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Battle For Underground Minerals Brews Among Homeowners

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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ELY, Minn. (WCCO) – It is a place known for captivating views and a comforting quiet. It’s a peace that, these days, many have set aside to take a stand on a subject that runs as deep as the potential riches themselves.

An iconic Minnesota place is now divided over future plans, and the battle over mining metals near the Boundary Waters is starting to take a personal toll.

This spring, some families found out they don’t own what’s under their land. Mining companies want the copper, nickel and platinum that could be in the ground. An area just south of Ely is believed to be sitting on one of the largest deposits of the precious metals in the world.

In all, the state has leased to explore more than 43,000 acres of land in St. Louis County to be able to find out what lies beneath.

If any mining happens, it will be years from now, but for some the effects are already coming at a high cost.

Joe Nicols stands on his front porch holding the letter that changed his future plans.

“This is the first time we had heard about this. It was quite a shock to us,” Nicols said.

He made his home 30 years ago about 15 miles south of Ely in Eagles Nest Township, an area that stretches across four small lakes.

“We chose this because of the environment we saw, and we also chose it because of the promise that it would stay here,” he said.

The Nicols are one of 50 families that have learned their land has been leased by the state to mining companies to explore what could be underneath. Now Joe calls his half-million-dollar home worthless. He says nobody will want to buy with the possibility that noisy, big equipment could set up nearby.

Not one single property has been sold in the township in the last year.

“We see no reason to continue life here. We’ve lost all value to this property because we can’t sell. We have to walk away from it,” Nicols said.

It’s a situation Charlie Chernak is surrounded by at Bear Island Land Company.

“We’ve had some sellers call recently that say I want to sell now before this gets worse,” Chernak said.

He says in many cases, people are finding out the law allows companies to look for precious metals on their property and the leases last for 50 years. It doesn’t mean there will be a mine nearby but they are free to take the time to find out.

“Now to see their investments devalued right before their eyes. I think it’s kind of cruel,” Chernak said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources says nearly 90 percent of leases are terminated within five years because mining companies don’t find anything. It’s very rare to move on to the drilling stage.

Ely Mayor Roger Skraba can’t ignore the possibilities the mining work would bring. With the promise of a projected 2,500 jobs so far, he sees no good reason to say no.

“Hopefully its sooner than later, because our economy could use it,” Skraba said.

Twin Metals Minnesota is one company laying out plans to build a massive mine up north. It’s still in the exploration stage, but already the project is believed to contain the largest deposits of copper and nickel in the world buried nearly 5,000 feet in Minnesota’s bedrock — materials in high demand for cars, cell phones, and computers.

Twin Metals holds 32,000 acres of minerals rights, in all. The tests are only happening on a small fraction of that.

Hundreds of holes have been drilled, temporary roads have been built, and trees removed to make room for the work. It’s all happening a few miles from the BWCA.

For years, the environmental concerns have led the opposition. The metals are locked up in minerals that contain sulfuric acid when exposed to the elements. The biggest fear is that runoff would end up polluting these waters, just as environmental records show it has when it’s been done elsewhere in the past.

Bob McFarlin, vice president of public government affairs for Twin Metals, says people can’t use history as an example here since so many standards are now in place to keep the water and land safe.

“Unless we can prove that we can do this mine and do this project safely and within environmental standards, we won’t receive the permission that we seek,” McFarlin said.

Government oversight has done little to quiet the ground battle that’s been brewing this summer. Both sides are staking out their positions with lawn signs and even billboards.

Some businesses are using the tourism season to urge people across the state to get involved.

Even in a town in desperate need of new opportunities, there is a vow that it won’t come at too high of cost.

“When you have something really good, you try not to ruin it purposely for money because it comes back to bite you,” Mayor Skraba said.

Back in Eagles Nest Township, the words do little as property owners arm themselves for the fight ahead.

It’s a fight Joe Nicols doesn’t think he can win, making a decision that he never thought possible before: to leave the land he loves.

“We’re in our exit strategy right now,” he said.

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