The Duluth Complex: a Major Asset of Northern Minnesota

St. Scholastica's Student Newspaper
The Cable
By: Alexandra Crum - Student Journalist -
Duluth is rich in copper and nickel. The red region shows the Duluth Mining Complex, the Earth's largest undeveloped copper-nickel deposit.

Duluth is rich in copper and nickel. The red region shows the Duluth Mining Complex, the Earth's largest undeveloped copper-nickel deposit.

        The Lake Superior chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS) hosted a speaker here on campus to discuss the Duluth Mining Complex on Wednesday, November 13. The speaker, Dr. Jim Miller, works at the Department of Geological Sciences in the Precambrian Research Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

       So just what is the Duluth Complex and why did chemists come to Scholastica to hear about it? The Complex is a major deposit of copper, nickel, and other important metals that extends up the North Shore. First discovered in the late 40's, it is now considered to be the largest undeveloped copper-nickel deposit on Earth.

       Just how extensive its deposits are is still unknown. It could be mined for several years after Northern Minnesota's iron mines run dry and would be a major boost to the area's economy. However, environmental concerns have prevented the complex from being mined thus far. You may have heard of the mining company Polymet and its efforts to mine a part of the Complex. Critics of the company have expressed concern at the possibility of a mining operation poisoning the environment with a by-product of the minerals called "sulfide."

        In his presentation, Dr. Miller sought to explain the inevitability of mining the Complex. "‘If' is not part of the equation anymore," he said.

        He pointed out that the U.S. is currently the number one consumer of mineral resources, despite producing little of them. Copper, one of the major metals in the complex, is especially important. It's a vital component in producing green energy; in fact, there's almost 5 tons of copper in a single wind turbine. Another metal that can be mined from the Duluth Complex, palladium, is an important component in limiting greenhouse gas emissions in cars.

        He also addressed the environmental concerns of what is often called "sulfide mining." "The technology to do this right has existed for some time," he said. He took examples from other important mines from around the world, pointing to some as an indication of what not to do and to some as a template for what could be done right.

        Dr. Miller finished his presentation by adding, "the base and precious metal deposits of the Duluth Complex are a world class resource that will be mined....someday." When they are, not only will it help Duluth's economy, but it could also provide jobs for some future Scholastica graduates.