REGIONAL— Twin Metals Minnesota has submitted a mine plan to the Department of Natural Resources, a milestone that may one day lead to sulfide-based copper-nickel mining near the edge of the …
REGIONAL— Twin Metals Minnesota has submitted a mine plan to the Department of Natural Resources, a milestone that may one day lead to sulfide-based copper-nickel mining near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, near Ely. The proposal, released by Twin Metals on Wednesday, calls for a 20,000 ton-per-day underground mining operation located in Lake County, near the shores of Birch Lake, about nine miles southeast of Ely. Over the 25-year anticipated mine life, the operation would produce an estimated 180 million tons of ore from what’s known as the Maturi deposit, and would produce an average of 174,000 tons of copper concentrate, and 84,000 tons of nickel concentrate, along with far smaller quantities of platinum group metals.
The mine itself would extend about three and a half miles in length, passing underneath Hwy. 1 and coming within approximately two miles of the BWCAW. It would roughly parallel the South Kawishiwi River, a major river system within the BWCAW and would be located upstream of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness.
The proposed mine would range in depth from 400 feet to as much as 4,500 feet. According to the company, approximately half of the tailings generated through ore production and processing would be backfilled underground as part of mining operations. The remaining waste would be stored in a massive “dry stack” tailings storage facility, measuring about a mile and a half across. The company proposes to build a new ore processing plant near the mine entrance.
The company released the proposal to both the DNR and the federal Bureau of Land Management, which will both conduct their own separate environmental reviews. “I truly believe the Twin Metals project will be a model for modern, sustainable and environmentally responsible underground mining,” said Kelly Osborne, TMM chief executive officer. “We’ve pulled together the best professionals in the industry who’ve put in thousands of hours to make this an extraordinary project, and I’m proud to lead this team.” Twin Metals is a subsidiary of Antofagasta, a Chilean-based copper mining giant.
Plenty of questions about the project still remain to be answered. At a press conference on Wednesday, DNR officials mostly avoided questions about the proposal itself, focusing instead on the process moving forward. Assistant DNR Commissioner Barb Naramore said her agency will begin its review of the Twin Metals submittal immediately to ensure that it contains all the information the DNR will need to begin an environmental review process. If so, she estimated the initial scoping process for the environmental impact statement, or EIS, would likely take one-and-a-half to two years to complete. Once scoped, the actual study would begin, although Naramore was unwilling to estimate how long that process might take, only that it would likely be the longest phase of the process. Naramore noted that the EIS process includes several opportunities for public input and that the volume and detail of those comments will likely have an impact on how long the review could take. The company would be allowed to actually apply for mine permits after the EIS is completed.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, who has been strongly supportive of the Twin Metals project, called the release of the mine plan exciting early morning news. “The time for speculation and unfounded scare tactics is over. Prove what can’t work with facts, real science - not emotion,” he said. “The economic impact of jobs in the mining industry is a major financial contributor to the entire state as well as local economies. The total compensation for one mining job is equivalent to the compensation of four seasonal employees in the tourism economy.”
The economic impacts of the mine proposal are not clear. Unlike the 43-101 technical report that Twin Metals prior owner, Duluth Metals, issued in 2014, the latest submittal does not appear to contain any estimates of the project’s financial viability or estimates of employment. Antofagasta acquired the outstanding stock in Duluth Metals for pennies on the dollar shortly after the release of that technical report, which showed profitability for a significantly larger project than Twin Metals is now proposing.
Naramore said the DNR has not sought financial data at this point in the process. “Where project economics do become important, is in the realm of financial assurance,” Naramore added. Those considerations typically are finalized as part of the permitting process.
Whether the project ever gets to that stage remains uncertain. Former Gov. Mark Dayton was openly opposed to the Twin Metals project out of concerns for its potential impact to the BWCAW, and current Gov. Tim Walz has supported his own DNR’s decision to conduct its own environmental review of the company’s mine proposal. The DNR and the U.S. Forest Service had combined forces to conduct a similar EIS over the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine several years ago, so the decision to conduct a separate state review has been viewed by many as reflecting skepticism within the Walz administration over the project.
The release of the mine plan comes in the same week that Republicans in Congress fought off an Democratic effort to reinstate a two-year study of a potential mineral withdrawal affecting the area that Twin Metals hopes to mine. The company currently has two federal mineral leases affecting several thousand acres of the Superior National Forest, which the Trump administration restored in 2017. That action is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit, with a district court judge expected to rule soon.
For now, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber was effusive in his praise of the project. “This Mine Plan of Operation represents the future of our mining industry, as our friends and neighbors will target another key section of the Duluth Complex to supply the world’s demand for precious metals,” he said.
While supporters of the mine lauded the company’s mine proposal, opponents were sharply critical of both the plan and the ability of state and federal regulators to protect water quality in the BWCAW. “Today’s announcement by Antofagasta comes in the midst of the failure of regulatory agencies to protect Minnesotans from pollution at PolyMet’s proposed sulfide mine,” stated Aaron Klemz, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “The PolyMet water permit scandal has shaken Minnesotans’ confidence and shown that our mine permitting system is broken.”
Currently, four permits issued by the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for the PolyMet mine are suspended by the state Court of Appeals pending further proceedings. At the same time, state and federal investigations into the suppression of concerns,expressed by federal Environmental Protection Agency scientists remain ongoing.
MCEA CEO Kathryn Hoffman urged Gov. Walz and the DNR to use their legal authority to protect the Boundary Waters from the threat of the Twin Metals mine. “The time is now to stand up and demand that they use this authority to defend the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior.”
Meanwhile, the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters called the development a “perilous time” for the Boundary Waters. “The Trump Administration has corrupted the federal environmental review process and jammed the Twin Metals project into a state process that was never intended to protect pristine locations like the Boundary Waters,” said former DNR commissioner and current chair of the campaign, Tom Landwehr. “If elected leaders don’t act we could lose the Boundary Waters as we know it.”
The public can learn more about the Twin Metals proposal at a special website set up by DNR to make information available. That information can be found at www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/environmentalreview/twinmetals/index.html