Minnesota mining engineer says copper mine near Boundary Waters is ‘too risky’

Twin Metals headquarters in Ely.
Twin Metals headquarters in Ely. (Photo by Greg Seitz, Wilderness News)

A seasoned mining engineer from Minnesota’s Iron Range has published a commentary stating he doesn’t believe the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine proposal can be done safely.

Twin Metals seeks to open an underground mine near Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. The site is only a few miles from the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and upstream of the wilderness. It would include large waste storage piles that opponents say could cause devastating pollution.

Chris Baldwin (Courtesy of the author, via MinnPost)

Chris Baldwin, a third generation Iron Ranger who now lives in Hibbing, spent the past 45 years working at similar mines around the country. A graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, Baldwin recently wrote for MinnPost that Twin Metals could be “devastating under current best mining practices, and in my considered opinion, too risky to be allowed.”

He describes three reasons for his opinion. They include the fact that sulfide ore that Twin Metals would extract is much different than the iron ores traditionally mined in northern Minnesota; that engineering can “reduce but not eliminate risk,” and that equipment fails and people make mistakes; and that startup mining companies like Twin Metals are not trustworthy companies.

Map: Twin Metals Mining Near Boundary Waters BWCAW
Map by Greg Seitz, Quetico Superior Wilderness News.

“Minnesota has provided valuable resource extraction for more than 100 years along the Iron Range,” he wrote. “But the Duluth Complex is a very different rock type with higher pollution risk in a very sensitive environmental area, requiring more prescriptive mining rules and closer regulation than the historic iron ore mining.”

Familiar with the latest developments in mining techniques, Baldwin says none of them remove the risks of flawed plans, human mistakes, or cutting corners in the future.

“We should want this type of mining to be proven first, in a low environmental risk area,” Baldwin wrote. “But sulfide copper and nickel mining should never be attempted on the border of the BWCA.”

Twin Metals submitted its latest proposal to the state Department of Natural Resources in December 2019, with revisions in July and December 2020. The state is currently in the first phases of environmental review, with agency staff still working on the scoping process. Separately, the federal Bureau of Land Management is also reviewing the proposal.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is under pressure to resume a study of prohibiting mining on National Forest lands that drain toward the wilderness. Such a project was begun in 2016 during the Obama administration, and halted during the Trump administration.

Read the full commentary here.

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