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Voyageur's Best Features of 2006

Aitking County Planning Commission

C.U.P. denied
The Aitkin County Planning Commission voted to deny the request for a Conditional Use Permit for the purpose of mineral exploration on private lands in Clark Township
by Dennis Meyer  |  May 23, 2006

At 4:00 Monday afternoon, May 15, at the Aitkin County Planning Commission, chaired by Gordon Prickett, sat in session to hear a number of requests for Conditional Use Permits. As usual, other Planning Commission board members Gene Kelling, Tom Christianson, Nancy Eddy and Reggie Lee were also in attendance. Unusual was that the meeting took place in Courtroom 1 and the attendance was more than 100 interested citizens.

The obvious object of all this attention was the presentation given by Kennecott Exploration employees Dean Rossell, Robert Johnson, and Robert Peter in their attempt to garner a conditional use permit for the purpose of mineral exploration on private land in Clark Township. Mr. Rossell and Mr. Peter are geologists with Kennecott, while Mr. Johnson is the Land Manager.

At approximately 8:35 the planning commission voted to deny the request for the permit. Instantly, the vast majority of those in attendance voiced their approval of that decision.

The four-and-a-half hours from the beginning of the meeting to the time the decision was made were filled with non-stop testimony and discussion. Only the three Kennecott employees spoke positively in regard to the exploration project. Thirty letters were read into the record in regard to the permit and almost 20 people spoke. All were in opposition to the issuing of the permit.

County commissioner Brian Napstad spoke briefly and reminded all in attendance that Clark Township and the exploration project lies within the Big Sandy Watershed District, meaning that all water potentially is able to reach Big Sandy Lake. “Big Sandy has been determined to be an impaired lake,” said Brian, “and as a result not one molecule of additional phosphorus or pollutants can be added to the lake.”

The primary concern of most in attendance was that exploration would lead to mining and mining would lead to pollution. The reality was that nothing Kennecott presented dispelled the fears that  anyone, including, and most importantly, the Planning Commission, had in regard to those concerns.

Paul Bailey, the county commissioner from the third district, also spoke. “We need to know a lot more about this before I could make an educated decision (in the event a mining operation would come before the county board of commissioners). My concern is that this is the first step to open the door (to mining) and that once that door is open it could be Katie-bar (the door).”

Kennecott Exploration has been active in Aitkin County since 2001. During that time it has been looking for mineral deposits, primarily copper and nickel. Techniques for exploration include aerial surveillance, magnetic imaging and drilling to take bore samples of rock and minerals up to 2000 feet below the surface.

To this point Kennecott has drilled 23 exploration holes, at a mean depth of 900 feet. Twenty of those were drilled on public land for which there is no requirement for a permit. Three were drilled on private land. Kennecott representatives have testified in the past that they were not aware that a permit was required for exploratory drills on private land and that as soon as they discovered the error they worked to rectify the situation.

Aitkin County is unique in that it is the only county of 86 Minnesota counties that requires a public hearing and a conditional use permit before mineral exploration is allowed on private land. The three drill holes were in violation of that requirement. One exploratory drilling was also within 1,000 feet of a highwater shoreline which is also a violation. These infractions were mentioned many times by the testifying public.

The primary concern among those in attendance were the reports of severe pollution that has been typical of nickel and copper mining operations throughout the world. “Sulfide mining” was a term used by many of the presenters. The Kennecott representatives, and board chair Gordon Prickett, assured everyone that, in reality, there is no practice in the mining industry called sulfide mining. It is “not a term of the trade” and comes from the fact that copper and nickel are most frequently found in rock high in sulfur. When the sulfur is exposed to air and water, sulfuric acid is produced. Unless it is contained it is possible for the acid to find its way into streams and waterways.

In a later interview, board chair Gordon Prickett (who has an extensive background as an engineer in the mining industry) expressed his thoughts on the night’s proceedings. “People have become very sensitive to the environmental needs of the Big Sandy Lake area,” said Gordon. “For a company to do mining (which successful exploration will lead to) they must prove that they can do it safely. Frankly, the state did not demonstrate that they would protect our interests. A major impact was that Kennecott had already drilled without a permit and had taken water out of Nelson Lake. This sullied their reputation and made it difficult for people to trust them for a good-faith effort.”

Kennecott Exploration Company project manager David Simpson shared Kennecott’s position. “Kennecott is in the process of considering all of its options,” said David. “We appreciate the honest issues that were raised at the Planning Commission hearing and we will work to address those issues. It is also our intention to address any information that came forth from the hearing that was not factual. Our interest is in getting the facts in front of the community and we welcome any opportunity to do so.”

This article first appeared in the May 23 issue of the Voyageur Press.