Many questions but few answers about mineral exploration impacts

As the state sells off another round of mineral leases, information about drilling in sensitive areas is not available to Minnesota’s citizens.

Map showing state mineral leases in northern Minnesota as of August 2012

Map showing state mineral leases in northern Minnesota as of August 2012

It just shouldn’t be this hard.

On Wednesday, October 24, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is conducting a sale of metallic minerals exploration and mining leases.  Companies that win bids on the 24th will be able to lease mineral rights from the state and explore for minerals on these lands.  Wednesday’s leases include a long list of areas in Aitkin, Lake and Saint Louis Counties.

Metallic mineral exploration and development is creating a great deal of anxiety for Minnesotans as more people learn about sulfide mining’s legacy elsewhere of toxic pollution, impaired waters, and taxpayer liability. 

Given growing concern about increasing mineral exploration and the potential for full-scale mining projects, we at the Friends recently sought to learn more about these particular leases.

Reasonable requests rejected

And that’s where things got hard.  It turns out, getting answers to reasonable questions about state mineral leasing isn’t very easy.

The DNR’s website gave legal descriptions of the lands involved and a little bit of other information, for example if “natural heritage” features were present, or  if they contained historic or archaeological sites.  Natural heritage features are special resources the state has identified as needing protection such as bald eagle nests, rare plants, threatened or endangered species.

As with mineral exploration and projects on Forest Service lands, we wanted to know more. Our questions included:

  • What kind of rare resources are we talking about?
  • What kind of historic and archeological sites are involved?
  • What instructions and guidelines does the DNR give to the mineral companies about how to explore without harming these resources?
  • What kind of monitoring effort does the DNR have for ensuring the companies are complying with protective measures?

So we called the DNR’s Office of Lands and Minerals.  We discovered there is no process in place for sharing information with the public or providing answers to the kinds of questions we were asking.

There is no public transparency for state mineral leasing, even though these are public mineral resources being leased, sometimes located under public lands, with potential impacts to other important public resources.

The Office of Lands and Minerals told us there is no law requiring them to have a public process, and so they don’t.

Too much secrecy

Despite having the information necessary to answer our questions, Lands and Minerals told us we would have to contact the DNR’s Natural Heritage Division and the Minnesota State Archaeologist and the Minnesota Historical Society ourselves to find out if they would share the information.

There is no public transparency for state mineral leasing, even though these are public mineral resources being leased.

Eventually, mineral bidders will have to put together an “exploration plan” which would only be available to us or other members of the public if we file a Freedom of Information Act Request.

The Friends continues to try to track down this information.  The people in the DNR’s Natural Heritage Division have pledged to send us what they can share, and we look forward to receiving it.  But this is not a transparent process accessible by Minnesotans at large.

Sulfide mining makes a lot of people nervous for our state’s future.  That nervousness isn’t going away soon and is only going to increase if information about it isn’t forthcoming. Providing accessible information through a reasonable process would be a wise step for the DNR to consider, and might even improve the public’s confidence about the DNR’s decisions.

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