After more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeological, environmental, and other work and planning — as well as deflecting doomsday barbs based largely on speculation and assumptions — Twin Metals Minnesota has produced its plan to mine.
The company, with offices and facilities in St. Paul and Ely, formally submitted a proposal for underground mining for copper, nickel, and other metals on about 550 acres south of Ely. A mining plan went to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and environmental-assessment data went to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the company announced Wednesday, Dec. 18. The filings trigger federal and state scrutiny that’s expected to take at least five to seven years to complete.
During that lengthy but critical review, Twin Metals has a request — and it’s quite reasonable. It’s to “be treated fairly,” as Twin Metals Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla said in an embargoed interview earlier this week with a News Tribune reporter and with the News Tribune Opinion page.
“We are proposing a mine in a place where mining is a desired condition. We are mining in a place where we have held minerals through 10 different presidential administrations,” Padilla said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We need to work with anyone sitting in those offices (of the governor, other elected officials, and the agencies conducting the reviews). That’s what we plan to do. … This is a conversation that should center around facts and science and process. Allow us to be treated like any other business in this state and, as a matter of fairness, (allow us) to put a project forward and get it judged on its merits.”
It actually may be a lot to ask. Many opponents of copper-nickel mining long ago made up their minds about Twin Metals and its project — even though, until now, there had been no project or anything specific really to criticize.
Despite the dearth of information, the Minneapolis-based Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters referred to Twin Metals’ planned mining as “toxic” and a “risk” — a day before details of the mining were even released.
Concerns are understandable, of course. The Boundary Waters is nearby — even if the mining site is well outside of both the wilderness and a buffer zone designated to protect the wilderness. The mine site is in the Superior National Forest in a spot where mining has been identified as a desired activity. Located mostly underground, the Twin Metals is to disturb only a tiny fraction, about 20%, of the surface area of a traditional open-pit mine.
To protect the environment, including the Boundary Waters, Twin Metals has said it will have no waste rock piles stored on the surface and will use the “dry stack method” for tailings. The method means no dam that could fail, and it is considered the most environmentally friendly approach. Additionally, the sulfur content in Twin Metals’ tailings will be too low to generate acid, the company has said, citing extensive research.
Is the company right? Can its mining be done responsibly and safely? That’s what the coming years’ environmental reviews can determine — must determine. It’s on state and federal regulators to carefully and thoroughly consider the plans to ensure that noise, water, air, and other pollution and harm are effectively mitigated.
“We’re thinking about our community around us and potential impacts,” Padilla said. “We are comfortable that if we can’t meet the requirements and law related to the standards then we shouldn’t move forward. But we are really, really honored to begin the process, and we’re ready to have conversations with anyone about the value that this deposit can bring to the state’s economy and to the green economy that this country is moving toward.”
The metals the company will mine are used in everything from cellphones to catalytic converters to wind turbines. These metals now are extracted in often unsafe, unregulated ways elsewhere around the globe.
When operational, the mine is expected to employ about 700 people. Another 1,400 spinoff jobs are forecasted. That's with Ely's current population at just about 3,400. Mining jobs pay an average of $89,489 a year, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. By comparison, jobs in tourism pay, on average, $20,796 a year.
Much is at stake, and there will be much public input and feedback as environmental and other reviews roll out. The company, the agencies tasked, and all of us can commit now to a thorough and tough — but also respectful, civil, and fair — process. It seems a quite-reasonable request.