Since December 2009, I have written a number of columns about copper-nickel mining, a significant environmental threat to the North Country. My focus has been on the Canadian firm PolyMet (polymetmining.com); but it seems that another mining outfit, Twin Metals (twin-metals.com), which has an interest in large tracts of land south and east of Ely, might be the first sulfide mining project that gets a permit to being operating.
Minnesota has a long history of iron ore and taconite mining; but the extraction of copper-nickel and precious metals (palladium, silver, gold and platinum) would be something new in the state.
In late March a headline in the Duluth News Tribune announced: "Twin Metals Ely mine project takes steps forward." The article notes that the company is "collecting baseline environmental date across 32,000 acres… under which geologists say is a jackpot discovery of copper."
The newspaper reported that Twin Metals "formally announced Thursday [March 22] that it has instructed its engineering contractor, global giant Bechtel, to draw up plans for an 80,000-ton-per-day mine and processing plant, putting Twin Metals on par with the largest mines in the world."
So, one of the "largest mines in the world" is being developed on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – and on land that is within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, so the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Ojibwe bands have a legally-recognized interest in how this land is developed.
The 1854 Treaty reserves hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the land that was ceded to the U.S. government. And as I have reported previously, the Fond du Lac band is closely monitoring the progress of the sulfide mining schemes, which have the potential to pollute the reservation’s surface and ground water, and destroy wild rice beds.
Nancy Schuldt, the water quality coordinator for the Fond du Lac band’s environmental program, told me that the Twin Metals project is steaming ahead and is "huge…. Several different exploration projects were bought out and merged to be one great big project."
Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, a company formed in January 2010 – a partnership between Duluth Metals Limited (Canada) and Antofagasta PLC (Chile) – is drilling in several different deposits in the east end of the Iron Range. Schuldt mentioned that exploration drilling in the Birch Lake deposit is actually "under the lake bed."
The story in the Duluth News Tribune reported that the "mine will be so big, with miles of tunnels reaching some 4,500 feet below ground (and potentially below Birch Lake), that giant dump trucks will simply drive right down a gradual decline to the ore. Some of the processing may even happen deep in the mine, and much of the leftover rock will be back-filled into the mine."
"It will be a lot like an underground city," Bob McFarlin, Twin Metals’ vice president of public and government affairs, told the newspaper.
"Twin Metals is based up in Ely," said Schuldt. "They recently built a pretty grand new building in Ely."
While much of the political focus in the Twin Cities is on building a new stadium for the Vikings in Minneapolis (and expanding charitable gambling to pay off the state’s cost for the venture), mining is the big topic of discussion up north.
"It’s very much front and center up here," said Schuldt, regarding the mining industry’s news media presence. The press in the Duluth media market disseminates "a pretty incessant barrage of stories that are essentially cheerleading for the industry, and focusing… on the economic benefits [of mining] and very much giving short shrift to the environmental hazards of the industry."
Schuldt mentioned that one Duluth TV station has a weekly weekend program about the mining industry. A Google search reveals that "This Week in Mining" airs on WDIO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Duluth (owned by Hubbard Broadcasting), after the late news on Saturday and Sunday.
I have written about how both DFL and Republican elected officials, on the state and congressional level, have lined up behind copper-nickel mining. In my column last August, I wrote about how the 2011 Legislature tried to remove the long-established criterion for sulfates in wild rice waters (10 milligrams per liter) in the omnibus environmental bill, which was signed into law. However, Schuldt informed me that the legislators have learned, to their great displeasure, that they do not have the power to undo the federal Clean Water Act.
Schuldt said that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is moving ahead with a $1 million study on water quality standards for waters containing natural beds of wild rice.