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County says no to mineral exploration in Mahtowa Township

It almost seemed like a slam dunk that members of the Carlton County Board would approve a conditional use permit to allow mining exploration in Mahtowa Township, but commissioners showed Tuesday that there is no such thing as a "done deal."

Before the board were two applications from Minerals Processing Corporation of Duluth for conditional use permits that would allow the company to carry out exploratory drilling on two separate parcels of privately owned property in Silver and Mahtowa townships. At stake were mining rights to any nickel or copper deposits that might be deemed worthy of extraction by the company further on down the line.

Though both applications had earlier received the unanimous approval of the county's planning and zoning committee, and no similar applications for mineral exploration permitting have been denied by the county to date, the board cast a unanimous vote to approve one and deny the other.

On hand for Tuesday's board meeting were half a dozen residents of Mahtowa Township, several of whom live within a half a mile or so of the proposed mineral exploration site, located on land owned by Matthew and Amy DeCaigny. All voiced their objections to having such an operation in proximity to their residences and land holdings.

"I have two forties right next to [landowner] Matthew DeCaigny, who doesn't even live there," said resident Wylie Jones, "and he has to pass through my property to get to his. I am concerned about the effect of such a mining operation on our ground water and on the value of the residents' properties. I don't want [this type of operation] in the area."

Jones presented a petition to the board signed by some 20 area residents in opposition to the proposed operation. He explained that the DeCaignys, along with three or four others, currently have a private easement across his land to get to their property, and he stated if a conditional use permit is granted to Minerals Processing Corporation for exploratory drilling on the DeCaignys' land, he would

block the company from utilizing that easement.

"I don't want a mine in my back yard, either," reiterated three-year area resident Barry LeBlanc. "You are our representatives," he directed to commissioners. "Please represent us."

Representatives of Minerals Processing were also on hand at Tuesday's meeting, and they assured the Mahtowa Township residents that the company "tries very hard to be a good neighbor" when it comes to this type of operation. They also explained that the exploration process causes only minimal disturbance, with up to four drillings of around two and a half inches in diameter located within a 50-foot-square space.

Commissioner Dick Brenner questioned what would happen if the findings were significant enough to merit actual mining of the deposits.

Representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, also at Tuesday's meeting, said first an Environmental Assessment Worksheet would be required along with two public hearings, possibly leading up to a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement, which would require

additional public hearings. Then, depending on the nature of the mineral deposits, the decision to

proceed with either underground or open pit mining would determine the size and scope of the operation.

"The larger issue is not just the exploratory drilling," responded Mahtowa Township resident Bob Dockendorf. "If something comes back positive, there will be no way we can stop it. None of us wants to

relocate. It would take up space and destroy the rural atmosphere - and what about the water? I understand it takes a lot of it for the mining process, and many of us live downhill from the site. I believe it's time to put a stop to this right now - while we still can."

Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler advised the board that the legal standard in denying a request of this nature is whether the board would be acting "arbitrarily or capriciously."

"I wouldn't want this type of operation next door to me, either," said Commissioner Ted Pihlman. "It's pretty hard to look out there [at the people in the audience] and say they don't count."

The application for the conditional use permit was put to a vote, and commissioners unanimously voted to deny it.

No residential opposition was lodged regarding the application for a similar permit for exploratory drilling on land owned by Clarice and Sonia Rowe in Silver Township, however, and the permit was unanimously approved.

Bruce Benson, county planning and zoning director, advised commissioners that he and Pertler should meet to formulate a formal list of findings in support of the board's decision to deny the application for a permit in Mahtowa Township, to be added to the record within the coming week. The board concurred.