Minnesota DNR approves Twin Metals plan for mineral exploration in shadow of Boundary Waters

BABBITT, Minn. — Minnesota regulators on Monday approved a copper-nickel mining company’s exploratory drilling plan along the shore of Birch Lake and in proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Franconia Minerals, the exploration subsidiary of Twin Metals, could drill at six sites on state leases along and near the south shore of Birch Lake near Babbitt.

The plan is only for exploration, not mining, but environmental groups fear the activity could spur a larger mine plan in the same watershed as the BWCAW, posing a pollution threat to the downstream wilderness. Birch Lake flows into the Boundary Waters via the Kawishiwi River.

“The DNR’s approval does not authorize bulk sampling or mining and the DNR does not currently have any proposal before it for mining within the Rainy River Headwaters Watershed,” said Erik Evans, a DNR spokesperson. “Franconia holds valid state mineral leases for the proposed exploration locations and, in accordance with state law, has a right to conduct mineral exploration activities on properties they have leased from the state.”

In a news release, Ingrid Lyons, executive director of Save the Boundary Waters, said the organization was “disappointed” in the DNR’s decision.

Twin Metals has pried open the door to drilling on vulnerable state and private lands next “to the Boundary Waters, short-circuiting our ongoing Minnesota Environmental Rights Act lawsuit,” Lyons said Tuesday.

The Biden administration effectively killed the earlier Twin Metals plan, which called for an underground mine, tailings storage facility processing plant further north along Birch Lake, by not renewing key mineral leases and then, in January, putting a 20-year pause on mining in 225,000 acres in the Superior National Forest. A U.S. Forest Service study released in 2022 said hardrock mining in the watershed could cause pollution in the BWCAW.

But the mineral withdrawal only applies to federal leases within the Rainy River Watershed, not state or private leases within the watershed, and Twin Metals has said it remains committed to advancing the project.

“Twin Metals is pleased that the DNR authorized our exploration plan on October 30, 2023, and we look forward to beginning exploration activity in a safe and environmentally responsible manner over the coming months, with a goal of collecting key data about our critical mineral resources,” Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said in a statement Tuesday.

And in a letter last month, Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals vice president of external relations and project operations, said: “The goal of this exploration activity is to better understand our mineral resources and our potential to contribute critical minerals to support Minnesota and our nation in the transition to a clean energy future.”

After a review of current rules governing nonferrous mining in the Rainy River Watershed, the DNR said in May that a wider buffer limiting surface mining around the BWCAW would better shield the wilderness from potential sound and light pollution and initiated a rule-making process to make that happen. However, it found existing water and air pollution regulations protected the BWCAW were adequate.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has challenged the DNR’s decision and urged the DNR to wait to make a decision on the exploratory drillings until legal challenges are resolved.

“The green-lighting of this proposal means that by next paddling season, noises of drilling, blasting, machinery, heavy traffic and more will drown out the natural sounds of our northwoods — eviscerating the quiet solitude that makes the Boundary Waters America’s most-visited wilderness area,” Lyons said.

DeBeltz said Twin Metals will require its contractors use “exhaust mufflers and spark arrestors and to shield any light sources.”

The DNR said it had additional “special conditions” to protect threatened species, protect water and reduce noise and light from exploration activities. Evans pointed to a 2012 U.S. Forest Service environmental impact statement on prospecting permits that found “few, if any, anticipated negative effects” to groundwater, surface water and riparian habitat in the area, including the downstream BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park.

“With the special conditions in place, the DNR has determined there is little potential for risk to the environment from the approved exploration activities,” Evans said.

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