Superior National Forest taking comments on Twin Metals study

Exploratory drill site
Sitting along an old forest logging road outside Ely, Minn., a Twin Metals exploratory drill site operates 24 hours a day to acquire core samples from thousands of feet below the Earth's surface.
Derek Montgimery / For MPR News, File

The Superior National Forest is accepting public comment this week on a study related to a major proposed copper nickel mine.

Twin Metals Minnesota wants to drill several groundwater wells southeast of Ely, part of a broader effort to gather baseline hydrogeologic data. The company wants the data to help design its proposed underground copper nickel mine.

"It's important because you want to make sure that what you design and propose in a project doesn't adversely impact surface water or groundwater, and that you can maintain water quality standards," said Twin Metals Minnesota spokesman Bob McFarlin.

The Forest Service is holding an open house Thursday in Ely as part of its environmental assessment on 13 proposed well sites. The Minnesota DNR and the Bureau of Land Management will conduct separate reviews for other well sites, about 100 in all.

"Ideally we think that one comprehensive analysis should be done for their entire study, and not a bunch of chopped up environmental analyses that just look at pieces of it individually," said Marc Fink, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Duluth.

The public has until Nov. 21 to comment on the Forest Service proposal.

Twin Metals is one of several companies exploring for copper, nickel and precious metals in northeast Minnesota. PolyMet is furthest along. A supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the proposed open pit mine near Hoyt Lakes is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

Twin Metals is the next furthest along. The company is still conducting its "prefeasability" study, in which it's looking at all different options for its underground mining operation near Ely, including the location of facilities and environmental controls. McFarlin estimates that will be completed in mid-2014.

Then it will take roughly 18 months to complete a mine plan of operation, which will be submitted to the Minnesota DNR and other agencies to launch the formal environmental review process, which can take several more years.

McFarlin stresses the well sites are very small, "generally far less than an acre in size," with minimal impacts to the surface.

According U.S. Forest Service and Twin Metals officials, data relating to the interaction between groundwater, surface water, and wetlands is limited in the area.