In Response: Greenwashing of Talon Metals won't wash away concerns

From the column: "Residents of Aitkin County — and visitors who love our lakes, rivers, and quiet places — have valid reasons to be concerned and to advocate for caution."

Susanne Derby.JPG
Susan Derby

In his Feb. 2 “Local View” column in the News Tribune (“ Fed investment in Dakota mineral plant good for Minnesota, too ”), McGregor business owner Zerek Marsyla accused other local residents of unfairly “prejudging” a nickel-sulfide mine being developed in Aitkin County.

Since when did asking tough questions of powerful foreign companies seeking permission to operate here, possibly polluting our northern Minnesota environment, become synonymous with “attempting to block a project,” as Marsyla asserted?

Talon Metals has not yet submitted a formal mine plan to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but it has briefed investors. Soon, the company will be seeking permits, including, possibly, for wetland destruction and for the discharge of contaminants into the air and water — normal aspects of a mining operation.

Residents of Aitkin County — and visitors who love our lakes, rivers, and quiet places — have valid reasons to be concerned and to advocate for caution.

In local public presentations, when asked about the intended scope of its proposed underground mine, local representatives of Talon Metals claimed a small surface footprint, comparing its size to a football field. At the same time, Talon’s corporate leadership has informed investors like Elon Musk of a “mining district” with a mineral deposit stretching more than 11 miles and 30,000 acres, crossing the boundary between two watersheds.


Twenty years ago, I attended an Aitkin County Board of Commissioners meeting regarding the initial permit for Kennecott, to explore for minerals near Tamarack. I was struck by the packed room of 60-plus local people with concerns and vocal opposition. The Aitkin County permit was denied after that meeting.

Over time, some of those locals, who benefit financially from Rio Tinto–Kennecott’s land purchases and its grants to local businesses, have traded precautionary principles for public-relations talking points that seem pulled directly from Talon Metals’ press releases. That is not community engagement; that’s just marketing.

The idea of locating the processing facility in North Dakota can also be seen as an example of deceptive marketing by Rio Tinto and Talon Metals. They claim that decision was the result of being response to local community concerns, but when asked at a community meeting how Talon Metals was chosen to receive a $114 million government subsidy before any mine plan had been submitted for public consideration, the local staff of Talon Metals did not seem to know where this idea came from or how it was possible, perhaps given the constraints of rail transport.

As a retired railroad engineer, I suspect there will be safety risks with any mine plan put forth. And the cost, in dollars and fossil-fuel energy, of shipping that much material to North Dakota by train challenges the economic viability of a mine plan and how green it really would be.

Moving jobs and waste to North Dakota does not constitute an adequate response to the many concerns that have been raised about mining in our water-rich area. Instead, it smacks of a marketing tactic, or a diversion, developed by mining-company lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

Nickel is used to make stainless steel, and we all use stainless steel. The nickel that Talon and Rio Tinto would like to mine sits beneath a vast tamarack and black spruce bog, where the movement of water underground has not been studied carefully enough. Peat bogs are globally rare, covering only about 3% of the earth’s surface, yet they account for approximately 30% of the earth’s soil carbon, according to Michigan Technological University. Lowering water levels by pumping millions of gallons of water a day from underground could decimate these vulnerable and rare ecosystems.

Protecting peatlands, fresh water, and the diversity of life that depends on them here in the Northland is a climate solution — it just won’t make Elon Musk or Rio Tinto any richer.

Susan Derby is a landowner in eastern Aitkin County and a retired railroad engineer. She is a member of United Auto Workers Local 879; Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transport Workers Local 1138; the Minnesota Forestry Association; and the Tamarack Water Alliance.

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