MINNEAPOLIS — The push to develop a cheaper way to make phone batteries and auto parts in the United States has hit a snag.
The US sources over half of the minerals it uses to make building materials and electric cars from other countries. The company Twin Metals tried to change that by opening an underground mine in northeastern Minnesota.
But a dispute over the project’s possible environmental damage hung it for years.
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Twin Metals says its underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum metals mine would be approximately nine miles southeast of Ely and 11 miles northeast of Babbitt.
The town of Ely is now covered in snow. By the summer, thousands will flock there to enjoy the nearby Superior National Forest. Tourism is a big part of the city’s economy.
But Paul Bonde says the city is in trouble.
“I have seen how the economy in Ely has changed in 50 years. When we moved here, there were five grocery stores, [now] there is one,” Bonde said. “People fight in the city.”
Bonde says he’s seen the city’s population drop from 5,000 when he moved there to around 3,500.
“It would certainly be positive from an economic perspective,” Bonde said of the mine project. He is concerned about the mine’s environmental impact, having seen firsthand the negative impact of mining on the iron chain in the past.
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For the past decade, presidential administrations have debated whether to allow Twin Metals to begin mining.
Ellie Piragis’ family has owned the Piragis Northwoods Company, a wilderness outfitter, for over 40 years. It sells canoes, tents, and other outdoor adventure essentials. She says when the Biden administration canceled Twin Metals’ mineral leases, it was a win for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“I think it’s been a tough time for the city. It was definitely divisive,” Piragis said. “As a company, we rely on Boundary Waters, and we rely on it to be exactly what it is, which is clean and unpolluted.”
But Better in Our Backyard’s Ryan Sistad says the mine would help the environment because some of the minerals Americans use actually come from places like China, Canada and Mexico. Better In Our Backyard is committed to responsible industrial development projects and businesses in northern Minnesota and the regions surrounding the upper Midwest.
“It’s not necessarily an environmental win if it means we continue to outsource arguments against other countries that don’t have the same environmental standards that we do,” Sistad said.
The demand for the minerals remains. The World Bank estimates that production of battery minerals, including graphite, nickel and cobalt, could increase by 500% by 2050. This demand arises as the industry increases its green technology efforts to counteract the adverse effects of climate change.
The Mayor of Ely argues that American companies now know how to mine responsibly and with less environmental impact.
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“You can fight, you can feel like ‘Rah-rah, I’m going to save the earth,’ and it’s never going to happen. It’s going to happen,” Roger Skraba said, suggesting mining will eventually be allowed.
“At some point we all have to decide how much risk we are willing to take in life and move forward.”
Twin Metals said it would create 750 permanent jobs and nearly 1,500 spin-off jobs that would help support the growing population the project would attract. Twin Metals says it will fight efforts to stop the project.
“We will challenge this attempt to halt our project and defend our valid existing mineral rights. We expect to prevail,” the company said in a statement to Fox News. “This is not about legislation, but about political action aimed at stopping the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental assessment required by law.
“We have proposed a world-class underground mine for copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals that deserves to be evaluated through the established environmental review process of more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeology, environmental and commitment work that maximizes environmental protection.
“We are confident that a full environmental assessment will show that the science behind this modern mine will prove that we can proceed with this project safely and to the highest standards.”
The mining leases were first issued in 1966 and rescinded by the Obama administration in 2016. The Trump administration then reinstated the leases in 2017 and renewed them in 2018 and 2019. The Interior Department wrote in January that the Trump administration violated Bureau of Land Management regulations and failed to provide an adequate analysis of the renewal.
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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has halted work on the state environmental review of the Twin Metals proposal as of 2019.