Fact check: No, the mineral withdrawal won’t affect taconite mining

21 July 2023

SUPERIOR NATIONAL FOREST When the Biden administration barred new mining activity on 225,000 acres of federal land in the Rainy River Watershed, the decision was aimed at protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from potential pollution from copper-nickel mining, which has never been carried out in the state.

The move, paired with other federal action, effectively killed Twin Metals’ planned underground copper-nickel mine that would have been located near the BWCAW.

Still, the ban didn’t target copper-nickel mining specifically, and is instead a ban on all hardrock mining activity, leading some to mischaracterize the move as harming the state’s existing taconite industry.

But there aren’t any taconite deposits on withdrawn lands, and there are only two slivers of natural ore on two withdrawn parcels, which would unlikely be developed soon, or ever, anyway.

“It is true that the withdrawal would prevent the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) from leasing any hardrock minerals, including taconite on federal lands for the area for the 20-year period,” Matt Judd, a natural resource staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service and team lead on the withdrawal analysis, said in an email to the News Tribune. “It is also true there are no known taconite ore resources on the withdrawn land parcels and therefore would not affect taconite mining.”

The state’s only active iron range the Mesabi Range, home to all six operating taconite mines isn’t affected by the withdrawal. It spans just over 100 miles from west of Grand Rapids to just across Birch Lake near Babbitt.

The eastern tip of the Mesabi Range is near, but doesn’t overlap, withdrawn lands.

On the Vermilion Range, which spans from Tower to Ely and hasn’t been mined in almost 60 years, only two slivers of native iron can be found on two withdrawn parcels, representing a tiny fraction of the 225,500 acres of withdrawn land.

And the likelihood that a company would mine it in the next 20 years?

“Potential for the development of these mineral occurrences is likely low due to low volumes of ore and high production cost, as compared to taconite mining found in the Mesaba Iron Range,” the Forest Service said in its mineral report.

The Vermilion Range was mined from 1884 until its last mine, Ely’s Pioneer Mine, closed in 1967.

While its iron ore is high grade, much of it is located deep beneath the surface, usually requiring underground mines to reach it.

By the mid-20th century, steelmaking technologies were changing, allowing the use of low-grade ore instead, and open-pit mining for low-grade ore was cheaper than underground mining.

Processing lower-grade iron ores into pellets became dominant on the Mesabi Range to the south.

There hasn’t been much interest in the Vermilion Range’s iron since.

“I have never heard any talk about opening up mining on the Vermilion Range,” said Don Elsenheimer, a senior geologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Today’s mining is focused instead on ore that hasn’t been oxidized and still maintains its magnetic properties, allowing processing plants to crush it, then pull the iron out using magnets, said Heather Arends, mineral potential manager at the DNR.

Northeastern Minnesota’s two other inactive iron ranges the Cuyuna Range near Crosby and the Gunflint Range between the Gunflint Trail and Minnesota-Canada border are unaffected by the mineral withdrawal.

The Gunflint Range is either in the BWCAW, where mining has long been banned, or the buffer zone, where any mining activities on the surface are already banned.

Fact-checking the talking point

The fact that no known taconite deposits are on withdrawn lands hasn’t stopped politicians and others from characterizing the mineral withdrawal as an assault on the state’s taconite industry.

They have seized on the fact that the withdrawal would ban all mining and mining activities, making no exception for taconite or other iron ores.

But they leave out the fact that there aren’t any taconite deposits on the withdrawn lands, and that only two parcels in the 225,000-acre withdrawal have any iron formation at all. (The type of native iron found there hasn’t been mined in the state in almost 60 years, and is unlikely to be mined in the next 20 years, according to the Forest Service).

Still, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., has referred to the land withdrawal as a “blanket taconite mining withdrawal.”

“Arguments made by well-funded anti-mining organizations that taconite will not be affected by this withdrawal are at best, misinformed or at worst, a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the true goal of banning all mining in Minnesota, while trying to avoid the political ramifications associated with taking such a radical anti-mining position,” Stauber wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.


The mineral withdrawal would also ban mining activities, meaning mineral exploration would be barred from that land for the next 20 years.

But the region has been heavily explored, and it is unlikely there’s a taconite deposit that big enough and accessible enough to economically mine that has yet to be found.

Asked by the News Tribune whether the withdrawal really would affect taconite, Stauber, of Hermantown, in February pointed to developments in scram mining, or the extraction of iron from piles of waste rock or tailings left behind by old mines.

“Piles (of waste rock) that 30 years ago we didn’t think would be useful, but they are useful now,” Stauber said. “And that’s going to happen across the range as technology gets better.”

That type of mining has been done on the Mesabi Range before, most notably by Magnetation almost a decade ago. Several other companies are also trying to bring it to an industrial scale.

However, the withdrawn lands hold no known mine stockpiles, tailings, underground mines or any mine infrastructure, according to data curated on the Minnesota Natural Resource Atlas developed by the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth.

That means scram mining for iron ore would not be affected by the mineral withdrawal either.

Ultimately, a talking point by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which is opposed to copper-nickel mining with the Rainy River Watershed, is accurate.

“The mineral withdrawal does not negatively impact taconite mining. Congressman Stauber has said that the Boundary Waters watershed mineral withdrawal would negatively impact taconite mining. This is false,” the group said in a news release in May. “There are no taconite mines on the federal lands withdrawn from the mining program, and the withdrawal area has no economically viable taconite deposits.”


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