Teck’s copper mining project near Babbitt, which once promised 1,200 jobs but has sat mostly quiet for several years, is looking to drill more exploratory borings at its Northeastern Minnesota site.

The Vancouver-based company asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources late last month for permission to drill nine exploratory borings and eight drill holes “for environmental purposes” at its Mesaba project, directly south of the Peter Mitchell taconite mine operated by Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining. The DNR has until Tuesday to approve or deny Teck’s plan.

If approved, it would be the first time Teck drilled at its Mesaba project since 2013, according to DNR data. Teck has intermittently drilled at the site since 2007, and over 600 holes had already been drilled at the site prior to Teck taking over the project in 1999.

In the early 2000s, Teck’s Mesaba project appeared well ahead of other potential copper-nickel mines in the region. The company, known as Teck Cominco until 2008, said it could employ 1,200 workers at its processing facility and mine and maintained it had an expected mine life of 50 years.

But in 2004, Teck lost out on acquiring the former LTV Steel Mining Co. processing facilities to another Canadian mining company: PolyMet.

As PolyMet went on to become Minnesota’s first fully-permitted copper-nickel mine in 2018 (though it faces numerous legal challenges today, including permits placed on hold), Teck mostly stayed out of the news.

In 2017, Teck officials met with Babbitt city representatives to remind them that they still had the leases for the Mesaba project and were continuing to work at the site, the News Tribune reported at the time.

Teck officials also spoke to the Babbitt City Council in September.

Lisa Weidemann, environment and community affairs manager at Teck’s Mesaba project, declined an interview with the News Tribune but said in an emailed statement Friday that the project remains active.

“Over the past year the project team at Mesaba, a copper-nickel-platinum group metals-cobalt deposit, has completed a range of planning activities, preliminary development and environmental studies, and mineral resource estimate work,” Weidemann said. “Currently, the Mesaba team is focused on additional early work, including scoping studies supported by field programs, road improvement work at site, as well as social and environmental baseline work.”

Copper-nickel mining has never been done in Minnesota, and opponents maintain it would pollute nearby waterways with toxic runoff.

While PolyMet sits in the St. Louis River Watershed, which empties into Lake Superior, Twin Metals sits in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness.

The projects’ locations in different watersheds have set off a fierce debate. While some groups and politicians are opposed to both mines, others have chosen only to oppose Twin Metals and have remained silent or neutral on PolyMet.

Teck’s Mesaba project straddles both watersheds, with large swaths of land in each watershed, but mostly on the Rainy River side. Teck’s most recent exploration plans call for drill sites in both watersheds.

That’s worrisome for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, which also opposes both PolyMet and Twin Metals, said group spokesperson Pete Marshall.

“This really highlights our position over the last decade that the reason we need to stop PolyMet is because that’s going to be the snowplow leading the way for other copper-sulfide mines in Minnesota,” Marshall told the News Tribune Friday. “And when you get something like Teck looking to possibly open a mine that straddles both watersheds, you don’t really have the luxury of deciding which watershed to protect and not protect because it’s going to be in both of them.”

Other copper-nickel mining companies continue to file exploration plans with the DNR this year. Last month, Talon Metals asked to drill more holes at its copper-nickel mining project near Tamarack and the Aitkin-Carlton county line, and in August, Encampment Minerals asked to drill near Birch Lake, just south of the Twin Metals project.

Two gold companies have also made regular exploratory drillings in Minnesota in recent years: Vermillion Gold near Gilbert and Virginia and AngloGold Ashanti Minnesota throughout St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties.