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Some Background on Mining

August 09, 2012 By Will Nissen, Fellow

I wrote recently about the potential impacts of proposed copper, nickel and precious metals mining (also called copper-nickel mining) in northeast Minnesota. Copper-nickel mining is a contested and critical issue in our state, as the proposed sites are huge projects that carry serious environmental concerns as well as job and revenue growth promises.

Although no new mining has happened yet in northeast Minnesota, several companies are underway in the process of acquiring land, exploring mineral deposits and getting approval to move into the commercial mining stage. This process is already impacting landowners, communities and lands in the Superior National Forest and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), so it is worth exploring in greater detail.

First, what some don't realize is they might not own the mineral rights under their property, basically everything under the surface dirt.

There are two kinds of property estates when it comes to mining in Minnesota: the surface estate and the mineral estate. A private party, the state or federal government can own both or one type of estate depending on the land deed. For example, a private owner can sell the surface estate to a timber company for logging purposes while still retaining the right to the mineral estate below the surface.

When a mining company looks to explore and evaluate mineral deposits in an area, they need to gain access first to the mineral estate. This can be through the private party owner or through a mining lease if the state or federal government owns the mineral estate.

The general rule elsewhere in the country, unless stated differently in the land deed, is that the mineral estate has dominant rights over the surface estate, meaning a mining company can use as much of the surface estate as is reasonably necessary to reach and remove the minerals. This has never been argued in the Minnesota Supreme Court, however, as surface estate owners often reach deals with mining companies for access to their land. In addition, state-owned mineral leases require companies to compensate surface owners for any damages from mining activities.

For state-owned mineral estates, a mining company must obtain a lease to explore, mine and remove metallic minerals. These leases, which are sold, approved and managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), govern the rental rates during the lease, the royalties to be paid if commercial mining commences, and rules regarding mining and mine closure practices.

These leases apply to all stages of the mining process, but most do not make it past the exploration phase. According to the DNR, of the nearly 3,400 metallic mineral leases issued since 1966, 99% were terminated within the typical exploration time period of 10 years.

Four mining companies currently own state leases that appear to be in the evaluation phase of the mining process. While the goal of the exploration phase is to simply look for mineral deposits, the evaluation phase draws a clearer picture of those deposits, examines the economic feasibility of a potential commercial mine, and starts the mine planning process. The evaluation process can also see the introduction of more intrusive mining activities like building access roads, drilling test bores and transporting heavy equipment.

The state is currently in a period of fairly high activity in the evaluation phase. The two largest and farthest along copper-nickel mining proposals in the state are the PolyMet Mining Corporation’s NorthMet site, which is located on private and federally owned land, and Twin Metals’ Nokomis and Birch Lake deposit sites, located partially on state-owned estates. Both are near Babbitt, MN within miles of the BWCAW.

The PolyMet mine proposal is nearing the end of its evaluation phase, after which it would enter actual commercial mining activity. However, it is currently drafting its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), which has once again fallen behind schedule. PolyMet’s situation highlights the rigorous leasing, regulation and approval process we have here in Minnesota.

Because we have never experienced copper-nickel mining, it is difficult to project the positive and negative impacts it will have on our state and its natural resources. This type of mining has a disturbing environmental track record in other states and countries, and the proximity of these mining projects to valuable natural resources like the BWCAW, Superior National Forest and Lake Superior watershed only heightens the sense of caution when contemplating whether to move forward with the proposals.

If PolyMet or other mining companies get final approval to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals, it is critical that the processes and safeguards that exist in Minnesota function with precision. So far it appears that they are, as PolyMet has had to redevelop its Environmental Impact Statements numerous times to meet Minnesota’s high standards.

*If you have more questions about the leasing, approval and overall mining process in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has an excellent FAQ page outlining mining in Minnesota in detail.

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  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    August 14, 2012 at 8:02 am

    You speak out of both sides of your mouth Will. First you seem to praise the MPCA process, then you speak of a “disturbing environmental track record”, pointing toward old technology mines that predate regulation. Your not very good a waffling Will.

  • Will Nissen says:

    August 14, 2012 at 8:47 am


    Well, this is a very difficult issue with each side having strong arguments for why we should/should not pursue copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. Copper-nickel mining does have a horrible environmental track record in other states and countries. However, it’s never been tried here in Minnesota so there’s no telling how it will go. Given the environmental track record, it is slightly comforting that we at least have some strong regulations and detailed processes that mining companies have to go through before they can start mining. This helps ensure that all precautions are taken and hopefully minimizes environmental damage.

    Not waffling Bill, just airing both sides of a heavy contested and difficult issue.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    August 14, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I understand Will, it’s hard to take a hard line on an issue when the proggresive core is divided. Kind of reminds me of the line from an old song, “I walk the line”. The only thing more contraversial in Minnesota is potentially the gun issue and stiring up that group of commited hard heads. I personally am monitoring the Rhetoric from both sides looking for any sign of colusion with either side by the MPCA. I am also carefully examining the science and it’s validity in the face of psuedo sciences rise in inclusion in recent decades. From the now defunct Spotted Owl study, to the Farrow Island and New Zealand Mercury studies that were intentionally spiked with Nicotine and fetal alcohol results, science is not what it use to be and can never be taken for granted.

  • Will Nissen says:

    August 14, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    “ is not what it use to be and can never be taken for granted.”

    I agree with you there Bill! Just did a blog last week about that actually.