More Mining Companies Exploring Possibilities in Northern MN

Despite getting the cold shoulder from the Dayton administration and its enviro activist allies, big-time mining companies continue to signal their renewed interest in northern Minnesota’s treasure trove of mineral wealth.

The latest example involves a promising copper deposit that’s been on the back burner near Babbitt for several years. Now the Canadian owner of the possible mine has returned to explore its options again, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Teck officials met with Babbitt city representatives earlier this month to say they were still working in the area where significant deposits of copper and nickel were confirmed about 10 miles southeast of Babbitt in the 1950s.

“They were just reminding us that they are still here, that they still have their leases. … They never really left,” said Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich.

The Canadian conglomerate came close to developing the copper nickel reserves about a decade ago. The deal fell apart but the enormous upside for the local and state economy was well documented.

At the time Teck said the Babbitt-area property, formerly owned by Amax, held an estimated 775 million tons of open-pit reserves and 275 million tons of underground reserves.

The Mesaba project once promised to employ 1,200 people with an investment of more than $1 billion on a project spanning 2,334 acres, the News Tribune reported 13 years ago. There was even discussion at the time of Teck and PolyMet, with adjacent mines, joining efforts.

Since 2006 Teck’s Minnesota project has avoided news coverage, and it still isn’t mentioned on the company’s website. But Teck continued to explore at the site as well as review hundreds of thousands of feet of core samples taken from drill holes. In a 2010 report filed with the University of Minnesota Duluth, Teck reported drilling another 58 core holes in addition to some 636 holes drilled before the company acquired the site.

Iron Range officials and residents generally welcome the attention. Yet even if Teck decided to move forward yesterday, it would be years before local jobs and economic development followed suit, given the state’s drawn-out regulatory process.

So for now Teck joins the waiting list of possible copper-nickel mining operations in northern Minnesota with tremendous potential that remains unlocked.

PolyMet, the Canada-based company with a proposed open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing center at the former LTV Steel site near Hoyt Lakes, is the only company that has submitted a formal proposal for environmental review and permitting. The company has been in the process of regulatory approval for a decade and still is waiting for key permits to start work building the mine. (PolyMet also has conducted limited exploration in Pine County.)

Twin Metals, wholly owned by Antofagasta of Chile, has conducted years of sampling and exploration and has been collecting baseline environmental data for its proposed underground mine near the Kawishiwi River southeast of Ely. The company says it has already invested $450 million on the way to a more-than-$1.5 billion project now on hold pending a federal lands withdrawal from mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Kennecott, a subsidiary of London-based global mining giant Rio Tinto, has been exploring for 15 years under more than 100 tracts on thousands of acres where the state owns the mineral rights clustered around the tiny town of Tamarack, about 50 miles west of Duluth on Highway 210 in Aitkin County. Kennecott has been closing in on a large deposit of copper, nickel and other valuable metals with millions of dollars spent, nearly 250 holes already drilled and more than 23 miles of core samples studied. In 2014, fledgling investment firm Talon Metals agreed to buy into the slow-moving Tamarack project. Talon Metals is now deciding whether to purchase the entire project.

Atlanta-based Encampment Minerals Inc. in July received DNR permission to drill 15 additional exploratory holes at its prospective copper mine site about five miles south of Hoyt Lakes, where the company has been exploring since 2009. It’s one of four sites in the area known to hold copper where Encampment has been looking.