Nonferrous mining industry keeps pressing forward

Despite slow and prolonged regulatory review and intense scrutiny by environmentalists, firms that are exploring and hoping to mine nonferrous minerals continue to advance their goal of safely extracting precious metals such as copper, nickel, gold, silver and others.

PolyMet Mining and Twin Metals Minnesota are the closest to making that achievement. In recent months, PolyMet has received good news on that front, but Twin Metals has faced new challenges. Those two firms aren’t the only ones interested in pursuing nonferrous minerals, however, although they’ve received the most mention by the press.

“This isn’t just about PolyMet or Twin Metals. They are just two companies that happen to be in a business that also interests a lot of other firms,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of the trade group Mining Minnesota. A sampling of the others includes AngloGold Ashanti, Vermillion Gold, Encampment Minerals and Kennecott Exploration. “There’s a significant amount of global interest in the resources we have here,” Ongaro noted.

A level playing field

During 2017, a prime concern in the nonferrous mining industry was the influence of politics and court challenges on long-standing policy. Two incidents highlighted how nonferrous mining opponents were willing to circumvent the established process.

As part of its proposed mining project, PolyMet had proposed to exchange 6,690 acres of land to the U.S. Forest Service for about 6,650 acres of surface land above its NorthMet ore body. The USFS approved the transfer in January 2017. It was soon challenged by nonferrous opponents. In March, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Center for Biological Diversity and the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League challenged the decision in a federal court lawsuit.

The situation faced by Twin Metals involved back-door political interference. The company’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) were denied renewal by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. The action came during the final days of the Obama administration after Gov. Mark Dayton instructed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not to renew Twin Metals leases near the BWCAW. Dayton also shared his opposition with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The decision impacted about 234,000 acres where, in the past, mineral leases were routinely renewed.

Federal legislation was introduced in Congress to counteract the administrative interference. In November, the U.S. House of representatives approved a bill that would allow PolyMet to complete the land swap. The “Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017” was introduced by Rep. Rick Nolan (DFL). It passed the House on a 309 to 99 vote but still awaits U.S. Senate consideration.

House members also approved legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer. Called “Minnesota’s Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act,” it requires mineral leases to be renewed for 10-year periods providing that the holder has met terms and conditions during the prior lease period. Congressional approval is needed before leases can be rescinded or presidential monuments (land set asides) established. That measure also has moved to the Senate but hasn’t yet been addressed.

“With what we saw at the end of the Obama administration…this puts some positive pressure that Congress is watching,” Ongaro said. He cautioned, however, that some future administration or bureaucrat might engage in agency overreach, warning that checks and balances are needed to ensure the process isn’t being abused. “We’re confident the administration will ultimately do the right thing, but it can’t happen soon enough,” he said, adding “Congressmen Nolan and Emmer have been tremendously supportive and have shown great leadership.”

Difficult to do business?

A fear of Ongaro and others in Minnesota’s nonferrous mining industry is that, moving forward, outside firms might consider the state a difficult place in which to conduct  business. It’s important to operate consistently, he stressed, following a regulatory process that can be relied upon.

“We need certainty and stability to invite investment into this state. Just don’t keep moving the goal posts on us. Don’t change them as we go,” he said.

Although the initial regulatory process has moved slowly for PolyMet, he’s hoping the state permitting process will move more quickly.

“That would send a positive message to everyone who is looking at Minnesota,” Ongaro said. Several firms currently are investing in nonferrous mineral exploration.

“Encampment Minerals has state, federal and private leases and has explored for the last decade. They have some good, identified mineral potential,” he said, including a site in the Cloquet Valley State Forest south of Aurora. The firm has an office in Ely.

Teck American of Spokane, Wash., has found significant mineralization near Babbitt. 

“They’ve got a huge deposit. I believe Minnesota would be a tremendous state for them to seriously consider development of their significant deposit,” Ongaro said. 

Vermilion Gold Inc. holds state leases and has been exploring for more than a decade. Most recently, it received state permits to drill west of Cook.

Another significant player is AngloGold Ashanti, the single largest state mineral leaseholder with 120,000 acres. The South African company is exploring in Itasca, southern Koochiching and western St. Louis counties. It recently opened 40 mines north of the Canadian border.

“This company believes Minnesota is a good place to look at. They’re going gangbusters,” Ongaro said.

The Kennecott division of Rio Tinto, which safely operated and successfully closed the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wis., is exploring both in Carlton and Aitkin counties. 

“They’ve been there 14 years and just continue to move along,” Ongaro said.

“We have the metals in the ground, we have the global interests spending tens of millions of dollars every year in our state. Even the smallest of exploration activity costs a lot of money. We need to continue to make sure that the policymakers and elected representatives recognize we need certainty and stability to invite investment into this state,” he said.

Outside of Minnesota, Ongaro noted the Wisconsin Legislature recently ended its moratorium on nonferrous mining. It required companies to prove they operated other mines that were closed for 10 years without polluting. The law “chased investors away,” he said.

And in Upper Michigan, the Eagle Mine has been operating since 2014 about 25 miles northwest of Marquette. Highland Copper is also looking at a deposit, and Aquila Resources is in final permitting stages for a mine. 

“The state of Michigan went through environmental review and permitting on those three projects in less time than it has taken Minnesota so far on PolyMet,” Ongaro noted.

“Our team has always said ‘Let’s do it in our back yard. Let’s demonstrate we can have both mineral development and clean air and water,” he said.