DNR approves plan for Twin Metals to drill near the BWCA
It’s a step in the process.
That being the case, action taken this week by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that will allow a mining company to perform exploratory drilling in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness stirred up a variety of emotions.
There was contentment from that of the mining company, Franconia Minerals, a subsidiary of the well-known Twin Metals, an enterprise that has for over a decade been striving to build a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the BWCA. The drilling approved this week is on state land near Birch Lake, not far from Ely and Babbitt.
“Twin Metals is pleased that the DNR authorized our exploration plan… We look forward to beginning exploration activity in a safe and environmentally responsible manner over the coming months, with a goal of collecting key data about our critical mineral resources,” Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement sent to WTIP Nov. 1.
On the other side of the issue, the DNR’s allowance of the exploratory drilling created discontent for organizations that have long opposed this type of mining activity in the BWCA watershed.
Ingrid Lyons, the executive director of Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement sent to WTIP Oct. 31 that the organization was “disappointed that the Department of Natural Resources approved this exploratory drilling plan, but it makes one thing crystal clear: We urgently need permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its watershed. Twin Metals has pried open the door to drilling on vulnerable state and private lands next to the Boundary Waters, short-circuiting our ongoing Minnesota Environmental Rights Act lawsuit.”
What the DNR approved this week is not a mine plan, and it does not allow Twin Metals or its subsidiaries the ability to start operating a mine. In one sense, the mining company shifted a vision it had for a nearby mine on federal land and moved it to state and private land.
Nonetheless, Lyons said the decision made by the DNR this week will impact recreation in and around the BWCA next year.
“The greenlighting of this proposal means that by next paddling season, noises of drilling, blasting, machinery, heavy traffic, and more will drown out the natural sounds of our Northwoods – eviscerating the quiet solitude that makes the Boundary Waters America’s most visited Wilderness Area,” she said.
The news from this week follows a year of setbacks and victories for both Twin Metals and those opposed to having a copper-nickel mine near the edge of the BWCA.
In June, opponents and supporters of nonferrous mining near the Boundary Waters declared victory following a decision by the DNR to expand a mining buffer zone around the most visited wilderness area in the nation.
This summer’s announcement from the DNR focused on preventing light and noise pollution in the BWCA as a result of any potential mining operations.
The group Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) sued the DNR in 2020 over its regulations for nonferrous mining, which is essentially any type of mine where minerals other than iron are extracted from the earth.
However, Lyons also expressed disappointment at the time about the fact the DNR did not include water quality and air quality in their decision to expand the mining buffer zone around the BWCA.
More recently, in a ruling made public Sept. 6, environmentalists, including Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the lead organization in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, were victorious in the lawsuit in which more than a dozen advocacy groups and businesses intervened in support of the federal government.
Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in August 2022. The lawsuit sought to force the renewal of federal mineral leases next to the BWCA, which had been renewed during the Trump Administration. In its lawsuit, the mining companies said the Department of the Interior acted illegally in 2022 when it canceled the leases.
Earlier in 2022, the Biden administration canceled the pair of Twin Metals mineral rights leases for a proposed copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.
In making the announcement, the U.S. Department of the Interior said it determined that the expired Twin Metals leases were unlawfully reinstated by the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, the news this week that Twin Metals has permission to dig for core samples is not a new phase for the company. Over the course of a decade, Twin Metals has been extracting core samples near the edge of the BWCA.
To date, their core storage facility houses approximately 1.5 million feet of core samples from the deposit, while another half million additional feet of core samples have been sent to state storage facilities, the organization reports.