ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Twin Metals Minnesota formally submitted a plan to regulators Wednesday for the construction of an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely in northeastern Minnesota, a project that has drawn fierce opposition because it would sit just upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Company officials said in interviews that the mine is designed to prevent pollution from reaching the wilderness while providing about 765 full-time mining jobs and more than 1,500 spinoff jobs, plus thousands of construction hours for union labor.
“For those communities, this is going to be an incredible opportunity for development, for generations to come,” said Kathy Gaul, a Twin Metals spokeswoman.
Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta PLC, says it has spent more than $450 million on the project.
The filing starts what’s expected to be a lengthy environmental-review and permitting process for what would be Minnesota’s second copper-nickel mine. Julie Padilla, Twin Metals chief regulatory officer, said the company hopes to complete the process in five to seven years. That could be optimistic, given Minnesota’s first planned copper-nickel mine, the PolyMet project, took well over a decade to clear those hurdles.
Emotions have run high because of how close the proposed Twin Metals mine would be to the Boundary Waters, the country’s most-visited federally designated wilderness area. The area occupies more than 1 million acres and has more than 1,000 lakes.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is “committed to a rigorous, transparent and neutral review of the proposal based on the best available science and applicable state laws,” said Barb Naramore, the deputy commissioner. She declined to estimate how long that would take.
The Twin Metals project came under attack during President Barack Obama’s administration by officials who refused to renew the company’s mineral-rights leases, saying the threat of acid drainage was an unacceptable risk to the wilderness. The mine got going again, though, when President Donald Trump’s administration granted the leases and canceled a study that could have led to a ban on mining in the area. Opponents are now challenging that decision in federal court, and have set a hearing for Friday in Washington.
Opponents of Twin Metals have called on Democratic Gov. Tim Walz to prevent even the start of the proposed environmental review. Once that process gets going, they said, the project will be hard for the state to stop.
Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said Minnesota’s existing environmental standards aren’t adequate because they would allow for some degradation of air and water to take place in a place that’s now pristine. He also said the state’s review procedures don’t take into account likely harm to people who depend on the wilderness for their livelihoods or the project’s effect on property values.
“The decision that the state gets to make is, ‘Will this project meet state standards?'” Landwehr said. “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.'”
In his former job as head of the Department of Natural Resources, Landwehr had approved the environmental review and permits for the PolyMet mine. But that project sits in a different watershed, one that doesn’t flow into the Boundary Waters.
The state agency last month said it would prepare its own environmental statement for Twin Metals, independent of the federal review by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. Opponents of Twin Metals said that was a sign that the agency doesn’t trust the Trump administration to conduct a proper review.
The bureau issued a statement saying it would “work cooperatively” with the state to coordinate and reduce duplication in their efforts. It noted that the administration’s policy is to support copper-nickel mining in the region.
A central argument against both mines is that the untapped reserves of copper, nickel and platinum it would be used to unearth are bound up in sulfide minerals that can leach out sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.
Graul, the Twin Metals spokeswoman, said the company’s design would avoid acid drainage by preventing the exposure of sulfide-bearing rock to the elements. The company plans to bury the waste bedrock in old parts of the mine and remove, during processing, nearly all sulfides from ore-bearing rock.