Twin Metals Minnesota expects union labor to build its copper-nickel mine in Ely once the project clears its environmental review and permitting process.
Putting a shovel in the ground could be more than a decade away, but the project labor agreement signed by the company and the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council on Wednesday provides more certainty on how the construction phase will advance. The contract ensures local union workers will be hired to build the underground copper-nickel mine, its dry-stack tailings facility and other structures on site.
Mike Syversrud, president of the IRBCT, estimates about 1.5 million man hours will go into construction — roughly three years worth — similar to the scope of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“This is huge for the area,” he said during a press conference Wednesday outside the Twin Metals office in Ely. “This puts our people to work with good-paying jobs, with a pension and health insurance. Twin Metals coming to the table to sign his PLA realizes that.”
Signing a project labor agreement is a rite of passage for new projects entering northeastern Minnesota and more specifically the Iron Range, which has strong organized labor roots dating back to the origins of unions. Mines generally sign a separate agreement with the United Steelworkers to allow workers to organize, but becoming a labor mine depends on those workers to choose to do so.
PolyMet, which is trying to build a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, signed a PLA with the union in 2007, more than a decade before it received final permits.
Twin Metals officials said Wednesday that signing the agreement reflected their core values and those of their parent company, the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta.
“We want to be an economic cornerstone for northeastern Minnesota — that’s why we’re here,” said Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne. “We as Twin Metals believe in labor and so does our parent company. This is part of who we are.”
Local elected officials praised the mine for its potential economic impact, primarily the 700 permanent jobs its expected to create once it opens.
State Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said the project will contribute to state tax revenue and the school trust fund. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the union jobs provided by construction are what rebuilding the middle class looks like. “This is about the middle class and jobs that actually form the middle class,” Tomassoni said during the press conference. “Happening right here in Ely, this is a really big deal.”
Starting construction on the project seems a far-off worry at the moment. Twin Metals said it intends to submit a mine operation plan to state and federal regulators later this year, triggering what is likely to be an extended environmental review process.
PolyMet was the first copper-nickel mine in Minnesota to become fully permitted, a process that started in 2004 and finalized early this year. Like their counterparts on the East Range, Twin Metals is also facing scrutiny over its plans to mine strategic metals in Minnesota, a frenzy of challenges that is only expected to increase after the mine plan is released.
Opponents of the project have expressed staunch opposition due to its close proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The mine sits partially within the Superior National Forest and was subject of an Obama administration attempt to ban mining on federal land. The administration ordered a study to investigate 20-year moratorium activity in the SNF, but the study was ended early by the Trump administration, which also renewed the company’s federal land leases.
Nancy Norr, chair of Jobs for Minnesotans, a business and community group that supports the mine, said one of the hallmarks of projects they work with is a social license to operate. She said this week that Twin Metals is meeting expectations, noting $400 million already spent on the project, including environmental studies.
The project labor agreement, she said, was “a centerpiece of that social issue.”
Twin Metals still faces tough opposition, which came Monday in the form of 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. She visited Minnesota for two days this week and in a video pledged to end mining on federal lands, drawing criticism from labor unions and mining supporters.
“These minerals are critical to our national security and our everyday lives,” said 8th District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., on Wednesday, citing the need for strategic metals in cars, batteries, solar power and wind power. “These are part of our future.”
Finding a reserve of strategic metals is a recent pursuit of the Trump administration as its trade war with China continues. The strategy, unveiled in June, directed the Department of the Interior to locate domestic minerals, ensure access to study and produce them and expedite permitting for minerals projects.
Dean DeBeltz, director of operations and safety for Twin Metals, said the Duluth Complex represents a large portion of precious metals reserves including copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver.
“Minnesota is ready to supply America’s strategic minerals,” he said.