Citizens in northeastern Minnesota plan to file a petition Tuesday objecting to the state's plans to auction off more metallic minerals exploration leases, saying the potential for new prospecting and mining could have a significant impact on the environment.
A copy of the petition provided to The Associated Press on Monday asks for the Department of Natural Resources to prepare an environmental assessment worksheet before awarding the leases, saying they could affect trout streams and other sensitive natural resources, drinking water wells, popular recreational trails and property values. More than 140 people have signed it.
The DNR announced plans to auction the mineral rights to 64,000 acres earlier this month amid growing interest in the large untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northern Minnesota. The affected lands are in St. Louis County, in and near the city of Hoyt Lakes; in Lake County about 2 miles west of Tettegouche State Park; and in a rural area of eastern Aitkin County.
"There are quite a few folks who were not happy to hear this was coming down," said Matt Tyler, a self-employed consulting forester from the town of Finland who organized the petition effort. "What it comes down to is communities should be consulted about these things. The state shouldn't set things out by decree."
State approval of minerals leases used to be routine, but the process turned contentious the last time the DNR awarded them. Home, cabin and other private property owners between Ely and Isabella said they deserved better notice, including some who didn't know the state held mineral rights to their properties and that they would have to tolerate noisy drilling on or near their land. After a seven-month delay, the state's Executive Council approved the 77 leases in May.
The DNR plans to open the new bids Oct. 24. The Executive Council could consider them as early as its next scheduled meeting Dec. 6, said Kathy Lewis, assistant director of the DNR Lands and Minerals Division.
Environmental attorney Paula Maccabee of the group WaterLegacy plans to deliver the petition to the state Environmental Quality Board and a formal notice to the DNR on Tuesday. She said they have more than enough signatures to meet the legal requirement of 100.
Lewis said she hadn't heard about the petition and that it wasn't immediately clear if it would delay the process for awarding the leases.
State law says the responsible governmental unit, in this case the DNR, must order the preparation of an environmental assessment worksheet if the petitioners present evidence showing a proposed project "may have the potential for significant environmental effects."
Maccabee said she believes this is the first time citizens have petitioned for such an assessment on minerals leases. She said the state could prepare it quickly if it chooses. She noted that the U.S. Forest Service prepared a more detailed review, a full-scale environmental impact statement, before the federal government decided earlier this month to issue 28 prospecting permits for Superior National Forest land near Ely.