Group asks Minnesota Supreme Court to hear mineral leases case
A group of Lake County residents today asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to consider their case asking the state to conduct environmental reviews before state mineral rights are leased to mining companies.
The state Department of Natural Resources auctions off the right to explore for valuable minerals like copper and gold under lands where the state owns the mineral rights. Some residents want an environmental review before those auctions are held.
In a decision last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said the state did not have to conduct those reviews in advance.
In its decision, the appeals court said the leases do not plan for definite, on-the-ground physical changes to the environment. The appeals court panel went on to say that environmental review requirements would be triggered later, by more specific exploration plans for property leased as a result of the sale.
Paula Maccabee, attorney for the landowners, conceded that the state's high court takes fewer than 10 percent of the requests for review.
"But we believe that this case has statewide impact and was a departure from just and fair application of the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act," said Maccabee. "We felt that it was important to landowners throughout Minnesota as well as to the protection of natural resources that we seek review by the Supreme Court."
One year ago, the DNR accepted high bids for exploration under 31 tracts of land across Aitkin, St. Louis and Lake Counties. Many of the proposed exploratory drilling sites from the 2012 auction are outside traditional mining areas, in locations where geologists suspect large reserves of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals are sitting.
A DNR spokesman Wednesday said those 2012 leases will be re-presented to the state's Executive Council on Oct. 25 for approval. DNR minerals officials have not yet decided on when the next mineral lease auction will be.
Mineral leases are auctioned off nearly every year by the DNR. The companies pay a small fee to the state for exclusive exploration rights and then, if any minerals are mined, the state receives royalties.
The DNR and mining supporters -- as well as official state law and policy -- say the state mineral exploration leases are a crucial first step in pinpointing marketable deposits of minerals and the first step toward creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into state coffers when mining royalties begin flowing into the state as mining begins.
Opponents say the system mostly avoids environmental review and public scrutiny, and is stacked against landowners, who have little chance to successfully say no to mining companies. They claim exploration and drilling will be disruptive to their north-woods lifestyle, while mining opponents question whether copper mining can be conducted without environmental damage caused from acidic runoff when copper is exposed.