The five-member Minnesota Executive Council on Wednesday unanimously approved granting four more mineral leases to Vermillion Gold, Inc., giving the company the right to explore for minerals on more than 1,600 acres along Itasca County’s Owen, Lost, Napoleon and Pickle lakes.

With the leases, Vermillion Gold can explore and drill for minerals on that land after further approval by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A state lease does not mean the company can mine on the land. That requires a years-long environmental review and permitting process.

Last week, the DNR recommended the council approve the leases, which are adjacent to three other state leases held by Vermillion Gold. The council is made up of Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and State Auditor Julie Blaha.

After the meeting, Kate Lehmann, president of Vermillion Gold, told the News Tribune the company would begin planning for its exploration program and expects to begin drilling on the leases next winter. Lehmann said the company is specifically looking for gold but would “certainly be interested” if other valuable minerals showed up.

“We’re very pleased,” Lehmann said of Wednesday’s approval. “It’s been a long wait.”

The company first applied for mineral leases in 2017 when it asked for 25 mineral leases in Itasca and St. Louis counties covering almost 11,500 acres, far higher than the request approved Wednesday.

Lehmann said she believes the request took so long because former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton “just didn’t want to talk about it.”

Public testimony and discussion ahead of the vote Wednesday addressed the potential environmental effects of a gold mine in northern Minnesota.

But Jess Richards, assistant commissioner of the DNR, reiterated that these leases don’t mean a mine will open on that land. The leases could be returned to the state at any time, especially if exploration doesn’t turn up gold. While the leases are 50-year terms, “companies don’t hold these leases very long,” Richards said, adding that more than 80% are returned to state within 5 years.

Aaron Klemz, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said members of the Bear Lake Cabin Owners were worried about the state’s notification process around the negotiated leases and that the group kept pushing the DNR for more transparency even after Vermillion Gold reduced its lease request away from Bear Lake.

“They continue to push forward because they believe that they didn’t receive adequate notice of those lease requests in 2018 and they have continued to request the DNR expand their notification of local affected landowners because of their experience and the frustration that they felt,” Klemz said.

Richards said the DNR has worked to engage with stakeholders in this negotiated state lease program and is committed to improving it. The agency has set up interactive maps on its website and offers email updates.

Before moving to approve the leases, Walz said he was encouraged by the discussion.

“I bet there were permits for these leases like this one that went in 30 seconds without a single person in this room or no discussion for a year upon year, decade upon decade. To recognize that that is no longer true is a positive,” Walz said. “Engaged citizenry are here.”