Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
The Twin Metals sulfide ore mining project is more or less dead (at least for now), thanks to a federal mining ban and revoked mineral leases. But just before Halloween, the projects’ backers have Twin Metals shambling on, zombielike, with a bid to start drilling exploratory holes for state-owned minerals not far from the original site.
Twin Metals applied for a permit to drill six holes on state land in northern St. Louis County on September 22. The DNR notified the company that it would make its decision within twenty days, meaning it’s likely that decision has already been made.
For the sake of our northern waters and the people who call them home, we hope that decision will put Twin Metals back to rest.
The risks that brought Twin Metals to a halt
Environmentalists, Anishinaabe tribes, and recreational businesses have been sounding the alarm about Twin Metals and others like it – including the PolyMet mine in the St. Louis River watershed – since it was first proposed. The controversial mine proposal in the watershed of the Boundary Waters would have likely been the first of its kind in Minnesota. The state is home to plenty of iron mines but none yet targeting copper, nickel, or other metals locked in sulfide ore.
The mining of sulfide ores carries with it acidic pollution that can devastate nearby waters and habitat. No such mine has ever operated in the United States without causing that kind of pollution. In the Boundary Waters – a highly interconnected and vulnerable watershed – such pollution would be a nightmare. It would create a similar catastrophe if it reached the waters of the St. Louis River, which flows through communities like the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation and the city of Duluth before emptying into Lake Superior – home to 10% of the world’s freshwater.
Northern Minnesota’s most valuable resource isn’t hiding in the rocks – its the massive quantity of freshwater in Rainy Lake, Lake Superior, and thousands of other bodies of water. As climate change, overuse, and pollution make clean water more scarce, these waters will become ever more valuable.
And that’s not including the destruction of wetlands, forests, and other vulnerable lands that are vital to confronting climate change. The copper, nickel, and other minerals in the Duluth Complex – the mineral formation that Twin Metals and PolyMet have sought to mine – aren’t concentrated in one place, but are spread out thinly under the water-rich landscape. Northern Minnesota would be permanently scarred by these mines.
Thankfully, both mines have faced tremendous headwinds over the past two years.
In 2022, the Biden Interior Department cancelled Twin Metals’ mineral leases, though the company sued in a bid to reinstate them. Earlier this year, Interior reversed a Trump Administration policy and placed a 20-year ban on mineral extraction on federal lands near the Boundary Waters. And last month, a federal judge halted PolyMet’s lawsuit to reinstate its leases.
PolyMet, meanwhile, has been brought to a halt – perhaps a permanent one – thanks in large part to the efforts of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The tribe used its standing as a government to argue that the mine plan – which was approved by state and federal regulators – would violate its water quality standards. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed and cancelled PolyMet’s wetland destruction permit.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from Twin Metals’ determination to keep digging, these mining companies have a habit of persisting despite setback after setback.
What happens if Twin Metals gets its permit to drill?
The average size for a drill pad – the platform used for drilling – is about 500 square feet, and the diamond drill itself is only a few inches in diameter. But drilling can still have environmental risks, leaking acidic chemicals and drilling fluid and causing significant noise pollution for miles around.
The minerals in question are on state-owned lands, meaning they aren’t subject to the federal moratorium on mineral extraction near the Boundary Waters. It’s possible that Twin Metals could push forward with a new project. It may also be using the drilling to signal to its financial backers that the company is biding its time, hoping that political changes do away with the 20-year mineral extraction ban.
At the same time, these companies and their backers continue to make the case that Minnesota needs these mines. They point to the creation of high-paying jobs and economic activity. They somewhat cynically appeal to environmentalists by claiming the copper, nickel, and other ores of the Duluth complex are necessary for the energy transition and fighting climate change.
No doubt these mines would create jobs – temporarily, at least, before the boom-bust cycle of the extraction economy reaches its inevitable bust, leaving nearby communities with polluted water and the expenses of cleaning it up. And it’s true that a world struggling with climate change needs certain minerals, but not from northern Minnesota, and not nearly as much as it needs clean water and carbon-absorbing ecosystems.
But lest these arguments and the political winds bring sulfide mining projects back to life, we need safeguards for our land, water, and people. The mining industry has heavy influence over regulatory agencies, resulting in favorable permit decisions, but with new laws championed by MEP member groups, they can be stopped.
Federal and state laws for Boundary Waters protection would be a strong step. So would a prove-it-first policy, which would require proof that sulfide mining can be done safely elsewhere for twenty years before Minnesota could be used as a testing ground for unproven techniques.
Above all, we need Minnesotans to keep up the pressure on political leaders. Caving to the mining industry’s pressure will spell long-term disaster for our state’s most valuable resources. Committing now to clean water and healthy communities will pay off for generations to come.