By John Myers, Forum Communications

DULUTH - The state’s top elected officials turned down a package of state leases to mining companies Thursday that would have allowed exploration and drilling in northeastern Minnesota.

The state Executive Council in St. Paul voted 3-1 to delay the leases pending a decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals on whether an Environmental Assessment Worksheet should be done to gauge potential environmental impact where the exploration will take place.

Mining companies want the leases to expand their search for copper, nickel, gold, platinum and other valuable metals away from known deposits and into new areas. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources ruled in October that no environmental review was necessary before the leases are awarded. But several northern Minnesota citizens disagreed, and last month they filed a petition with the Court of Appeals.

The same citizens on Thursday asked the Executive Council to hold off on approving the leases until the court has ruled.

Gov. Mark Dayton, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and State Auditor Rebecca Otto agreed, and voted to delay action. Attorney General Lori Swanson supported the DNR leases. Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon was not at Thursday’s meeting in St. Paul.

Dayton went as far as scolding DNR officials for not making the minerals lease process more open and accessible for public input, and he called for a meeting in his office in the near future to include concerned citizens and top DNR staff.

It’s the second time in as many years that the Executive Council has delayed mineral leases, although for different reasons. In 2011 the board delayed action after many private landowners said they were not aware the state held mineral rights under their land and that the state was about to allow mining companies to drill there. Despite sympathizing with the landowners’ plight, and delaying action for several months, the council eventually approved the 2011 leases in May this year.

This time the issue isn’t private property but what kind of impact drilling and other exploration activity might have on public and private lands, especially in sensitive areas near wetlands, trout streams, state parks and trails. Several of the latest proposed leases are in Lake County, near state parks and North Shore trout streams, said Matt Tyler, the Finland resident who has led the effort for environmental review before mineral leases are approved.

“We’re happy they heard our concerns and that they are going to let the (legal) process work itself out. We felt we made some pretty compelling arguments that these leases are for some sensitive areas that really could be impacted by exploration,” Tyler said after the meeting.

It’s not clear how soon the Appeals Court may hear the case and issue a decision.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said his agency isn’t necessarily against looking at the environmental impacts of exploration but that the timing for an environmental assessment is wrong. The DNR generally weighs in at the point mining companies issue an exploration plan for specific sites.

“Until we know when and where and how the (exploration) is going to happen, we don’t have a project, and you can’t do an EAW without a project to base it on. That’s why we denied the petition,” Landwehr told the News Tribune, referring to the residents’ request for an environmental assessment worksheet. “We put all kinds of (environmental) restrictions on exploration activities, but we do it when we have a plan to work off.”

Mineral leases are auctioned off nearly every year by the DNR. The companies pay a small fee to the state for exclusive exploration rights for 25 years and then, if any minerals are mined, the state gets big royalties. The tracts are all locations where the state owns the mineral rights, although the surface land may be state, county or privately owned.

The leases now in question were auctioned off in October by the DNR. Three companies won the right to explore under 31 tracts of land on 9,509 across Aitkin, St. Louis and Lake Counties.

Twenty-one bids are for tracts under northern St. Louis County forests by Atlanta- based Encampment Minerals Inc. Nine bids are under Lake County lands, made by a St. Paul-based company called DMC USA LLC. One bid is under Aitkin County land by Colorado-based MMG USA Exploration LLC.

The DNR and mining supporters - as well as official state law and policy - say the state mineral exploration leases are a critical first step in pinpointing marketable deposits of minerals and the first step toward creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into state school funds when mining royalties begin flowing into the state as mining begins.

Opponents have said the system mostly avoids environmental review and public scrutiny and is stacked against landowners who have little chance to say no to mining companies. They say exploration and drilling will be disruptive to their north woods lifestyle, while mining opponents question whether copper mining can be conducted without environmental damage caused from acidic runoff when copper is exposed.