MINNEAPOLIS — The drive to develop a cheaper way to manufacture phone batteries and auto parts in the United States has hit a snag.
The United States gets more than half of the minerals it uses to make building materials and electric cars from other countries. Twin Metals was trying to change that by opening an underground mine in northeast Minnesota.
But a struggle with the project’s potential environmental damage put it on hold for years.
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Twin Metals says its underground copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum mine is located about nine miles southeast of Ely and 11 miles northeast of Babbitt.
The city of Ely is now covered in snow. In the summer, thousands of people will travel 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’ve seen how the economy has changed in Ely in 50 years. When we moved here, there were five grocery stores, [now] there is one,” Bonde said. “People are struggling in town.”
Bonde says he saw the town’s population shrink from 5,000 when he settled there to around 3,500.
“Certainly it would be positive from an economic point of view,” Bonde said of the mining project. He worries about the environmental impact of the mine, as he has seen with his own eyes the negative impact of mining on the Iron Range in the past.
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Over the past decade, presidential administrations have back and forth over whether to allow Twin Metals to begin mining.
Ellie Piragis’ family has owned 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’ mining leases, it was a victory for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“I think it’s been a tough time for the city. It’s definitely been divisive,” Piragis said. “As a company, we rely on boundary waters, and we rely on them being exactly as they are, which is pure and unpolluted.”
But Ryan Sistad of Better in Our Backyard says the mine would help the environment because some of the minerals Americans use actually come from countries like China, Canada and Mexico. Better In Our Backyard advocates for responsible industrial development projects and enterprises in Northern Minnesota and areas surrounding the Upper Midwest.
“It’s not necessarily a win for the environment when it means we’re just going to keep arguing with other countries that don’t have the same environmental standards as us,” Sistad said.
The demand for minerals remains. The World Bank estimates that the production of battery minerals, including graphite, nickel and cobalt, could increase by 500% by 2050. This demand comes as industries step up their efforts in green technologies to counter the negative effects of climate change.
The mayor of Ely argues that American companies now know how to operate responsibly with less impact on the environment.
“You can fight, you can say to yourself, ‘Rah-rah, I’m going to save the earth,’ and it will never happen. It will happen,” Roger Skraba said, suggesting that mining will eventually be allowed.
“At some point, we all have to choose the level of risk we’re willing to take in life and move on.”
Twin Metals said it would provide 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 shut down the project.
“We will challenge this attempt to stop our project and defend our valid existing mineral rights. We hope to prevail,” the company said in a statement to Fox News. “This is not a matter of law; this is a political action to stop the Twin Metals project without carrying out the environmental review required by law.
“We have proposed a world-class underground mine of copper, nickel, cobalt and platinum group metals that merits assessment under the established environmental review process. Our proposal, submitted over two years to state and federal agencies, was the culmination of more than a decade of engineering, hydrogeological, environmental and engagement work that maximizes environmental protection.
“We are confident that a full environmental review will show that the science behind this modern mine will prove that we can move this project forward safely to the highest standards.”
The mining leases were first issued in 1966 and canceled 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 had breached the Bureau of Land Management. regulation and did not prepare an adequate renewal analysis.
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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources ceased work on the state environmental review of the Twin Metals proposal as of 2019.