Twin Metals plan for exploratory drilling in northern Minnesota approved by DNR

A mining company was recently given the green light to move forward with drilling exploratory borings in an area of the Superior National Forest connected to the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

Franconia Minerals LLC, a subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, which is owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta PLC, submitted an exploration plan for metallic minerals to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in September.

Franconia’s now-approved proposal includes utilizing diamond drilling exploratory borings at six drill sites within their leased boundary — half of which will be located within the drainage of Birch Lake and the other half along the shoreline of Birch Lake in the Rainy River-Headwaters watershed, according to the exploration plan.

Birch Lake drains into the Kawishiwi River and connects with the BWCA less than 30 miles away in addition to surface water in the Rainy River-Headwater that drains into the BWCA, said Erik Evans, a spokesperson for the DNR.

Franconia also plans to use two drill pads that were not required to be in the plan because they don’t involve leased state minerals or state surface lands. The surface and mineral ownership of those two pads are private, Evans said.

At each drill pad, Franconia will potentially use multiple borings in an effort to limit surface disturbance, according to the exploration plan.

DNR Summary Report for Franconia Minerals (US) LLC Plan (Courtesy: Department of Natural Resources)

The DNR approved Franconia’s exploration plan on Oct. 30, with several stipulations and recommendations.

In a letter to Dean DeBeltz, Vice President of External Relations and Project Operations at Twin Metals, the DNR listed several conditions of the approval, including:

  • Ensure the drilling contractors’ water intake equipment is disinfected before use, and between each use when moving between different bodies of water.
  • Excess chlorinated water from tanks used during drilling must be emptied on higher land where the water cannot drain into wetlands, bodies of water, or water-filled ditches.
  • Remove all materials and waste from public water after use. Franconia is responsible for repairing any site degradation.
  • Franconia is solely responsible for gaining access to lands not administered by the DNR.
  • All drilling fluids must be contained. Recirculation pits, which collect chemicals and waste, are not permitted in wetlands.
  • Due to the presence of two threatened plant species near the proposed drilling site, Franconia must not disturb the ground, clear trees, or store equipment outside of the surveyed areas.
  • Use equipment to minimize sound at each drill site.
  • Reduce light impacts by shielding light sources and directing them down.
  • Replace any barriers to motorized vehicles removed during the exploration activity.
  • Ensure that all brushing and mowing activities don’t impact the existing flow of water at culverts, ditches, and natural drainages.

The threatened species mentioned in the DNR’s letter are Franklin’s phacelia and the blunt-lobed grape-fern — two plants that prefer moist, wet growing environments, according to the DNR. Threatened species are not yet considered endangered, but officials believe the species is likely to become endangered in the near future.

In addition to the required conditions, the DNR also suggested a number of recommendations, such as conducting wetland exploration when the ground is frozen, using secondary containers for equipment with the potential to leak, wearing bright colors throughout the hunting seasons, using tools that prevent the spread of invasive species, and more.

Kathy Graul, a spokesperson for Twin Metals, said in an email that the company “is pleased that the DNR authorized our exploration plan on October 30, 2023, and we look forward to beginning exploration activity in a safe and environmentally responsible manner over the coming months, with a goal of collecting key data about our critical mineral resources.”  

In early October, a group in Northern Minnesota pushing for permanent protection of the wilderness from sulfide-ore copper mining asked the DNR to not approve Franconia’s plan.

Officials with the Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness (NMW) said the proposal never should have been considered in light of a pending Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) lawsuit with the DNR, in which the agency acknowledged in a procedural order that current Minnesota regulations on light and noise pollution are not adequate to protect the BWCA from non-ferrous mineral mining activity.

RELATED: Environmental group pushes back on Twin Metals-owned mining company’s exploratory plan near BWCA

In response to the DNR’s decision, Franconia requested a contested case hearing to argue that current regulations are enough to protect the environment. Meanwhile, NMW challenged the DNR’s findings that sulfide-ore copper mining will not degrade water quality. The results of those contested case hearings are expected this spring.

As previously noted, the DNR is implementing conditions for light and noise conditions in the planned drilling area, but Ingrid Lyons, Executive Director of Save the Boundary Waters, which was founded by NMW, says it’s not enough.

Lyons responded to the DNR’s decision to approve Franconia’s exploratory plan, saying, “We are disappointed that the Department of Natural Resources approved this exploratory drilling plan, but it makes one thing crystal clear: we urgently need permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its watershed. Twin Metals has pried open the door to drilling on vulnerable state and private lands next to the Boundary Waters, short-circuiting our ongoing Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) lawsuit.”

“The greenlighting of this proposal means that by next paddling season, noises of drilling, blasting, machinery, heavy traffic, and more will drown out the natural sounds of our Northwoods – eviscerating the quiet solitude that makes the Boundary Waters America’s most visited Wilderness Area,” Lyons added.

NMW officials also expressed concerns in a news release regarding the movement of pollution from exploratory drilling through surface and groundwater that flows into the BWCA, which would be majorly impacted by a leak into the watershed.

The DNR’s approval of the exploratory plan comes almost two months after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from Twin Metals asking to mine copper-nickel in northern Minnesota following the Biden Administration’s cancellation of leases in the area and a 20-year moratorium on mining.

RELATED: Federal judge dismisses Twin Metals copper-nickel mine lawsuit for failure to meet requirements