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PolyMet has been working on opening a copper mine in Minnesota for 16 years. This 1999 file photo shows rock samples the mining company extracted in the very early stages of the proposal process. Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released an environmental impact statement a proposed mine near Hoyt Lakes. Reps from Twin Metals, a company interested in a copper mine in Lake County, say they are watching the project closely. File photo / 1999

Mining efforts ramp up in northeastern Minn.

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While a proposed copper mine just north of Hoyt Lakes moves through the final steps of its environmental review process, a company hoping to open a mine in Lake County is plugging along on its pre-feasibility study.

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An environmental review on PolyMet’s Hoyt Lakes mine was released earlier this month and state and federal agencies could start granting permits soon. PolyMet could be operating a mine in 2016, if permits are approved and they secure funding. It’s the final stretch of a decades-long effort to open Minnesota’s first copper mine.

In the meantime, St. Paul-based Twin Metals Minnesota is in the early stages of opening an underground mining operation. It could be located anywhere within the 32,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota where they control mineral rights. Much of their property is in Lake County, and some is next to the Boundary Waters Area Canoe Wilderness.

“I think everybody in the industry is watching the PolyMet project very closely,” said Bob McFarlin, the vice president for public and government affairs for Twin Metals. “It’s a very important process and seeing how the … regulatory agencies deal with and address the issues with the PolyMet proposal is very instructive.”

Twin Metals is proposing an underground mine and the PolyMet mine would be open pit. Both mines present potential hazards, said Aaron Klemz, communications and engagement director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Copper and nickel are often contained within sulfide deposits. When the sulfide is exposed to air, it can cause toxic runoff called acid mine drainage – whether the mine is above or below ground.

“There are different risks. It’s not like one is safe and one is not,” Klemz said.

Iron ore and taconite mining have long driven the economy in northeastern Minnesota. While iron ore mining has its own risks, acid mine drainage isn’t one of them.

Klemz said the Friends of the BWCA is opposed to non-ferrous mining (sometimes called sulfide mining) in northeastern Minnesota. He said the characteristics that make the area popular — interconnected lakes, large bodies of clean water — make it especially vulnerable to acid runoff.

“We don’t think that sulfide mining is an appropriate thing to do in the watershed of the BWCA,” Klemz said. “It’s water-rich, it’s very hard to contain water. We think that it’s a particularly risky place to operate these mines.”

He added that existing American copper mining operations, most of which are located in dry and arid Arizona, are less risky and provide plenty of copper. He added that increased recycling could provide more copper.

McFarlin points out that the Polymet mine has been under consideration for more than 15 years. This includes many public comment periods and reviews by dozens of state and federal agencies — a process that he said addresses all potential problems.

“The process for analyzing and proposing a mine project in the U.S. averages eight to 10 years, the longest average is the industrialized world. It’s an important process,” McFarlin said. “(Public officials) wouldn’t support any project that can’t meet regulatory environmental standards.” 

He said he takes issue with opposition groups that want to shut down potential mine projects even before the environmental review process.

“That is what I think is most concerning and disturbing about the organizations that oppose mining in Minnesota is that they not only oppose the projects, they oppose the projects going through the regulatory process that allows … comment and review,” McFarlin said.

PolyMet’s environmental impact statement, which has been prepared by the Department of Natural Resources and consultants, totals more than 2,100 pages. It outlines how PolyMet plans to mine and process copper, nickel, platinum, gold and other valuable metals while abiding by all state and federal environmental rules.

The document does not grant PolyMet any permits, and even if mining permits are granted within the next year, the mining corporation would still need to raise an estimated $450 million to start construction on the mine.

Meanwhile, Twin Metals is still “many years” from the environmental review and permitting process, according to McFarlin. What happens with the PolyMet mine will be an important instructive tool for Twin Metals and a litmus test for copper mining in the state.

“They are separate projects, they’re separate management, but they’re all part of the same complex,” Klemz said. Twin Metals and PolyMet are both planning to mine in the Duluth Complex, a rock formation that includes much of the Arrowhead region.

“Whatever will happen with PolyMet will provide a blueprint,” Klemz said.

Find out how to comment on the project here.

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