A company developing a proposal for a nickel mine near Tamarack, Minn. is planning to drill in search of more minerals in the upper reaches of the St. Croix River watershed in the coming year. So far, Talon Metals’ potential mine would be located outside the St. Croix basin, instead focused on areas around tributaries of the Mississippi. Its latest plans show it still has hopes of finding valuable metals in areas that drain toward the St. Croix.
“It’s part of our effort to find, hopefully, more high-grade nickel in the Tamarack Intrusive Complex,” said Todd Malan, Talon’s chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy.
Talon and its partner Kennecott have been exploring the Tamarack deposit for more than a decade, although the last time the companies drilled in the St. Croix River region was 2015. The mine has come a long way since then. Opposition has also increased.
In March, the Mille Lac Band of Ojibwe, local residents, and environmental groups launched a campaign to protect the area from possible pollution. Metal mining like Talon proposes has a long history of contaminating water, although the company says it prioritizes environmental protection.
“Minnesota is blessed with abundant clean water resources, and they are not to be taken for granted,” said Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Commissioner of Natural Resources Kelly Applegate. “While the Mile Lacs Band of Ojibwe is concerned about the threat of climate change and determined to find solutions to slow its impact on our environment, in the case of the proposed Tamarack Mine we are asking our leaders and regulators to prioritize clean water over nickel.”
Then, in June, Talon applied to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for a permit to mine. That application focused solely on a mineral deposit a few miles outside the St. Croix watershed, a small part of the area Talon has leased from the state. The plans call for an underground mine as deep as 2,000 feet below the surface. Talon would ship all ore and waste from the mine to western North Dakota by rail for processing and disposal. A state review is underway.
Searching under the surface
If the company wants to actually mine outside the area identified in its application, Talon will need to file a new application. But exploratory drilling can take place with a fairly simple state approval. Some environmental groups say it’s too simple.
“My real concern is that Talon’s exploration plan has huge gaps and that they are asking the DNR to write them a blank check,” said Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and legal counsel for WaterLegacy.
She points to numerous unanswered questions about Talon’s drilling, from how deep they will go to how they will deal with waste, wetlands, and more. When St. Croix 360 asked Talon for its detailed exploration plan, Malan said the document contains competitive information and the company can’t share it.
The DNR has already given Talon the go-ahead for a Sept. 8 application to conduct drilling at four locations clustered near the West Branch of the Kettle River. The company will extract rock cores for analysis of mineral content, and use other survey methods.
“Some of the geophysical testing we’ve done point to some smoke signals for a deeper potential deposit,” Malan said. “But this is all a twinkle in our geologists’ and geophysicists’ eyes at the moment.”
Since the last time the mining company drilled in the St. Croix watershed, it has also signed an agreement to supply electric vehicle maker Tesla with car battery material and received a federal grant for a processing facility in North Dakota.
Then, on Sept. 12, a few days after applying to explore near the West Branch of the Kettle, Talon announced a new agreement with the Department of Defense. The U.S. military will contribute more than $20 million, matched by Talon, for the company to purchase equipment, hire employees, and speed up efforts to find more nickel deposits in the area.
“This is yet another example of the critical importance of the [Defense Production Act] investment authorities,” said Anthony Di Stasio, Director for Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization office. “This award exemplifies the [Department of Defense]’s commitment to strengthening the resilience of critical supply chains and lessening our reliance on foreign sources of vital materials.”
Malan says the new drilling near the Kettle River is not part of the Department of Defense project. The funding is expected to help the company expand its exploration efforts across the region.
New nickel district
In August 2022, Talon acquired rights to potential nickel deposits in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The location is near the only existing nickel mine in the United States, and the company boasted the deal means it has a stake in the only two high-grade deposits in the country.
“These two exceptional deposits of high-grade nickel are definitive proof of the nickel potential in the Lake Superior region,” said Henri van Rooyen, CEO of Talon. “Notwithstanding this, the amount of modern exploration of this nickel bearing region is minuscule in comparison to other nickel districts around the world.”
As Talon both advances its proposal to mine in the Tamarack River watershed and explores additional mineral deposits in Minnesota and Michigan, its sights seem set on something larger than its existing project.
Retired mining engineer Chris Baldwin warned Minnesota in a July commentary in the Star Tribune that the industry regularly seeks to get a small project approved before asking to expand it, when regulators are less likely to say no to the bigger mine.
“As any mining engineer knows, it is a common practice to present a ‘limited scope’ mining project for permitting. This contrived, limited project is the camel’s ‘nose.’
The rest of the animal is revealed once the project has secured its initial permits, when the mining company requests approvals to expand the operation.– Beware ‘limited scope’ Talon Metals project, Star Tribune, July 11, 2023
Maccabee, from WaterLegacy, says the drilling in Minnesota is happening with little public information or input.
“These are public waterways, these are public resources, these are resources of enormous concern to downstream communities and tribes,” she said. “But there’s no transparency or accountability.”
The Kettle River is a state-designated Wild and Scenic River, one of only six in Minnesota. Its 90 miles are largely undeveloped, with two popular state parks, Banning and St. Croix, located on the lower river. The river is also home to a healthy population of lake sturgeon, a special and sensitive species. It flows into the St. Croix northeast of Pine City.