Essays from
Giving Ground


by Pam Thompson for the Lake County News Chronicle

On a couple of dark and stormy evenings last year, the old Finnish tamarack log community hall in Fairbanks Township, Brimson, was bursting at the seams, with over 60 residents from the adjoining area gathered to hear representatives from the Department of Natural Resources' Lands and Minerals Division discuss eminent domain issues and the area's geology. Vickie Sellner, attorney, spoke about eminent domain issues in mining, and John Engesser, geologist and engineer, gave information from his areas of expertise.

Lori Andresen, Todd Ronning, Bob Tammen, and Kristin Larsen, area home-owners, were also available as part of the panel, to help sort out challenges and issues in this on-going debate.

Background: The Brimson townships sit atop the Duluth Complex, a known geologic body of rock within which copper, nickel, possibly cobalt, palladium and other minerals are found. One of the many over-riding problems of copper-nickel mining is that this rock formation contains sulfide rock, not the oxide rock where iron is found. When water and air touch the iron ore deposits and waste rock along the Iron Range, rust forms just as it does in a metal bucket we might leave outside by mistake over the summer or winter; when air and morning dew hit the waste rock from sulfide deposits, on the other hand, sulphuric acid is formed, which runs into the water tables and into all the adjoining water courses. It is well-known that our region straddles 3 water drainage basins; water moves from this region toward Hudson's Bay, toward the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. As we can see from the recurring catastrophic flooding in the Red River Valley, humans have a very difficult time containing water from its natural flowages.

There is, as yet, nowhere on the planet where a mining operation in sulfide rock formations has not leached out sulphuric acid mine drainage while the mine is operating, as well as after the mining company has vacated the site, leaving the state or province to deal with the continuing toxic drainage. The Wisconsin legislature, with enormous and concerted effort from Native tribal governments, passed a moratorium on copper-nickel mining throughout that state; the moratorium will remain in effect until mining companies can point to a sulfide rock mining operation somewhere on the planet from which sulphuric acid is not leaching out, either during the operation or after closure (closure is also known as planned bankruptcy).

Mineral Rights: Who owns them? The DNR representatives offered maps of leased and ready-to-lease mineral rights parcels. Very few people in this region have the mineral rights to their properties. In tax-forfeit situations, when a parcel of land is offered to the public for sale, the mineral rights are retained by the state of Minnesota. And in the 1930's, '40's, and '50's, homesteaders often let their mineral rights go back to the state, as they were taxed separately for these. The mineral leases now sell for about $1.50 an acre, Ms. Sellner said. The leases are usually for 50 years, and the DNR encourages the leasees to explore as soon as possible, the lease payment amounts rising through the years, to this end. A private surface-rights owner cannot bid on her or his own property's mineral rights, unless she/he can prove ownership of professional exploratory drilling equipment and an exploratory drilling permit.

Among the questions asked from the audience were "I spent a half day at the county courthouse, and though all the clerks tried to be helpful, none of us working together could find out who owns the mineral rights under my kitchen floor. You can't get there from here. Where does one go to find this information?" Ms. Sellner admitted it was very difficult and suggested hiring an attorney to go to a title company and do research.

Existing Water Pollution: Someone asked, "The Amax exploratory drilling site up near the Dunka River, which was opened 30 years ago, and is, indeed, leaking sulfuric acid into the surrounding water drainages: the state and DNR just gave the site a variance, so that allows the site to continue draining sulfuric acid, but legally, now, with the variance. How is that an example of the DNR's protecting the citizens of Minnesota and their water?" Ms. Sellner nor Mr. Engesser had an answer. Bob Tammen, lifetime iron worker on the Range, said there was a water reclamation project at that site, but that it was not being used. He also mentioned that the site had never been sealed or capped. It was noted that, since 1980, all exploratory drill sites must be inspected by the health department and capped, if they aren't to be used in the near future. Mr. Tammen amended that: the health department has the right to inspect these sites, but the health departments are all over-burdened with work, and very few sites have actually been, or, he thought, ever will be, inspected.

Will this help meet America's need for minerals? The mining companies say that this copper-nickel formation will make our country more mineral-independent, and less at the whim of multi-national corporations. But these mining companies are Canadian, and even Polymet in the Hoyt Lakes area, has just signed a contract with the Swiss corporation Glencore, to sell its minerals there. (A new note as of January 2010: a Brazilian metals company is also now bidding on leases here.) And, as was pointed out at the meeting, clean water and unburdened tax dollars (which will be needed to monitor and sequester the water in the mining drainages in perpetuity) are also increasingly important resources.

Confusing Justifications: People at the meeting asked how the DNR could justify such opposing activities as stocking fish in northern lakes, and then encouraging copper-nickel mining in those same water drainages, or radio-collaring some of the newly discovered lynx population, protected in our area, and then, again, encouraging copper-nickel mining in exactly the lynx's territory. Some say the DNR has very conflicting charges under its umbrella of inter-departmental policies.

Guests among the audience wondered aloud how copper-nickel mining would diversify an economy already too heavily reliant on mining activities and their supporting industries; many people in the region are increasingly working toward "growing" small educational and tourism entrepreneurships, sustainable over the long haul. Copper-nickel mining in the region, and locally, would obliterate these kinds of burgeoning small-scale sustainable employment. The DNR representatives pointed to their charge to fund the state's school trust fund and various other state treasuries with money gleaned from mining leases and activities. Mr. Engesser said their Lands and Minerals division is mainly charged with the economic overview.

There was much information offered during the presentations and in hand-outs; it was a heady gathering, and Petrell Hall, now 2 years shy of its 100th birthday, was an historic meeting site in the on-going discussion of what this community wants for its future.

For more information on the pros and cons of copper-nickel mining in our region and local area, go to or www.

Copyright 2010 by Pam Thompson

Return to Giving Ground Essays


Phone: 218.848.2302
Toll Free: 888.276.1336



Giving Ground
Superior National Forest
1223 Little Creek Road
Brimson, MN 55602