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Minnesota Court of Appeals affirms state's decision to forgo environmental review

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed the state's decision not to conduct an environmental review before auctioning off mineral exploration rights to mining companies in Northeastern Minnesota.

A group of landowners, mostly from Lake County, asked a three-judge panel in July to demand that the state do an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. Last year the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources turned down their request, saying the mineral lease auction held each year is not the proper time to do one. Only when an actual mining project is proposed, the DNR said, should an environmental review be conducted.

In its decision, the court said the leases do not plan for definite, on-the-ground physical changes to the environment. It went on to say that environmental review requirements could be triggered later by more specific exploration plans for property leased as a result of the sale.

The leasing process gives the mining companies the rights to explore and for condemnation, said Paula Maccabee, the attorney representing the landowners, in response to Monday's decision. It also removes the chance to protect private property and environmental resources from exploratory digging, she said.

"If an environmental review is not done at the time of leasing, any review would be like closing the barn door after the horses are already gone," Maccabee said.

She said the state's process is closed to residents who own surface rights who are concerned about drinking water, trout streams and trails.

"What we really need in Minnesota is an open, fair and balanced process that includes the public as well as the mining companies," she said.

Attorney Byron Starns, representing the mining companies, said he was pleased that the court affirmed the DNR's decision.

All state agency decisions are appealed to the Court of Appeals in Minnesota, so unlike most appellate court cases, there is no lower court decision on this case. The DNR's 2012 mineral lease auction has been on hold by the state's Executive Council pending a court decision on the case.

In October 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 areas where geologists suspect large reserves of copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals are sitting.

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 gets royalties.

The DNR and mining supporters -- as well as official state law and policy -- say the state mineral exploration leases are a critical 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 have said the system mostly avoids environmental review and public scrutiny and is stacked against landowners who have little chance to say no to mining companies. They say 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.