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Poll: Most Minnesotans oppose mine near BWCAW

In this photo from 2010, David Oliver, project manager for Duluth Metals, holds a core sample showing a polymetallic deposit from the Twin Metals exploration area east of the Kawishiwi River in northern Lake County. (File photo / News Tribune)

One day after Gov. Mark Dayton came out strongly against the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely, opponents of the project piled on, releasing results of a statewide poll showing two-thirds of Minnesotans do not want a mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The poll found that 67 percent of Minnesotans questioned oppose "sulfide mines on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness" while only 16 percent support it.

The poll was released Tuesday, paid for by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and conducted in mid-February by Washington-based Anzalone Liszt Grove Research.

The term "sulfide mining" is often used by opponents to describe copper-nickel mining because the minerals are locked inside rock that is high in sulfide. It's that sulfide that can spur acidic runoff when the rock is exposed to air and water.

The poll also found 65 percent of the 500 Minnesotans questioned favor stronger regulations to prevent new mining "near" the BWCAW.

Pollsters found 61 percent of those questioned who live in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District — which includes the Iron Range and Duluth — oppose mines near the wilderness. Statewide, the poll found 83 percent of DFLers, 57 percent of independents and 54 percent of Republicans oppose mines near the BWCAW.

The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Twin Metals is proposing a massive mining operation in four different but close-by copper deposits along the Kawishiwi River near Birch Lake, with some areas as close as a half-mile from the BWCAW boundary and one deposit deep underneath Birch Lake. Much of the project is proposed as underground, but some also could be open pit, according to preliminary reports from the company.

Critics say there is simply no margin for error for any mining operation so close the wilderness and in a pristine watershed that flows north into the heart of the BWCAW and on into Canada.

"If there is a spill into the Boundary Waters the downstream consequences would be devastating," said Collin O'Mara, president of National Wildlife Federation, in a conference call with reporters.

Twin Metals officials declined to comment on the poll results or other developments Tuesday beyond a statement provided on Monday night that said "Twin Metals received Governor Dayton's correspondence regarding our project late this afternoon, and the company is currently assessing the governor's position."

Frank Ongaro, director of Mining Minnesota, the Duluth-based copper industry trade group, said other polls "have consistently over the years shown that Minnesotans across the state are very supportive of mining and minerals development expansion," Ongaro said, declining to comment on the specifics of the latest poll.

The Twin Metals project is proposed for an area checkered with varied land ownership and varied mineral rights ownership — federal, state and private —  about 10 miles southeast of Ely.

BLM can deny permits

In yet another development Tuesday, a U.S. Department of Interior official ruled that the Twin Metals leases should not automatically renew and that the BLM has the discretion to review or withhold the leases.

"I conclude that Twin Metals Minnesota does not have a non-discretionary right to renewal, but rather the BLM has discretion to grant or deny the pending permit renewal application," wrote Hillary Tompkins, an attorney for the Interior Department, to the agency's director. The letter was dated March 8.

Twin Metals purchased the lease that has been passed down since it was awarded to Inco in 1966. The leases cover areas directly under which Twin Metals proposes to mine and it's not clear how the project could advance without access to those federal lands.

Both sides say they expect a ruling from the BLM requiring some sort of environmental review of the mining lease issue sometime in coming months.

Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Save the Boundary Waters Wilderness campaign, said she expects the federal Bureau of Land Management to deny a request by Twin Metals to renew the 1966-vintage mining lease for lands in the heart of the proposed mine area. Instead she expects the agency to require an environmental assessment before the renewal is considered.

"It's my belief that they are going to, for the first time, take a look at the appropriateness of mining in that specific area," Rom said Tuesday.

Rom also pointed to a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Hydrology which estimates any polluted water from a mine located where Twin Metals is proposed would spread across a broad area of the wilderness and on into Canada and have long-term consequences on the environment.

Ongaro, however, said the Boundary Waters are not at risk because of Twin Metals and that the leases should be renewed again as they have been several times since originally issued 50 years ago.

"We all want to protect the Boundary Waters. The good news is that they are already protected. No mining is allowed in the Boundary Waters. No mine will have an impact on the Boundary Waters," he said.

Dayton letter spurs reaction

In a letter to Twin Metals officials made public on Monday, Dayton said he has "grave concerns" that the proposed copper-nickel operation poses a real risk to the BWCAW. That letter sent shock waves across the Iron Range and party politics.

The News Tribune first reported in February that Dayton would not approve a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources agreement allowing Twin Metals to access state lands where it plans to mine. Iron Range lawmakers urged the governor to approve the access last month.

The company hasn't yet applied to start environmental review and has yet to make public its engineering plans for how the mine would be built. But Twin Metals wants to get on the land when it's frozen during winter months to conduct preliminary reviews and background assessments of what's there — to both evaluate environmental issues and examine mineral deposits.

Dayton met with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and top Twin Metals officials privately on Feb. 17 to discuss the issue. But in a letter from Dayton to Twin Metals CEO Ian Duckworth, dated Sunday, Dayton made it clear he isn't budging.

Moreover, he expressed broader doubts about any mining on the edge of the BWCAW.

"My concern is for the inherent risks associated with any mining operation in close proximity to the BWCAW and my concern about the state of Minnesota's actively promoting advancement of such operations by permitting access to state lands," Dayton said. "I am unwilling to take risks with that Minnesota environmental icon."

While the dispute centers on state lands in the area, much of the Twin Metals operation is proposed on federal land in the Superior National Forest. Dayton said he called the director of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees mining issues on federal lands, to "express my strong opposition to mining in close proximity to the BWCAW."

St. Louis County commissioners, Ely officials and other organizations on Tuesday were considering how to react to the governor's opposition to the mining project. Even U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, usually a Dayton ally, weighed in against the governor's stand.

"I strongly disagree with the Governor's refusal to allow the DNR to authorize or enter into any new state access or lease agreements for Twin Metals mining exploration," Nolan said. "These (access) agreements are not to be confused with the final approval or disapproval of the Twin Metals project itself. That decision will rest on a rigorous and thorough process based on science, facts and technology. To proceed otherwise would be to circumvent the strict rules and regulations we have in place to ensure that the integrity of mining projects, as well as our water, land and air, are fully protected as we move forward to grow our economy here in northeastern Minnesota. We should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions. That is what these initial stages of the proposed Twin Metals project are all about."

Ongaro said industry officials still are digesting the governor's sentiments. But he said it appears the governor may have overstepped his authority, usurping lease agreements Twin Metals has in place with the state.

Ongaro also said the governor's letter sent shock waves across the mining industry, with mining officials and potential investors wondering what happened to Minnesota's open arms for new mining investment and jobs.

"There's still more questions than answers," Ongaro said. "What the governor has said here appears very arbitrary. One has to question the legal authority the governor has for this type of action."

The Twin Metals project

Twin Metals is in the preliminary stages of confirming exploration findings and advance environmental field work. The company has said it may be ready to submit the project for environmental review by 2018.

In August 2014, Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, released the results of a "pre-feasibility" study on the mine saying the project has substantial mineral reserves, would have a low cost of production and could turn a solid profit. The report said the proposed mine would take about three years to build at a cost of $2.8 billion — by far the state's most expensive private construction project ever — and eventually would employ about 850 people mining about 50,000 tons per day, a far larger operation than the proposed PolyMet open-pit mine about 30 miles to the southwest.

The Twin Metals mine is expected to produce 5.8 billion pounds of copper along with nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver.

Twin Metals officials have said their giant underground mine would have far less pollution potential than large open-pit operations because less acidic rock would be exposed to air and water. The company also has proposed processing its ore in an already developed area near existing or past iron mining activities closer to the traditional Iron Range, to reduce the project's above-ground footprint in the mostly undeveloped, scenic area along the Kawishiwi River.

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