waters watersheds. What does that mean?
A watershed is a land area where all the water tends to run to certain outflow points. The PolyMet mine would be in the St. Louis River watershed, which drains into Lake Superior.
The Twin Metals mine would be in the Rainy River watershed, which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and eventually drains into Canada's Hudson Bay.
Does the Trump administration’s rollback of restrictions on mining on federal lands affect these mines?
Yes, particularly Twin Metals. They appeared dead in 2016 when the Obama administration decided not to renew Twin Metals’ two mineral leases. Tom Tidwell, then-chief of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote that the mine was too risky and could cause “serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness.” The Trump administration reversed the decision.
Why do these companies want to mine here?
Northeast Minnesota is home to the Duluth Complex, ancient rocks holding large, undeveloped reserves of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals.
Why are the minerals needed? What are they used for?
The metals are used in a wide array of industrial processes and consumer goods. Copper is used in pipes and wiring, electronics and electric vehicles. Nickel is used in the production of stainless steel. Platinum group metals are used in such things as jewelry, spark plugs and medical implants. Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries power electronics such as laptops and electric vehicles.
This article has been updated for clarity.