Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin speaks at the launch of the 'Water over Nickel' campaign on Tuesday, March 14, opposing the proposed Tamarack Mine planned close to the Mille Lacs reservation. Credit: Euan Kerr | MPR News

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The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, along with other tribal and environmental groups, launched a campaign Tuesday to encourage state officials to prioritize clean water over a proposed nickel mine in Aitkin County.

The initiative, called Water over Nickel, aims to raise awareness of the risks associated with the proposed Tamarack Mine. It would be an underground nickel mine that Talon Metals wants to build near the tiny town of Tamarack, about 50 miles west of Duluth.

Drill cores from exploration for the proposed Tamarack Mine, about 50 miles west of Duluth, Minnesota, are shown here in 2013. Credit: Dan Kraker | MPR News

Talon has positioned the project as a major link in a domestic supply chain to build batteries for electric vehicles, a key component of broader strategies to develop a carbon-free economy to combat climate change.

But the Mille Lacs Band, along with its allies, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, argue a mine would endanger water resources in the Mississippi and St. Croix River watersheds, along with drinking water for Band members who live only about a mile away from the proposed mine site.

“The Band supports transitioning to a green economy, but doing so in a way that does not cause further environmental harm,” said Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin. “The idea that the green economy rests solely on nickel mining is a false premise, leveraged by groups who want to generate income at the expense of the planet.”

Talon responds

Talon Metals spokesperson Todd Malan said the company plans to submit its mine plan to state regulators in the second quarter of this year. That will kick off an extensive environmental review and permitting process with state officials.

In a statement, Malan said the company recognizes that tribal voices have not been heard in the past, and that the Mille Lacs Band is taking steps to make sure that their concerns about underground mining in the region are heard.

“Our team members that live in the region sincerely believe we can domestically produce the minerals and metals required to address climate change while being environmentally responsible. We do not believe that America must make a choice between independence from foreign sources of raw materials like nickel and protecting the environment we all cherish,” Malan said.

Even though Talon has not submitted its detailed mine plans yet, last year the company inked a deal with Tesla to supply the EV manufacturer with nickel concentrate for battery production.

A poster displayed at the launch of the Water over Nickel Campaign on Tuesday, March 14, opposing the proposed Tamarack Mine near the Mille Lacs Reservation. Credit: Euan Kerr | MPR News

Waste plan

Talon also announced its intentions last October to build its processing plant and waste tailings basin for the mine at a site in North Dakota, in part, Malan said, “to address concerns about mineral processing and waste management.” The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded the company a $114 million grant to help build the facility.

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Commissioner of Natural Resources Kelly Applegate said Talon’s decision to move its processing to North Dakota alleviated some of their concerns, but not all.

“There’s still the fact that there’s going to be a large hole that’s dug. There’s going to be disruption to the water flows of the area. There’s issues of how water is going to be treated that that we are concerned about. The Band is really concerned about potential pollution that could happen,” Applegate said.

CONTRIBUTING REPORTER Dan Kraker is based in Duluth, Minn., and covers northeastern Minnesota for MPR News.