Mineral Leases – Opening the Cozy Process to Public Scrutiny

In September 2012, I helped Matthew Tyler, a forester living in Northeastern Minnesota, file a petition asking that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) prepare an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) before they sold non-ferrous mineral leases at auction to the highest bidder. 170 other citizens signed the petition.

We thought the DNR would just go ahead and prepare the EAW. An EAW is a pretty simple document, and Matt had done a lot of the work already, using GIS maps to figure out where the leases would be located and which were under housing developments, next to trout streams or near drinking wells.

It is a little-known fact that the State of Minnesota owns mineral rights beneath about 13.5 million acres — about 24 percent of the state. These leases are often severed from the surface estate, so they can be under homes, businesses, local parks – you name it. Worse yet, a law written 100 years ago allows mining companies to condemn out easements for drilling or even entire properties for mining if the landowner doesn’t agree. Read more in MiningPropertyRightsStarTribCommentary

For decades the DNR has put mineral rights up for auction without any public outcry or environmental review. But in 2011, when the DNR proposed leases for non-ferrous metallic mining under private homes and businesses in Lake County, the slow process to bring some sunlight to the cozy arrangement between DNR and mining companies began.

The first citizen effort to ask the Executive Council to deny mineral leases delayed, but did not stop the leasing process. One year later, the request by Matt Tyler  and 170 other citizens for environmental review before leases were auctioned was denied by the DNR. When we appealed the DNR’s administrative denial the Minnesota Court of Appeals again rejected citizens’ right to environmental review before leasing. However, the Court also said that environmental review would be available before exploratory drilling plans were approved.

The only problem with this solution, we argued, as we asked for discretionary review by the Minnesota Supreme Court and spoke with the Governor and the State Executive Council, was that Minnesota rules did not require the DNR to notify citizens when exploration plans were filed. How could citizens ask for environmental review if they didn’t even know a plan to drill was being filed? The remedy offered was only theoretical.

But the story was not over. As a result of citizen activism, petition, litigation and appeals to the Executive Council,  Governor Mark Dayton heard what Minnesota citizens had to say about being shut out of the process until drill rigs rolled by. The Governor directed the DNR to crack open the door and let some sunlight in on the exploration process for non-ferrous minerals. For the first time ever, Minnesota now has a process for notifying citizens before exploration activity can occur on state nonferrous metallic mineral leases. Here is the web link so that you can sign up to get notice when non-ferrous mining exploration plans are proposed:  http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lands_minerals/metallic_nf/regulations.html

The process of challenging mineral leases at the Minnesota Executive Council has had other benefits in helping State leaders understand the risks of sulfide mining.

  • Governor Dayton has resolved to remain undecided on the PolyMet sulfide mine until all the scientific evidence and public comments are in because non-ferrous mining “is different. Extracting the desired metals takes deep digging, followed by processing, which leaves behind toxic wastes that must be contained.” Read more in the Governor’s Guest Column in the Mesabi Daily News

  • State Auditor Rebecca Auditor, who voted against approval of the 31 non-ferrous mineral leases, has also highlighted the “unfamiliar risks” of non-ferrous mining. The State Auditor has focused on the financial questions related to sulfide mining and the need to protect taxpayers from future clean up costs.  Read the State Auditor on mining: long-term risks hard to quantify

The path to change is sometimes indirect. Congratulations to all the activists who helped initiate a more open and thoughtful process of considering leasing, exploration and mining for non-ferrous minerals.

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