While PolyMet is the first copper-nickel mine in history to obtain the state permits required to operate in Minnesota, 15 miles to the north, Twin Metals Minnesota poses another grave threat to the state’s north woods. Twin Metals is proposing an underground copper-nickel mine next to Birch Lake, south of Ely, Minnesota, in an area where any pollution would flow into the Boundary Waters Wilderness. This watery wilderness is unique and fragile, and any water pollution could devastate the area. The Twin Metals mine is just now beginning the process of environmental review.
This proposal has been in the works for decades. In 1966, International Nickel Company (INCO) acquired two federal mineral leases, one near Birch Lake and the other along the Spruce Road, right up to the wilderness boundary. In the 1970’s, concern over pollution led to a four-year moratorium on copper mining, and a state study into copper-nickel mining pollution risks. Low prices for copper and other metals cooled interest in the deposit, and it lay fallow for years. But these leases remained, and eventually sprang to life as Twin Metals Minnesota.
In 2010, Canadian junior mining company Duluth Metals announced a joint venture with Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. An extensive drilling program was funded by the joint venture, and in 2014, a feasibility study was published. However, the study showed high capital costs and low rates of return and months later, Duluth Metals was bought out by Antofagasta, which assumed 100% ownership. Since then, Antofagasta has developed the proposal on its own.
In 2016, it looked like this proposal was dead, as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management refused to extend the federal mineral leases. However, the Trump administration reversed these decisions and gave the leases back to Antofagasta. In 2019, Antofagasta published a new mine plan of operations and submitted it to state and federal regulators for environmental review.
The 1966 leases are the subject of a number of legal challenges brought by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Water and the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and these suits are pending in federal court. MCEA is currently evaluating the mine plan and evaluating options under state and federal law. The precedents set in the PolyMet legal cases are critical here. As Duluth Metals’ former President Rick Sandri put it, PolyMet is “the snowplow” for other mine proposals that follow it, breaking a path that others may follow. MCEA will use our experience and expertise gained in the PolyMet battle to defend the Boundary Waters once again.
Key Timeline Events
Federal agency begins environmental study, Minnesota DNR says application incomplete
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announces that Twin Metals has submitted what it deems a complete mine plan of operations and announces it is beginning a federal environmental study. A week earlier, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is conducting a separate study under state law, determined that Twin Metals’ application was “incomplete.”
Federal district court upholds Twin Metals lease extension
Challenges to a third extension of the 1966 leases brought by the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters are dismissed by a federal judge. The groups appealed this ruling in April 2020 and that appeal is pending.
Twin Metals submits mine plan of operations to state and federal agencies
Twin Metals’ “mine plan of operations,” a description of its proposed mine, is sent to the Minnesota DNR and the BLM.
State and federal agencies announce each will conduct separate environmental reviews
Unlike the PolyMet proposal, where state and federal agencies created a single joint environmental impact statement, the Minnesota DNR and BLM announce that each will do separate studies under federal and state law.
BLM cancels mineral withdrawal study
Announcing it “found no new scientific information,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it had ended the mineral withdrawal study after 20 months and reopened the area to mineral exploration.
BLM reverses course, announces intent to extend Twin Metals leases
After reversing a 2016 legal opinion, the BLM announces its intent to extend Twin Metals’ 1966 INCO leases for another 10 years. After conducting a cursory review, the BLM officially extended the leases for another decade in May 2019.
Bureau of Land Management starts study of mineral withdrawal and freezes mineral leasing for 2 years
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the BLM announces that it is halting mineral leasing and studying whether a 20 year moratorium on mineral leasing in the Boundary Waters watershed is needed to protect the wilderness. Several public hearings are held and tens of thousands of public comments opposed to mining near the wilderness are submitted.