Court clears way for Minnesota to sell mining rights

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today rejected an attempt to stop the state’s sale of mining leases without any environmental review.

When the state sells land, it retains the mineral rights on the land, and it is planning to sell 163 leases on 63,859 acres in Aitkin, Lake, and St. Louis Counties. Three companies have submitted bids for the leases.

A group of northeastern Minnesota residents, however, attempted to block the sale with an appeal to the court. They say mining on the land could do serious environmental damage.

But, like the Department of Natural Resources, the Court of Appeals rejected the challenge, saying “the proper focus is not on what activity might be allowed to take place under the mineral leases, but on what activity is actually planned.”

In his decision, Judge John Rodenberg wrote that buying the leases does not constitute a mining “project,” and shouldn’t require an environmental review until one has been proposed.

To the extent that the leases grant exclusive rights to explore for and mine minerals, they also contemplate the possibility of on-the-ground physical changes to the environment. And the leases are somewhat site-specific, designating mining units, each encompassing hundreds of acres, in which mineral exploration and mining may occur in the future.

But the contemplated physical changes are indefinite. And the locations of any particular future activities are not ascertainable now because the sites in question cover a vast area. The total acreage available for lease in the October 2012 sale encompasses almost 64,000 acres, and the record does not identify a more definite location within the leased area as a specific site for exploration.

“I can almost guarantee that there are some sensitive resources on some of those acres, but we have no idea where the mining companies propose to put a drill,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told Gov. Dayton last fall when Dayton criticized the DNR’s decision.

“I understand that people are concerned, and we’re trying to make sure that people have an opportunity to plug in when there’s an appropriate time to plug in,” Landwehr said. “In my humble opinion, governor, in my respectful, humble opinion, this is not the point at which we can do an EAW (environmental review).”

“Once the leases are sold, the DNR can’t go back and say ‘oops, we shouldn’t have sold you that one because it’s right on top of a trout stream,’ ” Paula Maccabee, an attorney for the landowners said. “That’s a legal contract, and it’s done.”

Here’s the landowners’ original petition, and today’s decision rejecting it.

  • Hugh Shakeshaft

    The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mining rights.