Cabin owners lose mineral lease debate, for now

Gus and Amy Axelson brought sons Anders, 9, and Henrik, 4, to the Capitol Thursday as part of their argument against allowing mining companies to explore under their Lake County property.

Gus and Amy Axelson brought their sons to the Minnesota Capitol as they fight the exploration for minerals under their northeastern Minnesota land.

“I brought them here to show you what this is all about,” Mr. Axelson told the Minnesota Executive Council Thursday before it unanimously voted to allow four mining companies to explore for copper and nickel under privately owned land, including where the Axelson family owns a cabin.

Axelson and other northeastern Minnesota landowners argued against the move, even though the state owns mineral rights under their property.

The council vote only allows exploration; actual mines would come only after lengthy environmental and other state and federal reviews. Mining experts said chances of opening a mine on any specific property are remote.

Mine supporters say the new mines would employ thousands of Minnesotans, while providing needed minerals to the economy, adding that modern mining techniques will not damage the environment.

With sons Anders, 9, and Henrik, 4, by his side, Axelson talked to Gov. Mark Dayton and Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr after the vote, coming away feeling a little better.

Axelson’s biggest fear was that once the council gave its approval, mining companies could take whatever private land they wanted.

“I’m still just a little bit confused,” he said after Landwehr explained that the state never has allowed such action and the law only allows it under some limited specific circumstances.

“We need to keep working,” Axelson said, a St. Paul resident who said his family still is completing its Lake County cabin.

Dayton and other council members said the process that could lead to copper and nickel mining has just begun. While Landwehr said mining companies could begin looking for the minerals yet this year, the council heard that only one of 4,000 explorations actually produces a mine.

Before a mine can open, state and federal officials must approve, making sure it would not harm the environment.

Dayton said he would insist that any company opening a mine be required to put up money to repair any damages it could cause. He said he needs to see environmental reviews before deciding whether to support new mines.

The governor, like other council members a Democrat, said there was no choice but to approve the exploration request. Council members said it appears all state laws have been followed.

Dayton predicted the controversy would worsen, but the Department of Natural Resources has learned it needs to do a better job of communicating with landowners about mineral leases.

Thursday’s decision came after a year-long delay so people could be better informed.

Some mining opponents told the council that the type of mining proposed likely would harm northeast Minnesota’s water supply. Some mentioned the possibility of taking legal action to stop the mines.

Former taconite miner Bob Tammen of Soudan said the state should not give mining companies too much leeway.

“We know what a mining friendly economy looks like,” he said, saying that attitude has hurt West Virginia.

About 25 percent of nearly 22,000 acres involved in the 77 leases 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.

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.

The state auctions off exploratory leases nearly every year so mining companies may 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 royalties.

Exploration could begin later this year.

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

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