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Long-quiet copper project near Babbitt stirs

The Teck copper mine near Babbitt, once among the largest copper projects proposed in Minnesota but out of the limelight for most of a decade, may be stirring again.

Teck officials met with Babbitt city representatives earlier this month to say they were still working in the area where significant deposits of copper and nickel were confirmed about 10 miles southeast of Babbitt in the 1950s.

"They were just reminding us that they are still here, that they still have their leases. ... They never really left," said Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich.

Vancouver-based Teck, known as Teck Cominco until 2008, took control of the project in 1999. The so-called Mesaba deposit sits between the proposed PolyMet copper mine and the Peter Mitchell taconite iron ore mine operated by Cleveland-Cliffs' Northshore Mining.

Teck is one of Canada's largest mining and energy companies — focusing on copper, coal, zinc and tar sands oil — with eight operations in Canada, two each in Chile and the U.S. and one in Peru.

As recently as 2003 the Teck project appeared to be out ahead of other copper mines proposed in the region. But the Teck deal faltered in the mid-2000s when the company lost the bid for the former LTV Steel Mining processing center near Hoyt Lakes that instead went to rival PolyMet. Teck officials said at the time that they were turning away from the Minnesota project, at least for the time being, to focus on development of other mines overseas.

At the time Teck said the Babbitt-area property, formerly owned by Amax, held an estimated 775 million tons of open-pit reserves and 275 million tons of underground reserves.

The Mesaba project once promised to employ 1,200 people with an investment of more than $1 billion on a project spanning 2,334 acres, the News Tribune reported 13 years ago. There was even discussion at the time of Teck and PolyMet, with adjacent mines, joining efforts.

Since 2006 Teck's Minnesota project has avoided news coverage, and it still isn't mentioned on the company's website. But Teck continued to explore at the site as well as review hundreds of thousands of feet of core samples taken from drill holes. In a 2010 report filed with the University of Minnesota Duluth, Teck reported drilling another 58 core holes in addition to some 636 holes drilled before the company acquired the site.

Refining tests on batches of ore from the site confirmed the copper was high-grade and in relatively low-sulfur rock, the report noted.

Teck officials said in Babbitt that they, like other potential copper projects in Minnesota, are waiting to see what happens with the proposed PolyMet project. They said they are ready to ramp up work at the Babbitt site if PolyMet is permitted and the global copper market strengthens. But they stopped short of offering any timeline.

"Teck continues to evaluate the potential and economics of the Mesaba project however there are no near-term plans to advance project development at this time," Chris Stannell, Teck senior communications specialist, told the News Tribune last week. "We are committed to continuing to engage with local stakeholders to get their input and update them on the project's status."

Even if Teck decided to submit its project for environmental review soon, however, it likely would be a decade away from any mining, Zupancich noted.

"We'll take them now at five (employees) and we'll take them later at 500," she said.

Jess Richards, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Division of Lands and Minerals, said Teck hasn't submitted any timeline as yet.

"Our general understanding is that Teck is continuing its waste characterization and ore analysis with the goal of proposing a project at some point," Richards told the News Tribune. "They still hold all of their state leases just south and east of the Northshore mine."

If Teck's Minnesota project indeed is revived it would rival other proposed copper-nickel projects in Minnesota, including:

  • PolyMet, the Canada-based company with a proposed open-pit mine near Babbitt and a processing center at the former LTV Steel site near Hoyt Lakes, is the only company that has submitted a formal proposal for environmental review and permitting. The company has been in the process of regulatory approval for a decade and still is waiting for key permits to start work building the mine. (PolyMet also has conducted limited exploration in Pine County.)
  • Twin Metals, wholly owned by Antofagasta of Chile, has conducted years of sampling and exploration and has been collecting baseline environmental data for its proposed underground mine near the Kawishiwi River southeast of Ely. The company says it has already invested $450 million on the way to a more-than-$1.5 billion project now on hold pending a federal lands withdrawal from mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
  • Kennecott, a subsidiary of London-based global mining giant Rio Tinto, has been exploring for 15 years under more than 100 tracts on thousands of acres where the state owns the mineral rights clustered around the tiny town of Tamarack, about 50 miles west of Duluth on Highway 210 in Aitkin County. Kennecott has been closing in on a large deposit of copper, nickel and other valuable metals with millions of dollars spent, nearly 250 holes already drilled and more than 23 miles of core samples studied. In 2014, fledgling investment firm Talon Metals agreed to buy into the slow-moving Tamarack project. Talon Metals is now deciding whether to purchase the entire project.
  • Atlanta-based Encampment Minerals Inc. in July received DNR permission to drill 15 additional exploratory holes at its prospective copper mine site about five miles south of Hoyt Lakes, where the company has been exploring since 2009. It's one of four sites in the area known to hold copper where Encampment has been looking.