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A look at the Tamarack mine

Talon extraction of nickel would be unique, controversial

Pull into Tamarack, 36 miles west of Cloquet on Highway 210, and it’s easy to locate the publicly traded mining company that wants to extract nickel from deep beneath the grassy swamps that surround the town.

Visible from the city park, what’s notable about Talon Metals headquarters is that it’s located in a small yellow house. Across from the office on Warren Street, there’s an open garage where workers process the company’s core samples. For a mining company, it looks an awful lot like a computer startup from the 1980s.

“A lot of people are expecting something big, corporate-y and fancy,” said Jessica Johnson, Talon’s director of community and government relations. “Maybe someday.”

A year ago this month, Talon Metals submitted its mine proposal to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with hopes to open an underground mine outside of Tamarack in late 2027 or 2028.

If permitted to do so, Talon’s mine would join the Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as the only nickel mines in the United States. Operating since 2014, Eagle Mine’s ores are processed across the globe in places such as Canada, Norway, Finland, South Korea and China. A 2022 agreement between Talon and the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla could create the country’s first wholly domestic supply chain for nickel, with processing at a Talon location in North Dakota before shipping to a cathode factory in Austin, Texas.

“Moving to clean energy is mineral-intensive, and we don’t want to be dependent on China for our clean energy system,” said Todd Malan, the company’s chief external affairs officer and head of climate strategy.

But regulators aren’t the only hurdle facing Talon metals. Opposition to mining in water-rich environments has slowed prospective precious metals mining developments on the Iron Range and outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Tamarack is no different.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is actively opposing Talon’s proposed mine, using a Water Over Nickel initiative to highlight risks to the environment as well as social concerns about the injustice of siting a mine so close to reservation lands.

“The band is not opposed to all mining,” said Kelly Applegate, commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band. “What we’re opposed to are the environmental consequences that come with this type of nickel sulfide mining.”

To better understand the proposal, the Pine Knot News visited Tamarack and spoke at length with Talon officials and, later, the Mille Lacs Band. The result was a familiar conflict between the push and pull of progress, environmental protection and social justice.

Preservation or progress?

For the Mille Lacs Band, there does not appear to be any wiggle room when it comes to mining outside Tamarack, in Clark Township, where heavy industrial mats are laid across swamps engorged with water. The mats allow exploration drilling rigs and heavy equipment to pass over the wetlands.

“We do know that area of Aitkin County is a wetland,” Applegate said. “You’ve got thousands of acres of pristine wetland, and this wetland is what recharges the drinking water for the (surrounding) watersheds. These are very precious waters for not just the Mille Lacs Band (to the south), but to all of Minnesota.”

There’s no denying the wetlands. They’re everywhere a person looks. As Talon Metals works toward permitting, it continues to drill core samples throughout the mineral hotspot known as the Tamarack Intrusive Complex, sending rigs over the industrial mats into areas high with grass, reeds and scrub brush. Frogs croak incessantly in the background as Talon’s drill team drives its 10-foot sections of tube between 500- and 2,000 feet into the bedrock below.

Located on the Midcontinent Rift, the proposed mine site is on the grounds of a former tree farm and residence, which is now Talon property and used as a field house for commuting drillers, who work 12-hour days.

Any new discoveries would require a separate mine plan and regulatory process. The currently proposed underground mine would rank among the most choice deposits in the world, yielding enough nickel to supply 200,000 Tesla batteries per year for the relatively short seven-to-10-year projected life of the mine, Johnson said.

“What makes this worthwhile are the grades that are here — 8-10 percent nickel,” Johnson said. “There are three or four projects in the world that see 8-10 percent nickel. Otherwise, you’re seeing 1 percent or less.”

Johnson explained the origin of the Tamarack discovery, starting with a state of Minnesota aerial magnetic survey in the 1970s. By the 1990s, a study of the imaging was used to identify the Tamarack complex as an “interesting place to explore,” Johnson said.

Exploration started in 2002, and 42 holes later, in 2008, drillers found high-grade nickel. There are now more than 500 holes throughout the area.

It started with a volcano

“This is all the plumbing system of a volcano that was here 1.1 billion years ago,” Johnson said. “It’s the magma that was in those roots of the volcano, and over time that magma cooled really slowly and gave time for metals like nickel and copper to pool together.”

The minerals are evident in core samples, sparkling veins and splashes of material that flash within the duller bedrock. The proposed mine would reach 2,000 feet into the earth, blasted out to create switchbacks, like a parking garage. Miners would subsequently blast “room-size” areas off the main artery and the rubble would be collected and hauled out by dump trucks, then sent on rail to North Dakota.

Originally, Talon proposed processing on-site. Malan said that plan was adjusted after facing opposition. Instead, moving the raw ore by rail to North Dakota was devised. Talon bought an old industrial site in Mercer County, North Dakota and plans to process nickel from the ore there.

“We’ve got the site down to about the size of a Target superstore and its parking lot,” Malan said. “We’ve reduced the wetland impacts down to less than 35 acres. We’re doing a lot. We’re listening and taking action and, hopefully, it lets people see that we are serious about protecting the environment, protecting cultural resources like wild rice, and still providing good jobs and the necessary ingredients for clean energy and defense.”

Malan came to Talon having worked first at Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining group in the world, which has a 49-percent venture partner stake in the Talon’s Tamarack project. The proposed Tamarack mine is Talon’s only project to date, though the company is starting exploration on a 400,000-acre land package in Michigan, Johnson said.

Malan compared efforts to source nickel and other precious metals domestically to the country’s oil catharsis following the oil crisis of 1979, when Americans faced long lines at the gas pumps during a period of geopolitical upheaval. Confronted by its heavy dependence on the Middle East, the United States went on to become the world’s largest oil producer.

Historically, nickel has been used in stainless steel to make things such as medical devices and kitchen appliances. Now, there’s massive demand for nickel in electric vehicle batteries; nickel extends the range a vehicle can drive on a lithium ion battery.

“We’re relying on China and Russia and other places for those minerals. That’s where the urgency comes in,” Malan said. “People are saying, ‘Wow. We need to rely on our own resources.’”

Talon currently employs roughly 100 people, including drillers, geologists and engineers. A lot of employees travel from the Iron Range and Duluth, while others live in the area. If permitted, Johnson said the company would swell to 300 employees.

Alternatives urged

For Applegate and the Mille Lacs Band, the risk is not worth the reward.

Sulfide minerals such as nickel exposed to water and oxygen create acid, and the possibilities to alter water chemistry is too risky for the Band to look beyond.

“Wild rice is literally our cultural identity, and it’s a species that is extremely sensitive to water chemistry,” Applegate said. “To think of that being threatened is unfathomable for us. We can’t allow that to happen. That’s just too high of a risk to lose the ability to harvest rice and harvest our medicinal plants and animals and fish the way we have done for millennia. It would be one of the greatest travesties that have ever happened to our people.”

Additionally, the Band cites 97 percent of the country’s nickel as being located within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

“When we talk about environmental justice, is that fair?” he said. “Especially for our indigenous communities that have a special relationship to the earth and its resources.”

Applegate said mineral extraction ignores “low-hanging fruit” such as recycling minerals from electronics in landfills and alternatives such as sodium ion batteries.

“There really should be a lot more emphasis on looking at alternatives to mining,” he said.

Malan countered. “We can’t help where Mother Nature puts the high-grade nickel,” he said. “But we can change where we process it or any tailings that have to be stored.”

Last September, the Department of Defense gave Talon Metals $20.6 million to fund exploration to discover more high-grade nickel.

“If you don’t have nickel, you can’t have a Hellfire missile,” Malan said. “You can’t have Virginia-class nuclear submarines, as all the hulls are made from high-tensile, submarine-quality steel that needs nickel as the alloying material.”

The federal support for Talon metals was a blow to the Mille Lacs Band.

“We like to work cooperatively, and in a good way with our federal and state partners,” Applegate said. “In an instance like that, we would have liked to have been consulted before money is being awarded to a proposed project that isn’t even permitted yet. That is a big concern for us.”

He said the Band has reached out to the U.S. Department of Energy, with plans to do the same for the Defense Department.

In the meantime, Talon Metals is undergoing its second round of comments with regulatory agencies and participating tribal governments. A public comment phase will follow, along with an Environmental Impact Statement, featuring models for water and air quality.

From Talon’s perspective, in its effort to create the state’s first nickel mine, everything from here on out is new territory — as dark and unpredictable as an unlit mine shaft.

“We’re hopeful,” Johnson said. “The risk is that Minnesota doesn’t have an operation like this.”

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