State Officials OK Mineral Exploration Leases

Ritchie, Otto

Four mining companies may explore for copper and nickel under northeast Minnesota land, but Gov. Mark Dayton said a decision made today is only the beginning of a long debate.

Five statewide officials unanimously voted at mid-day to approve 77 mineral exploration leases after a year-long delay so people could be better informed. About 25 percent of nearly 22,000 acres involved are under land owned by people who do not own mineral rights.

“There are a limited number of facts at this point,” State Auditor Rebecca Otto said as she made the motion to approve the leases.

However, Otto and others on the Minnesota Executive Council said they saw no choice but to vote “yes” because it appears mining companies have followed state law.

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon called the decision a “balancing act” between job-producing mining and protecting the environment.

The council heard from landowners who opposed mining companies looking for copper and nickel under their land, some urging state officials to allow mining under public land but not their land. However, Dayton said that he does not think state law would allow that.

Mineral leases are auctioned off nearly every year by the DNR to mining companies to explore where the state owns the mineral rights. The companies pay a small fee to the state for exploration and then, if any ore is actually mined, the state gets big royalties.

Many landowners feared that the mining companies could take away their land, but Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said that never has been done and even if it would happen, state law allows it only in a few specific cases.

The council heard that about one of 4,000 exploratory leases actually leads to a mine.

Exploration could begin later this year.

If a company wants to open a mine, it must go through an extensive state and federal process that include environmental and other reviews. That process can take years.

Dayton said he needs to see those environmental reviews before deciding whether he support new mines.

The issue was especially battled by several landowners in Lake County, near Isabella, where there is intense interest by mining companies in copper and other non-iron metal exploration.

Besides Otto, Prettner Solon and Dayton, the Executive Council includes Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson. All are Democrats.