Talon Metals LLC submitted an application to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to operate a nickel mine near the town of Tamarack, Minnesota, the state announced on Wednesday. The location is in the headwaters of the Mississippi River and in areas important to Ojibwe history and contemporary culture. It is also near popular recreation and residency lakes, including Big Sandy Lake.
Nickel is used in modern society for uses such as electric vehicles and computers. Producing it involves extracting sulfide ore, which has significant pollution threats, as it can react with air and water to create acid and other contaminants. A local Ojibwe tribe and environmental advocates say it is simply too risky in wet environments like northeastern Minnesota.
“The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe believes that advancements in green technology are critical to protecting our planet from the effects of climate change,” said the band’s Commissioner of Natural Resources Kelly Applegate. “At the same time, we must ensure that these advancements do not endanger our natural environment or indigenous communities.”
Big Sandy Lake, which is downstream of the proposed mine, is the location of a current Mille Lacs Band reservation and numerous tribal lands and residences. It is also the site of a tragedy inflicted upon the Ojibwe by the U.S. government in 1850, when approximately 400 people died of starvation and disease due to deceit and dysfunction of federal officials.
Environmental group WaterLegacy has scheduled a presentation about the proposal on Monday, June 26 in Sandstone, Minnesota. It will also be available to attend via Zoom.
Although the Talon mine proposed at this point is not in the St. Croix River watershed, the company has conducted some exploration of ore deposits near the West Branch of the Kettle River, a St. Croix tributary, most recently in 2015. Those areas are not part of the current proposal, but minerals have been found there and could be cause for future expansion. The mine also has the potential to affect groundwater that could flow toward the St. Croix basin, or waste could be moved through or stored in the St. Croix watershed at some point. Further environmental review would be required for any changes from the current proposal.
The current plan calls for an underground mine digging as deep as 2,000 feet below the surface. Talon says it will ship all ore and waste from the mine to western North Dakota by rail for processing and disposal (the BNSF railway passes within less than two miles from the proposed mine site).
“We know that people have concerns about mining sulfide ores in a water rich environment,” said Todd Malan, Talon’s chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy. “Our team shares these concerns which is why we have worked over the last two years to enhance the project design, make changes such as moving processing and waste storage to a dry, industrial location and are committed to using technology to protect the natural environment and cultural resources such as wild rice.”
The company, which is based in the British Virgin Islands, has a partnership agreement with global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto.
Talon and its predecessors have been drilling and conducting other exploration and development activities in the area for several years. The company signed a deal with Tesla Motors in 2022 that guarantees the electric car maker will purchase at least 165 million pounds of nickel from the mine, if it is operational by 2026. It also received last year a U.S. Department of Energy grant provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, also known as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to support construction of the company’s proposed North Dakota mineral processing plant.
The DNR says that it has now received an Environmental Assessment Worksheet from Talon and will begin an initial review, called “scoping.” This phase focuses on identifying relevant environmental and socioeconomic issues, possible alternatives, and mitigation options.
“We understand that Minnesotans have widely differing perspectives regarding this proposed project and nonferrous mining more broadly,” said Katie Smith, director of the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Division. “The DNR, however, must base its decisions on the facts and the law. I want to assure all Minnesotans that the DNR is committed to a rigorous, transparent, and neutral review of the project, based on science and applicable state law.”
The scoping process will include a public comment period and at least one public meeting, to be announced at a later date. The proposed mine would also need permits from local, state, and federal government agencies in order to open. More information about the project is available on the DNR’s website.
Environmental nonprofit groups WaterLegacy and Wild Rivers Conservancy are hosting a presentation about the Talon proposal on Monday, June 26 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center on Grindstone Lake in Sandstone, Minnesota. The event will also be available to attend online. Register for the event to receive the Zoom link.