Feds hint at tough review for Minn. mining project

Federal officials indicated this week they’re not inclined to automatically renew mineral leases for a major and controversial mining project in northern Minnesota. 

Twin Metals Minnesota is looking to construct a major copper and nickel mine near a federal wilderness area in the state. 

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The company’s existing ten-year leases for those minerals have expired, and while the company has requested an extension of those leases, the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor said Tuesday federal officials have the right to conduct an environmental review of the project before granting an extension.

“I conclude that Twin Metals Minnesota does not have a non-discretionary right to renewal, but rather the [Bureau of Land Management] has discretion to grant or deny the pending renewal application,” Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins wrote to the BLM.

Twin Metals is years away from securing the permits necessary to open its mine. Its first step is securing the lease renewals, a measure it has previously called uncontroversial.   

But in its letter, the Office of the Solicitor said regulators have the right to conduct environmental and other assessments before renewing the leases. The original term of the leases — issued in 1966 — required production to begin within a certain period of time, and Twin Metals is still only “conducting exploration activities” on the leased land. 

“The leases provided that if there was no production at the end of the primary term, the leases would end unless the Secretary granted a lease renewal to extend the time to commence production.”

Twin Metals is a major proposal for Minnesota’s mining industry, promising 850 mining jobs and 30 years of precious metal production in the state. 

It is, however, highly controversial, with environmentalists warning about the impact copper and nickel mining will have on the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which is near the Twin Metals site. 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) has filed a bill to effectively block mining there. Activists have asked the BLM to block Twin Metals’ lease renewal and requested the Obama administration unilaterally prevent mining in the region.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D), in a letter this week, told the company he has “grave concerns” about the risks mining poses to the Boundary Waters watershed, news website MinnPost reported.

“I am not questioning the qualifications of either Twin Metals or its parent company Antofagasta PLC,” he wrote. 

“Rather my concern is for the inherent risks associated with any mining operation in close proximity to the BWCAW and my concern about the State of Minnesota's actively promoting advancement of such operations by permitting access to state lands.”