REGIONAL— The fight over the future of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine continues unabated, despite the recent cancellation of mineral leases critical to the project and proposed …
REGIONAL— The fight over the future of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine continues unabated, despite the recent cancellation of mineral leases critical to the project and proposed mineral withdrawal. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has given fresh fodder for the company’s arguments about the strategic importance of the metals the proposed mine would produce.
“The metals we mine are the metals you use,” reads the home page of the Twin Metals website, and it’s an argument that they’re hoping catches on as they work to head off efforts by opponents of the mine to win passage of permanent protections against sulfide-based mining upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“If this country wants to produce its own nickel, it has to do it in Minnesota,” said Twin Metals’ Chief Regulatory Officer Julie Padilla during March 31 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “We can mine here better than anywhere else in the world. But the United States will not be able to do that under the current regulatory process that is unpredictable, subject to political manipulation with changing rules in each administration, and in conflict with the priorities of our nation.”
Padilla argued that the Biden administration’s recent cancellation of the company’s mineral leases was contrary to the administration’s stated goal of expanding domestic production of key minerals and metals and would take “virtually all of our country’s nickel, cobalt, and platinum group metals off the table.”
Padilla told D.C. lawmakers that northeastern Minnesota’s geological formation, known as the Duluth Complex, contains 95 percent of the known U.S. nickel resources, 88 percent of its cobalt, 75 percent of its platinum group metals and about a third of its copper.
“A domestic source for critical minerals means Minnesota,” said Padilla.
Yet opponents of the Twin Metals proposal accuse Padilla of misleading lawmakers, noting that Twin Metals’ proposed mine involves only a fraction of the mineral resources associated with the Duluth Complex. Of approximately 18 known concentrations of mineralization along the northern edge of the complex, most lie outside the Boundary Waters watershed and are not affected by the proposed federal mineral withdrawal that would impact Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the copper mining giant Antofagasta. Twin Metals opponents note that the deposit the company proposes to mine constitutes only about 6.5 percent of the sulfide mineralization believed to exist within the Duluth Complex. At the same time, the location of the proposed mine would pose a greater risk to the Boundary Waters than the development of other known deposits.
When questioned about the environmental risks to the Boundary Waters posed by the Twin Metals project by New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, Padilla seemed to acknowledge the potential for damage. “These are industrial activities,” she said. “Every human activity involves risk.” She went on to compare it to the risks she might incur by not wearing a seat belt.
The U.S. Forest Service, which has requested the mineral withdrawal, used stronger language in its arguments for the mineral withdrawal, noting that the Twin Metals project posed unacceptable risks to a key federal resource and that the wilderness restrictions within the Boundary Waters would make mitigation of downstream pollution difficult if not impossible to undertake.
Heinrich asked another witness at the hearing, Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, an expert on acid mine drainage, about the risks posed by the Twin Metals proposal. “By definition, it is wet enough to cause acid mine drainage,” said Ziemkiewicz, “so unless you put a plastic cover over all the rock on the site, it will produce acid.”
Critics of the proposal argue that Twin Metals isn’t being truthful.
“Twin Metals has spun a tale about the need for its mine to power a clean energy future and our domestic security,” stated the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in a press statement. “The truth is sulfide-ore copper mining in this location would sacrifice the Boundary Waters while producing an insignificant amount of metals compared to United States demand.”
While the Duluth Complex, which stretches in an arc from near Duluth nearly to the Gunflint Trail, is known to be home to a large volume of sulfide mineralization, only relatively small pockets are believed to be potentially economically viable. Twin Metals, for its part, has yet to produce a financial document that shows its current mine plan can be undertaken profitably.
Supporters of more domestic mining, like Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the committee, argue that the U.S. needs to do more to reduce its reliance on countries like China and Russia. “It makes no sense to remain beholden to bad actors when we have abundant resources and manufacturing know-how here in the United States,” said Manchin in opening remarks at the hearing. “The administration needs to help make responsible mining and refining possible here rather than making it more difficult and challenging.”
Manchin, the owner of a West Virginia coal company, has been an outlier in his own party over his reluctance to wean the country off dirty forms of energy production.
Manchin also stressed the need for creating processing capacity in the U.S., so minerals mined domestically or in allied countries don’t need to go to China for refining. “We need to make sure we’re not exporting our own critical minerals for processing somewhere else,” said Manchin.
As it stands currently, companies proposing to mine copper-nickel in northeastern Minnesota expect to ship their metal concentrates outside the U.S., most likely to China, for refining, a plan which could undercut their arguments about the strategic importance of their production.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of the known sulfide mineralization on the Duluth Complex associated with the Twin Metals project. The Timberjay has since corrected that information.
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