Local View Column: Let's have honest conversations about copper-nickel mining
As people gather for the Wild Waters Music Fest in Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park today, there will be much conversation about what needs to be done to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed mine plan moves through the regulatory process, those of us who work in mining will be an important part of those conversations — not only because we, too, care deeply about the Boundary Waters but because we are committed to the health of the communities of Northeastern Minnesota, where our common future lives.
The Iron Range we know today was built on both mining and the wilderness. The forests of northern Minnesota have been home to mines and logging operations, outfitters and outdoor adventurers continuously for more than 130 years. Those uses have coexisted, and, in fact, the people who worked the mines have been among the most enthusiastic defenders of the wilderness where they live.
Twin Metals intends to build a mine that respects those values.
The Duluth Mineral Complex is one of the richest stores of copper, nickel, platinum-group metals, and cobalt in the United States. This is important because everybody uses these metals, and, as climate change compels us to move to low-carbon green technologies, the demand for these minerals continues to increase.
Anybody who takes a selfie on their smartphone at the Wild Waters Music Fest or who drives there in a car is a user of copper, nickel, and a host of other minerals that are in the Duluth Complex. Wind turbines, solar cells, batteries in electric vehicles, and catalytic converters all require these minerals.
We need the kinds of minerals that are in the Duluth Complex. These minerals will be mined — either in a place like Minnesota that respects worker and environmental safety or in a place that does not. Those of us who use copper, nickel, and the other metals should require the kind of oversight over their acquisition that our robust regulatory system and our culture demand.
Twin Metals is aware that we must operate in a way that protects our waters. Protection of our natural resources is why we will be proposing to use the best-in-class environmentally friendly technologies to support our operation.
As an underground mine, our operation will occupy a small area on the surface. We will be able to go thousands of feet below the surface and surgically target ore containing the critical metals. Half of the unused rock from the mine will be backfilled with cement deep in the mine to minimize surface disturbance.
In July, Twin Metals announced plans to store the remainder of the tailings — crushed rock which remains after the minerals are removed — in lined, dry-stack mounds on a site near the mine rather than conventional storage. This eliminates any risk of a dam failure, and extensive tests on our material show the tailings involved will be non-acid-generating.
As part of a 2018 online forum about copper-nickel mining run by the nonpartisan Citizens League, Kevin Lee, a staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said, “I would go so far as to say that (dry stacking) would address the vast ajority of the concerns that we have for these facilities.”'
Part of saving the Boundary Waters is ensuring an economic future for the people who live in the surrounding region. The main streets of Ely and Babbitt show that tourism alone cannot sustain a city. The jobs the Twin Metals mine will bring give Range towns the opportunity to thrive once again while continuing to serve as a gateway to the wilderness treasure that is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
We are going to have public conversations over the next few years about the future of mining in Northeastern Minnesota. We hope these conversations focus on how we get what we need to sustain the green economy and to support Minnesotans while protecting the home that we love.
Dean DeBeltz is director of operations and safety for Twin Metals Minnesota. He is based in Ely.