DeBeltz: Twin Metals is on slow, steady path

TWIN METALS - Dean Debeltz listens to a question from the audience.

by Tom Coombe -

Dean DeBeltz didn’t drop any bombshells.
His Oct. 25 status report on the Twin Metals Minnesota project instead served as part refresher course and part reality check for those wanting more information about the proposed copper-nickel mining project south of Ely.
“We recognize we have a lot of challenges in front of us,” said DeBeltz, who works out of Twin Metals’ Ely offices as the company’s director of safety and plant operations. “Our parent company, Antofagasta, recognizes we have a lot of challenges, but we’re prepared to go through that.”
He would later add “if someone says we’re ready to go, we’re not. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of agency involvement to get there.”
Revived by the Trump Administration, which restored critical mineral leases that were rejected in late-2016 by the Obama Administration, the Twin Metals project is winding down an exploratory stage and is heading toward a major milestone - the submission of a formal mine plan.
DeBeltz told an audience of more than 100 people at Ely’s Senior Center that plans call for the mine plan to be submitted “within the next 18 months... but I think it’s going to be sooner than that, I hope it’s going to be sooner than that.”
The plan will trigger an environmental review process that could take several years and one that DeBeltz said is nearly certain to result in changes.
But DeBeltz said that Twin Metals, which has already invested over $400 million, is committed to a project that, according to current estimates, could result a $1.2 billion underground mine with 650 permanent mining jobs.
It’s a project that faces fierce opposition, from an array of environmental groups to Gov. Mark Dayton and others who charge the mine will pollute area waterways and damage the region’s economy.
DeBeltz acknowledged the political obstacles and added that both Twin Metals and Antofagasta recognize the concerns, particulaarly given the mine site’s proximity to the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“We do have stringent environmental standards that we have to meet,” said DeBeltz. “We get phone calls all the time questioning if we’re the mine that’s going to mine in the Boundary Waters. That’s not a true statement. None of us are proposing that, but we do operate in a sensitive location.”
DeBeltz added “I’ll say this in front of anyone, that we do take this responsibility seriously. If we can’t propose a mine that doesn’t meet the standards we won’t be allowed to do it.”
Twin Metals has had a presence in Ely since 2011, when it opened its headquarters facility in the city’s business park. A core storage facility, which now has 1.5 million feet of core samples, opened next door in 2013.
DeBeltz said that Twin Metals still has numerous unanswered questions about its proposed underground operation, where the company would mine copper, nickel, palladium and other precious metals.
“We have engineers who are working on the mine plan and looking at different methods,” said DeBeltz.
DeBeltz said Twin Metals would backfill half of its tailings underground while the other half would go to a modern, lined storage facility near the current Northshore Mine in Babbitt.
Twin Metals plans to process 20,000 tons of ore per day at a processing site now scheduled to be located on company-owned land south of the underground mine site.
The company plans to open an office in Babbitt and would bus employees from both Ely and Babbitt to its mine site.
Critics have charged that technology and automation will significantly reduce the number of jobs that would be created by the project, but DeBeltz took issue with those claims and said Twin Metals “uses technology today,” citing the use of drones for “safety inspections in areas I don’t want to go to.”
DeBeltz said that global demand for copper drives projects such as the one proposed by Twin Metals.
He pointed to clean energy technologies and hybrid cars and said “there’s a demand for copper. Where do we get it? That’s a choice. With our proposal we need to put our best foot forward to show we can do it responsibly and in an environmentally friendly fashion.”
DeBeltz said that “we believe, based on the information we have, the resources are there for well over 100 years of mining.”
In a visit to Minnesota in February, top officials from Chile-based Antofagasta including CEO Ivan Arriagada pledged that a mine operation in Ely would be “socially responsible.”
Twin Metals is several years behind PolyMet, which is lining up permits for the region’s first copper-nickel mine between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.