Minnesota copper project in limbo as officials launch permits review

The underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals mining project is located in northeast Minnesota. (Image courtesy of Twin Metals.)

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has agreed to reconsider its decision to renew 13 prospecting permits in Minnesota, which could have allowed Antofagasta’s Twin Metals to expand its proposed copper-nickel mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The move by the federal agency, part of the US Department of the Interior, comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year by conservation groups. They challenged a four-year extension of the permits, granted by former President Donald Trump.

“After the horrendous years of the Trump administration, federal officials now appear focused on rational, science-based decision making,” Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “A thorough scientific analysis of these permits and Twin Metals’ related proposals will show that a massive copper-sulfide mine just upstream from the spectacular Boundary Waters Wilderness is simply too great a risk.”

The US Bureau of Land Management’s move comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year by conservation groups

Twin Metals holds a number of federal, state, and private mineral leases, as well as a number of prospecting permits on federal land in northeastern Minnesota. The ones under revision are those that allow the company to perform exploratory work to determine the existence of a valuable mineral deposit, the company said in an emailed statement.

The company noted that the 13 prospecting permits referred to in the recent agreement are not part of its mine plan, which is also currently under review by state and federal regulators.

Northeastern Minnesota holds vast, untapped reserves of copper and nickel, but they’re bound up in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants if exposed to air and water. Experts say the pristine lakes and streams of the Boundary Waters have little capacity for neutralizing them.

Twin Metals and its supporters, including several Minnesota labor unions, have said the $1.7 billion project can be constructed safely and in a way that boosts the region’s economy.

If built, the mine would be a major supplier of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals to the US, at a time when President Joe Biden aims to promote the making of electric vehicles (EVs), which use twice as much copper as those with internal combustion engines.

It would also create 700 jobs and employ 1,400 contractors once operational.

Representatives for Twin Metals have said the company expects the regulatory review process “to remain fair and based on science and law in the years ahead.”

Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would ban mining in the region. Biden only has the power to block resource extraction in the area for 20 years, though Congress can permanently block it.

In March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack moved to temporarily block another controversial copper mine, Rio Tinto’s Resolution Copper project in Arizona.

(With files from Reuters)