Citing uncertainty at the federal level, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Friday it will conduct an environmental review of any Twin Metals Minnesota project proposal independent of its federal agency counterparts.
A review is contingent on Twin Metals filing a mine plan for an underground copper-nickel operation near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is expected in the coming months. Once that happens, state and federal agencies can begin scrutinizing the proposal, but unlike other projects there will be two simultaneous reviews rather than one joint effort.
DNR officials said in a teleconference with reporters Friday that the state had concerns with an executive order on environmental review processes issued by Republican President Donald J. Trump, as well as the issue of federal mineral leases.
The executive order, aimed at streamlining the review process, limits federal agencies at the Interior Department to a one-year study and a 100-page Environmental Impact Statement. For more complicated proposals, the agencies can request an additional nine months with up to 300 pages for an EIS.
“We felt that Minnesotans would be better served by doing our own independent process,” DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said during the teleconference. “While we never want to speculate, any EIS for this project will take more than one year and be longer than 100 pages.”
DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the company has a set of federal mineral leases that would be part of the Interior Department’s review, and would not be in the purview of any state studies.
“It reduces the complexities for us not to tie into that,” Strommen said. “We don’t need to complicate our process.”
The leases are separate from the ones currently entangled in litigation over the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate them. A court decision is expected soon on a lawsuit challenging the activation.
Being in close proximity to the Boundary Waters, the yet-to-be-proposed project has already drawn battle lines among Minnesotans. Opponents say the Boundary Waters are too precious an asset to risk having a mine that close. In the meantime, supporters have been touting jobs, potentially large economic impacts and a need for precious metals to help supply technology and the green economy.
The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel surface mine near Hoyt Lakes is the current benchmark for environmental reviews and permitting process. That project is fully-permitted but has yet to break ground over a number of legal battles. From the first project proposal to now, almost 14 years have passed.
PolyMet was reviewed and permitted under a joint process by state and federal agencies.
Twin Metals said in a statement Friday that it shares the state’s goal of a transparent review and that the company is looking forward to submitting its mine plan and beginning the regulatory process.
“The decision announced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to complete a state-only Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t change that, and we are continuing our work to submit our project for review,” the company said in a statement. “Once we submit our detailed project proposal, we anticipate a thorough, transparent years-long review process.”
Strommen said the state and federal reviews won’t be completely disconnected as the agencies will seek to coordinate and cooperate as needed. If there are differences in the EIS findings, the agencies will also have to come together to discuss.
Last time the DNR conducted a review separate from federal agencies was for the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion, a project aimed at preventing large-scale floods on the Minnesota-North Dakota border.
Twin Metals can’t move forward on the project without approvals from both the state and federal levels, and any decision on both environmental reviews can be challenged. After the EIS is completed, the company can begin submitting for state and federal permits, in which Minnesota will use its own EIS to guide that process.
Both the EIS and permitting process for Twin Metals are expected to be lengthy — potentially beyond the timeframe of PolyMet — and face stiff legal battles along the way. Strommen added the numerous challenges to PolyMet, including one targeting the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, was not a factor in the state’s decision.
“This is a look forward,” she said. “Not a look back.”