Top officials from Chilean mining company Antofagasta are in Washington this week meeting with key Minnesota lawmakers and their staffs about the company's proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely.
Antofagasta is sole owner of the fledgling Twin Metals Minnesota company that wants to build a copper mine along the Kawishiwi River and on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Federal regulatory agencies are critical to the project because they hold key access to mineral and exploration rights where Twin Metals wants to mine. The Bureau of Land Management of the Interior Department currently is deciding whether to renew some of those leases.
Samantha Bisogno, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, said the congressman "met with them and received an update on what Antofagasta has been doing on the Twin Metals project to date and what the company is committed to do in terms of protecting the BWCA and surrounding areas when it submits a mining operation plan."
The Antofagasta contingent also met with staff of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Franken was not available at the time of the meeting, a spokesman said.
Twin Metals and Antofagasta representatives met with "a number of stakeholders in D.C. to discuss the current status of the Twin Metals project and various federal mining issues," said Bob McFarlin, spokesman for Twin Metals. He described the meetings as "fairly routine."
Environmental groups have been critical of the federal permits which have been passed down for decades from one mining company to another, and renewed by the feds, without ever being vetted under federal environmental rules as would be required if the permits were newly issued.
BLM officials earlier this year said they had the right to withhold the permits, although no final decision has been made.
Jon Nelson, a board member of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, which opposes copper mining in the BWCAW watershed, criticized the lobbying effort.
"The fate of the Boundary Waters Wilderness should be determined by a modern scientific review of all potential negative impacts from sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, not influence peddling in Washington, D.C., by a Chilean mining conglomerate and its high-price lobbyists," he said.
While still years away from any mining, Twin Metals made news earlier this year when Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the state Department of Natural Resources not to allow Twin Metals onto state lands for preliminary work on the project.
Moreover, Dayton sent letters to federal officials saying he opposes the Twin Metals project because it is so close to the BWCAW and because any tainted runoff or water pollution, if it occurred, would flow into the BWCAW.
Dayton's sharp stand sent shockwaves across the Iron Range, where local and state elected leaders have tried to persuade the governor to back off, so far unsuccessfully.
Twin Metals is in the preliminary stages of a proposed underground copper-nickel mine in the Birch Lake area along the Kawishiwi River, just off Minnesota Highway 1. The company has said it may be ready to submit the project for environmental review by 2018. (To put that in perspective, PolyMet instigated its environmental review in 2006. That review didn't conclude until early this year.)
In August 2014, Twin Metals 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. Antofagasta took full control of the Twin Metals project later that year.
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 20 miles to the southwest.
The Twin Metals mine is predicted to produce valuable minerals for at least 30 years - including an estimated 5.8 billion pounds of copper and 1.2 billion pounds of nickel along with platinum, palladium, gold and silver.