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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

DNR approves Franconia drilling plan

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/3/23

REGIONAL— The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has approved a new mineral prospecting lease for Franconia Minerals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twin Metals, near Babbitt. The lease …

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DNR approves Franconia drilling plan


REGIONAL— The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has approved a new mineral prospecting lease for Franconia Minerals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twin Metals, near Babbitt. The lease will allow Franconia to further explore a copper-nickel and platinum group metals deposit underneath Birch Lake in an area outside of the current federal mineral withdrawal that has stymied Twin Metals’ efforts to develop a copper-nickel mine on the nearby Maturi deposit.
Identified as the Birch Lake deposit, the lode of copper-nickel and platinum group metals is known to be deep, and is located hundreds of feet down. But the site, located about five miles east of Babbitt, is not as fully explored as the Maturi deposit, which had been the focus of the now defunct mine plan issued by Twin Metals two years ago. At this point, most of the Birch Lake deposit qualifies as an “inferred” resource, which is the lowest level of certainty in the mining industry. Further drilling by Franconia could help Twin Metals raise their degree of confidence to “indicated” (the next step up) or “measured,” which is the highest degree of certainty.
Approval of the lease was strongly opposed by the Ely-based Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which suggested the exploration effort would create unwanted noise in the 1.1 million -acre wilderness area and could further add to pollution concerns affecting Birch Lake. The campaign was instrumental in blocking development of the first Twin Metals proposal, which was dependent on federal mineral leases that have since been canceled.
But the DNR, in approving the lease, noted that 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’s decision allows Franconia to conduct exploratory drilling in six areas identified by the company, but would not authorize bulk sampling or mining.
In a statement to the Timberjay, the DNR noted that it conducted a thorough natural resource review of the current exploration plan and considered all comments submitted by interested groups and individuals. “In accordance with Minnesota Rule 6132.0700, the DNR determined that special conditions were needed to protect two state-listed threatened species, 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,” reads the statement.
According to the agency, the decision is consistent with the findings of the U.S. Forest Service’s Superior National Forest Prospecting Permits EIS completed in 2012 and which concluded that exploratory borings in the Superior National Forest are not anticipated to have a noticeable effect on groundwater quality and are expected to have few, if any, negative effects on surface water quality. 
Franconia Minerals, now a subsidiary of Twin Metals, was originally founded by the late prospector Ernie Lehmann, who spent years assessing the Birch Lake deposit. Franconia proposes to conduct drilling at six sites, three located along the eastern shore of Bob Bay with the remaining three located just to the southeast of Unnamed Creek, near the Dunka Pit. Franconia Minerals and Rendfield Land Co., a subsidiary of ALLETE, are the surface landowners in much of the area that would be subject to the drilling, while the state of Minnesota controls the mineral rights.
The drill sites are all located about five miles southwest of the Maturi deposit and could be subject to use for exploratory drilling through March 31, 2025.