Twin Metals, the proposed copper-nickel mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, submitted its formal project proposal to regulators Wednesday, according to company officials, beginning a yearslong federal and state review process.
The company, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is hoping to build a large underground copper-nickel mine and dry-stacked tailings storage facility near Ely and Birch Lake, within the Rainy River Watershed and 5 miles from the BWCAW. Critics say the project could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW, while supporters say the mine would bring much-needed jobs to the region.
Julie Padilla, Twin Metals’ chief regulatory officer, told the News Tribune the company is submitting its mine plan of operation to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and an environmental assessment worksheet data submittal to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“The team here is extremely proud of the work that we’ve done and the project that we’re putting forward, and we believe that this is a conversation that should center around facts and science and process,” Padilla said. “And we are comfortable that if we can’t meet the requirements and laws related to the standards, then we shouldn’t move forward.”
The plan calls for processing 20,000 tons of ore per day from an underground mine 400-4,000 feet below ground. The mine has a 25-year lifespan and Twin Metals expects it will create 700 jobs. Twin Metals has spent $450 million on the project so far and expects to pay a total of $1.7 billion through construction of the mine, the company said in plans posted to its website.
Ore would be crushed underground, then sent by conveyor to a processing facility at the surface near Birch Lake. That’s where it will create concentrates containing copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, platinum and palladium. The concentrates would then be moved by truck to Duluth’s port where it will be taken to Canada or northern European smelters.
About half the tailings, or waste rock, would be mixed with concrete and backfilled into the underground mine while the other half would be stored in a sand-like consistency in a dry-stacked facility near the processing facility. The company had planned on keeping the tailings behind a dam in the Lake Superior Watershed, but changed its plans in July to dry stacking in the Rainy River Watershed and said the method was more environmentally friendly.
Environmentalists say the dry-stacking method is still risky, especially since it’s now in the same watershed as the BWCAW, and remain opposed to the mine.
Twin Metals maintains that its mine and tailings won’t create harmful acid drainage, but groups like the Minnesota Center of Environmental Advocacy disagreed.
MCEA spokesperson Aaron Klemz pointed to a 2006 study that said "of the (mine) sites that did develop acid drainage, 89% predicted that they would not."
"We have a long history of failing to predict acid mine runoff, but it occurs anyway," Klemz said.
If approved, it would be the first underground mine to operate in the state since Ely’s Pioneer Mine, an iron ore mine, closed in 1967.
Copper-nickel mining has never been done in the state of Minnesota, and only one project, PolyMet, has been fully permitted by the state. Several of those permits, however, are on hold as the project faces numerous legal challenges.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore explained the DNR is in the early scoping stage of preparing its environmental impact statement and that Twin Metals had not applied for permits from the state, which could occur after the EIS is completed.
"Environmental review is about identifying the potential environmental and socio-economic impact for the project, identifying potential alternatives to reduce those impacts and identifying mitigation. ... It is not a project approval process, but the information developed in the EIS certainly then informs agency decisions about whether to approve or not approve a project," Naramore said.
The state’s review and permitting process for PolyMet took 14 years before permits were issued in late 2018. Padilla told the News Tribune that Twin Metals hopes to have it completed in 5-7 years.
Padilla said Twin Metals has watched the permitting process for PolyMet, but that the two projects differ significantly. PolyMet is planning an open-pit mine, processing plant and tailings basin at an old iron ore mine site while Twin Metals is eyeing an underground mine, processing plant and dry-stack facility on a greenfield site.
“We’re certainly kind of watching and learning from the litigation out there that’s related to (PolyMet's) project and hopefully issue spotting early and utilizing their experience to help us get through the process more smoothly,” Padilla said.
State leery on mine
Former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL, was fervently opposed to Twin Metals, going as far as to deny the company access to state lands to do advance work for its proposed mine over concerns “for the inherent risks associated with any mining operation in close proximity to the BWCAW," he wrote in a 2016 letter to Twin Metals.
In his first year in office, Gov. Tim Walz, DFL, has expressed concern over the mine, but told the News Tribune in March that he didn’t think Dayton's ban would hold up in court, and would not be continuing it.
He said Twin Metals “should back off. I think they should take a hard look at this."
"I would fall on the side of being very cautious because of the difference of location," Walz said in March of Twin Metals’ location so close to the BWCAW. He added later, "I just think it is a different set of circumstances that warrants more research and more looks at this than PolyMet."
While representing Minnesota's 1st District in Congress, Walz opposed a bill that would have reinstated expired Twin Metals mineral leases that the Obama administration did not renew.
And last month, the DNR announced it would conduct its environmental review of Twin Metals separate from federal agencies, in part because it had concerns over the Trump administration’s handling of the project.
Despite all that, Padilla said she’s hopeful for a fair review and is glad the state is allowing the company to submit a proposal.
“I think all we can expect from the administration at this time is to allow us to be treated like any other business in the state, and as a matter of fairness, be allowed to put a project forward and get judged on its merits,” Padilla said.
At a news conference in the Minnesota State Capitol on Tuesday, Save the Boundary Waters Executive Director and former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said while the state could act as a final line of defense against the project, state standards weren't sufficient to block the Twin Metals mining project.
Landwehr said Walz should block the project given its previous rejections at the federal level. And if the first-term DFL governor isn't willing to do that, he should say the project's application is incomplete without a 60-page federal review, which has been kept secret. He said the report would likely show the project is incompatible with the region's current uses.
"It's our advice to the governor that he shouldn't accept that lump of coal," Landwehr said. "This is a significant and threatening development for the Boundary Waters. It's the culmination of two years of effort on behalf of the Trump administration and Twin Metals in Minnesota. ... They know that should this land in the pocket of the state, state standards are not adequate to protect the Boundary Waters and the plan could ultimately be approved and devastate the Boundary Waters."
The vetting process at the federal level has been "corrupted" by recent changes that limit studies of the mine's potential impact, Landwehr said. And state requirements don't require the same prohibitions on pollution to land and waters. Landwehr said the group has been working on legislation to expand the area around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where mining is prohibited under state law. And they've started working with state lawmakers, though the group has yet to craft a proposal.
The campaign has spoken with Walz about its concerns but members have not yet heard from the governor how he'll weigh in.
"Our plea to the governor and public officials is to stop this project right now," Landwehr said. "It's been terminated once before and should never have been resurrected."
Project finds friend in feds
In 2016, the Obama administration rescinded Twin Metals' mineral leases during its final days in office as the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was too close to the BWCAW.
“Not this mine, not in this place, not next to this wilderness,” Leslie Jones, then deputy undersecretary of the USDA, told the News Tribune at the time.
Feds also initiated a “mineral withdrawal,” or 20-year ban on mining on another 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest south and west of the BWCAW from any future mining permits, most within the BWCAW watershed but outside the official wilderness, calling it a “timeout” to see if copper mining would be appropriate in any part of the area.
Then the Trump administration took over.
In December 2017, the Trump administration returned federal mining leases to Twin Metals, reversing the Obama-era decision.
In January 2018, the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the USDA, announced they would not conduct an environmental impact statement, the most-thorough level of environmental review of potential copper mining impacts, on the BWCAW as part of the mineral withdrawal, and would instead conduct an environmental assessment, a less-stringent study.
At the time, U.S. Forest Service officials said that if the environmental assessment turns up new evidence of more serious environmental consequences, then a full-scale environmental impact statement still could be ordered.
But by September 2018, the Forest Service had abandoned the environmental assessment, too.
A Forest Service spokesperson at the time said a "science-based analysis" with public input showed no need for further environmental studies.
"Due to what we learned over that time, we determined there was not any need to complete the process on an environmental assessment," the spokesperson said.
The Trump administration has been accused of a conflict of interest with the Chilean family that owns Twin Metals’ parent company.
President Donald J. Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner are renting a Washington home owned by Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic, whose family controls Antofagasta, the Chilean global mining giant that owns a 100% interest in the Twin Metals.
American Oversight, a watchdog group, has sued the Trump administration for documents related to the mining leases returned to Twin Metals to uncover what influenced that decision.
On Tuesday, the latest effort to restart the study was dropped from a spending bill after White House negotiators intervened, according to Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, the bill’s author.
The federal government's handling of the study has alarmed state officials
When the DNR said it would launch its independent review of the project, officials said there was some concern over the ability to conduct a thorough joint review, as the Trump administration has sought to curtail the federal environmental review process.
"The credibility and transparency of this (environmental impact statement) process for the proposed Twin Metals project is critical to Minnesotans. We know this," DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen told reporters on a conference call last month. "DNR is committed to ensuring a thorough, scientific and neutral overview of the proposal based on state law. And after reviewing all of the aspects related to this, we really believe that we can best accomplish that goal through separate EIS processes at the state and federal levels."
Forum News Service reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.