Minnesota regulators to conduct their own review of proposed copper-nickel mine

The Kawishiwi River and forests are seen in this aerial photo.
The Kawishiwi River flows on June 12, 2019, near Ely, Minn. Twin Metals is proposing to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. and close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Much of the mining would take place on the left side of this image in the forested land.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Updated: Nov. 23, 1:30 p.m.

Minnesota regulators said Friday they plan to conduct their own independent environmental review of the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mine, rather than collaborating on a joint review with federal regulators.

Twin Metals has yet to file its mine plan of operations — which will detail the specifics of the operation, from its physical footprint to how it will handle waste material. That will kick-start the environmental review process. The project has already come under fire for its close proximity to the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials made their announcement Friday, after discussing the issue at length with Twin Metals and the federal Bureau of Land Management. With Twin Metals expected to submit its mine plan next month, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said “we needed to make a decision.”

It signals a departure from the way the agency approached another mine proposal in the region — the PolyMet copper-nickel mine, which would be the first of its kind in Minnesota. For that project, the DNR partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to oversee the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, a crucial piece of the regulatory process.

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In announcing the decision Friday, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the agency is committed to “ensuring a thorough, scientific and neutral review of the proposal based on state law.” And she said the DNR believes it can best accomplish that goal by conducting a separate environmental review from the one that the federal government will also conduct.

The prospect of a copper-nickel mine on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters has launched a bitter statewide debate, with environmental groups warning of possible catastrophic water pollution in the state’s most beloved wilderness area, and business and labor groups celebrating the possibility of hundreds of high-paying jobs — and a revival of the region’s natural resource-based economy.

The DNR said it expects Twin Metals to submit a mine plan in December for its proposed operation, which would be located in the Superior National Forest about six miles southeast of Ely — and a mile from the southern edge of the wilderness area.

That will kick off a multi-year environmental review, the process through which the DNR and other agencies assess the environmental risks of the proposed mine, how the company plans to mitigate those impacts and possible alternatives to the details of the project as outlined in the mine plan.

The final Environmental Impact Statements are then used by state agencies to help inform their decisions on whether to grant the mine the permits it needs to operate.

The state approved the PolyMet project in 2017. To get to that point, state and federal agencies collaborated on the project’s massive Environmental Impact Statement, which took more than a decade to complete. The project has since continued to wind its way through court and legal challenges.

Friday’s decision from the DNR means that state and federal regulators will complete two separate studies, to evaluate the proposed Twin Metals project. Strommen emphasized the agency would work to coordinate its efforts with federal regulators to reduce duplication.

Officials said they would work together to reconcile any major discrepancies that might arise between the state and federal reviews. But in the end, whether the environmental review is conducted jointly or separately, state and federal agencies will make their own decisions as to whether to ultimately grant Twin Metals the permits it would need to build a mine.

“And so we would rely most heavily, of course, on our state EIS for informing our state permit decisions,” said DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore.

State focusing its assessment

Minnesota DNR officials said that uncertainty about how the federal environmental review process would proceed played a key role in their decision to produce an independent analysis of the Twin Metals project.

Naramore said it’s unclear, for example, which federal agency would lead the environmental review process, and also what kind of timeline it would follow. In 2017 President Trump signed an executive order that streamlined the environmental review process for infrastructure projects.

The Department of the Interior subsequently issued guidelines directing agencies to complete Environmental Impact Statements within one year, with an additional nine months possibly allowed for complex projects.

The new rules also limit the length of a review to 150 pages. Complicated projects are allowed to stretch to 300 pages.

Contrast that with the PolyMet environmental impact statement, which took more than a decade to complete, and came in at more than 3,000 pages.

“To ensure that transparent and predictable and credible state process, Minnesotans will be better served by doing our own independent process,” said Naramore.

DNR officials also said they factored into their decision uncertainty around a Twin Metals application for additional mineral leases.

Twin Metals has two federal mineral leases that form the basis of its proposed project. The Trump administration renewed those leases earlier this year, reversing an Obama administration decision to terminate them. Several businesses and environmental groups have sued to overturn that Trump administration decision.

The company also has prospecting permits at its mine site — which allow for mineral exploration — that it would like to convert to mineral leases. If Twin Metals’ applications to convert those permits are approved, the company would add those new mineral leases to its existing leases at the proposed mine, which are needed for its proposed project.

Federal agencies plan to assess that lease application at the same time they conduct their environmental review of the plan when it’s submitted, DNR officials said.

Officials said Friday that they would prefer the state not be pulled in to the permit-to-lease question.

“Frankly, that is not something that the state of Minnesota needs to be involved in,” said DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards. “We want to make sure that we're focused on the project proposal and that we're not complicating our review with a mineral lease decision.”

Access to quashed studies

In announcing its plans for an independent state review of Twin Metals’ mine plan, Minnesota DNR officials also said they expected to have access to previous federal studies related to the Twin Metals project, including a study of a proposed mining ban on a swath of the Superior National Forest that was cut short by the Trump administration in 2018.

Several members of Congress have called on federal officials to complete the study, and environmental groups have filed public information lawsuits to compel the government to release the data, which so far hasn’t been made public.

When asked Friday during the DNR’s announcement what the state might do if federal officials refused to release the study, commissioner Strommen said, “We'll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

In a statement, Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Christopher Tollefson said the federal agency "will continue to work cooperatively with the State to reduce duplication and to coordinate our review of the project on matters such as data submittals, analytic approaches, and public participation."

Environmental groups largely praised the DNR’s decision to conduct its own environmental review process.

“This foreign-owned mining company is acting as though they are entitled to Minnesota’s land, and we are confident we will win our case and they will not mine,” said Friends of the Boundary Waters spokesperson Pete Marshall.

Still, opponents said it’s premature for state officials to discuss environmental review, when that federal study on the proposed mineral withdrawal hasn’t been released, and when a lawsuit challenging the legality of Twin Metals’ mineral leases is awaiting a ruling in federal court.

“It is a tremendous waste of state resources to proceed with the grave uncertainty that there will be any mine in this location, especially a mine next to the Boundary Waters, ” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

In a statement, Twin Metals, which says it has spent $450 million developing the project, said it looks forward to completing its mine plan and entering the regulatory process. The DNR’s decision “doesn’t change that,” it said.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of the industry group Mining Minnesota, said it’s not unprecedented for a mining proposal to be scrutinized separately by state and federal regulators.

“The bottom line is another company is coming forward with a proposed project, and in the case of both the state and federal government, every indication is[that] those regulators are going to move forward with environmental review,” he said. “And that’s a positive thing and a positive message.”