ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – A controversial mining project near northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness took a step closer to becoming a reality Wednesday after Twin Metals submitted its formal proposal to state and federal agencies for an underground copper-nickel mine.
The proposed mine would be the first underground mining operation in Minnesota since the 1967 closure of the Pioneer Mine in nearby Ely. Minnesota Republicans have praised the mine, including Representative Pete Stauber, who said that “copper, nickel, and other precious metals found in the Duluth Complex are not just essential to powering the modern world but are also key to unleashing the economic engine in our part of the state.”
But the project is a point of tension within the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor party, which has a declining northern base, and has drawn the ire of environmentalists because it would lie in the Rainy River watershed, upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageur National Park.
The million-acre Boundary Waters is the most-visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S., drawing about 100,000 visitors each year to canoe its 1,000 lakes and enormous tangle of streams and rivers. Opponents of the Twin Metals project and another mining project just south helmed by the Canadian company PolyMet, argue that any harm to the waters of the wilderness area would be a blow to the area’s economy, which relies heavily on tourists.
Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, says it has spent over $450 million on the project to date and expects to reach $1.7 billion in investments through the construction process. And it promises some 765 mining jobs and over 1,400 spinoff jobs, plus thousands of construction work hours.
“We look forward to a robust period of engagement with federal, tribal and state governments and the public as we move into scoping and environmental review,” Twin Metals chief regulatory officer Julie Padilla said in a press release. “Submittal of our proposal marks the very beginning of that process, and we are confident that it will ultimately result in the best outcomes for this project and for Minnesota.”
The proposal submission is one of the last stops on what has been a rough road for the Twin Metals project. The Bureau of Land Management rejected Twin Metals’ lease renewal in the waning days of the Obama administration in 2016, citing concerns about acid mine drainage causing damage to the wilderness. In 2018, the Trump administration brought the project back online by reversing the bureau’s decision and canceling a study that could have led to an all-out ban on mining in the area.
Twin Metals officials have said in interviews that the mine is designed to keep pollution out of the wilderness. Half the sandy tailings remaining after processing would be put back into the mine as backfill and the rest would be put into a 120-feet tall “dry-stack” impervious to precipitation with sulfide levels too low for acidification to be a concern.
Padilla said that with this setup, the company hopes to complete Minnesota’s regulatory process within five to seven years. That’s an ambitious goal, especially considering that the PolyMet mine, another copper-nickel project, obtained the last of its state permits in October of 2018 after submitting its proposal in 2005.
Environmental groups have asked Minnesota’s Democratic governor Tim Walz to block the environmental review process from starting at all. Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and former head of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s environmental standards are not stringent enough to properly protect the wilderness area.
"The decision that the state gets to make is, 'Will this project meet state standards?'" Landwehr told the Associated Press. "If yes, check the box. If no, check the other box. There's nothing in there that says, 'OK, you know, at the end of the day I just think this is a bad project, I'm not going to approve.'"
Walz has trodden carefully on the topic. A spokesman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune Tuesday that “the governor believes that no mining project should move forward unless it passes a strict environmental review process that includes meaningful opportunities for public comment.”
Save the Boundary Waters also cast doubt on the Trump administration’s motives for allowing the project to go through, pointing to a New York Times story that drew a connection between Antofagasta’s owners and a Washington, D.C., mansion rented to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in 2017. Andronico Luksic, whose company owns the mansion and whose brother heads Antofagasta, denied any connection between the mansion and the mine when the story came out in June.
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