State to auction off mineral leases across Arrowhead

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is planning to auction off mineral leases for sulfide mining across the northeastern part of the state. Last week, Minnesota Public Radio ran a story on the auction:

Chuck Laszewski, communications director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the fact that the DNR’s new lease sale might expand mining exploration in Minnesota should make policy makers think about enacting laws that will ensure the state’s lakes and rivers are protected if a company proceeds with non-ferrous mining.

“We’re not talking about just St. Louis County anymore,” he said. “People who never thought they would see a mine in their county could now see a mine in their county, and they better pay attention to that.”

The scope of the interest is worrisome. Minnesota could see huge tracts of land in the Arrowhead (and beyond, including in areas in Aitkin County) developed for new copper-nickel mines. All of this activity would occur in sulfide ore bodies capable of producing acid mine drainage and other toxic pollution.

The location of some of the most recent activity is particularly concerning to those who enjoy fishing, swimming and other activities on some popular recreation lakes near Duluth, including Island and Grand Lakes. Save Lake Superior Association has posted some maps showing where leases are being offered near those lakes.

(Maps of the mineral leases near Island and Grand Lakes–click to view full-size. Courtesy Save Lake Superior Association.)

A mineral lease auction held by the DNR last year included significant lands around Ely. At the time, many property-owners and Realtors became very concerned because many of the leases were for mineral rights underneath private lands. Land-owners suddenly realized that a mining company could control the mineral rights underneath their property and there would be nothing they could do to prevent them from starting up a mine. The issue received considerable attention in the press at the time:

The Ely Echo ran an editorial last January:

Local realtor Charlie Chernak said there is reason for concern. “If you’ve got a $300,000 house sitting on a 40 (acre plot) and a company gets a minerals lease for that 40, I can tell you your house isn’t worth $300,000 anymore. I’m afraid this sale can have a harmful affect on a real estate market that’s already on its knees here.”

Chernak, who has been involved in economic development efforts in Ely, said the issue isn’t about mining.

“I’m not against mining but these mineral leases shouldn’t be on private ownership. The DNR says the odds of them drilling are slim and none but these are 50-year leases. My concern is it’s not the norm to have the minerals leased to a mining company,” said Chernak.

The Ely Timberjay also ran an article on the issue:

The state can offer mineral leases on those lands because the state of Minnesota allows what is known as “severed mineral rights,” which means the owner of the surface does not necessarily have rights to the minerals below. The state of Minnesota holds the rights to explore or mine for minerals across millions of acres of northeastern Minnesota, including much of the privately-held property in the region, and it typically exercises those rights through leases to mining companies. Under those leases, which can run up to 50 years, mining companies have a right to explore for, or mine, minerals on the lands covered by the lease, regardless of who owns the surface rights.

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