Minnesota stalls mining leases in Northland again

ST. PAUL -- Residents and cabin owners in the Ely and Isabella areas won another reprieve Wednesday from any mining company exploration under their lands.

State Executive Council meets on mining
Gov. Mark Dayton checks Wednesday to see if any other members of the Minnesota Executive Council have questions during a mining lease meeting. From left are Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, Dayton, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon and Attorney General Lori Swanson. (Don Davis / State Capitol Bureau)

ST. PAUL -- Residents and cabin owners in the Ely and Isabella areas won another reprieve Wednesday from any mining company exploration under their lands.

The state's Executive Council voted unanimously to wait six more months before reconsidering a proposal to lease state-owned mineral rights to mining companies to explore in Northeastern Minnesota, including under private property.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie led the effort to delay the vote, saying too many people are unaware of state laws and regulations, some written in the 1870s, that allowed the state to own the mineral rights under people's homes and cabins. Dayton said the state's entire mining lease procedures may need updating.

"It's a pause to get it right,'' Dayton said of the delay, adding that he'll ask the Department of Natural Resources mining division to look at all laws and regulations on mineral leases. "This is a new era in Minnesota mining'' that many Minnesotans aren't aware of.

Property owners said they would use the time to petition the Legislature to give them more rights to refuse mining company access to their land and to buy their own mineral rights -- currently not an option under state law.


"It gives us time to take this issue to the people of Minnesota, and to the Legislature, if they will listen,'' said Ron Brodigan, who lives near Isabella.

Brodigan was one of more than a dozen property owners who testified that mining exploration would destroy the natural qualities that defined their homes and weekend getaway cabins.

DNR officials and Dayton said they believed the delay won't affect major copper mining projects already in the works, such as PolyMet and Twin Metals, which have mostly defined where the copper is they would mine. But Frank Ongaro, president of Mining Minnesota, the copper mining industry trade group, said the action could delay future copper mining projects.

"This is changing the rules of the game in the last inning,'' Ongaro said. "There are companies waiting to go forward'' with focused exploration once the state leases are approved.

Ongaro warned that the delay could send a chilling message to companies considering major investments in Minnesota mining operations that the state isn't open for business.

It's the second time the council delayed action on the leases this year. In April they kicked the proposal back to the DNR, demanding the agency notify all private landowners under whose lands leases were being auctioned. It's the first time since 1982 that the council hasn't approved a DNR minerals lease package and signals increased tension over mining in the region, especially into areas outside the traditional Iron Range.

More than 50 people showed up in opposition to the leases, many saying they never knew of mining interest in their area until the DNR sent them letters last month.

Charlie Chernak, an Ely real estate agent, said the threat of mining interest under private homes and cabins is affecting sales and property values.


"The DNR ought to look a little closer at not leasing under private lands,'' he said, adding that "99.9 percent'' of property owners in the area weren't aware that they likely do not own the mineral rights under their land and that they are obligated by state law to allow mining companies who lease those mineral rights to explore there.

"It's kind of new in our area,'' he said. "Even the title companies don't do a real good job explaining it."

The Executive Council, charged with approving state investment and land deals, includes Dayton, Ritchie, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Auditor Rebecca Otto, all DFLers.

The DNR annually makes available different mineral lease sites across the northern portion of the state where geologists suspect deposits of copper, nickel, platinum, gold and other valuable metals. This year the state offered 652 mining units across 226,000 acres in Lake, St. Louis and Koochiching Counties up for mining companies to bid on for the 50-year exclusive right to prospect and drill for minerals at the site. In April, four mining companies bid on the rights to explore and drill on 22 of those mining units across about 22,000 acres, much of it in west-central Lake County, near Isabella, in an area thought to be rich in copper. The mining units included about 82 private landowners.

While the state owns the mineral rights under all of that land, much of the land itself is privately owned. And many landowners say they never knew they didn't own the minerals under their property. Many also said they had no idea mining interest had moved into their area.

The DNR and mining supporters - as well as official state law and policy - say that the state mineral exploration leases are a critical first step in pinpointing marketable deposits of minerals and the first step toward creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into state school funds when mining royalties begin flowing into the state as mining begins.

Opponents say the system is stacked against landowners, with little chance to say no to mining companies. They say exploration and drilling will be disruptive to their north woods lifestyle, while mining opponents question whether copper mining can be conducted without environmental damage.

"There are no examples where non-ferrous mining didn't pollute the environment,'' said Joyce Malwitz, who owns a business in Stony River Township near Isabella.


Mining exploration, development in NE Minnesota

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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