Underground in Emily, a mother lode of manganese

Town of Emily
The small, central Minnesota town of Emily is sitting on what might be the largest manganese deposit in North America. About 800 people live in the city.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The little town of Emily in central Minnesota is sitting on a valuable resource.

According to mineral experts, one of the largest high-grade deposits of manganese in North America is located on a five-acre site at the edge of town. Manganese is a mineral used in steel and aluminum production. It's also used to make batteries.

For years, large, international mining companies have had their eyes on the manganese in Emily. But the land was recently purchased by Crow Wing Power, the local electric cooperative. Co-op officials say they want to mine it themselves, and share the profits.

Experts think there could be a billion pounds of manganese in the ground, just a couple miles from the town center in Emily. That's a pretty big deal, considering the U.S. currently imports nearly all of its manganese from Africa and Asia.

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Alice Blomberg lives just a quarter mile from the site of the deposit, which sits between a couple of small lakes. Blomberg says she's not worried about a mining operation so close to home.

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"I think it's great. I think it's going to benefit the community, every business, bringing in more people, more tax dollars," she said. "It's just an all around good deal."

Blomberg wasn't so enthusiastic back in 1995, when a company from outside of Minnesota wanted to mine the site. Now, the proposal is coming from the non-profit cooperative that supplies her electricity.

Blomberg said she trusts the company. Some of its employees live in Emily. Plus, Crow Wing Power promises to share the mining proceeds with her and the rest of its nearly 40,000 members.

"The money is going to stay here. It's a cooperative, and I think it makes it better," she said. "I don't think they're going to do the people wrong.

Emily, Minn.
Emily, Minn. is located about 10 miles south of Brainerd, Minn., or a little more than 3 hours by car from the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Crow Wing Power officials say they bought the land to keep the resource in local hands. The former owner had offers on the table from mining companies in India, China, Australia and the Ukraine.

The cooperative is interested in manganese for other reasons, too. The mineral is used in emerging scrubber technologies designed to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, which are a source of the cooperative's electricity.

The kind of mining that's proposed doesn't involve mine shafts or big open pits. It would be the first mining project in Minnesota to use something called borehole extraction. The process involves drilling holes 200 to 400 feet into the ground, then using pressurized groundwater to flush out the manganese.

The water would be filtered and returned back into the ground. The recovered manganese would be shipped to a minerals lab in Coleraine for processing.

Brad Moore is the former head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He's now a senior adviser for Barr Engineering, a Minneapolis environmental consulting firm contracted by Crow Wing Power. Moore said he believes the process will be environmentally friendly, but tests have to be done to make sure. It's also unclear if the process will work for manganese mining.

George Papek
Mayor of Emily George Pepek.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"The borehole mining method has been used throughout the world for mining everything from diamonds to iron ore," he said. "It has not been used for manganese, and so this is why we're looking at this as a demonstration project. Given that the manganese is very friable, that is, crumbly, we think that this technique will work."

Crow Wing Power is working with state and federal regulatory agencies on an environmental assessment of the project, including water quality testing. It would be two years before any commercial operation begins.

Project spokesman Mike Zipko says Crow Wing Power won't pursue the mining if it's harmful to the environment.

"If it doesn't meet their test in addition to everything else, this project won't go forward," Zipko said. "So it's like an extra piece of reassurance for the people up there. Because when this project is done, Crow Wing is still going to be a part of their community, and they want to make sure it's done absolutely the right way."

The project also needs approval from the town of Emily, which currently has a no-mining ordinance. Mayor George Pepek said some residents have big environmental concerns.

"Fear of polluting the wells, fear of our lakes -- some of our lakes are spring-fed -- what kind of effect is it going to have on the aquifer, so it's very controversial," Pepek said. "We're just going to proceed very cautiously and check it out. It could mean some good things for the town if it's safe."

A manganese mine in Emily would mean much needed jobs, and new tax revenue. If it moves forward, the operation would generate as much as $25 million in taxes for the local jurisdictions and the state of Minnesota.

The Sierra Club, The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and several other environmental groups were contacted for this story. None have taken positions on manganese mining in Emily.

The groups said they'll be watching closely as the review process moves forward.