Earlier this week, more than a dozen businesses and environmental groups filed a motion for summary judgment in their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management and Twin Metals Minnesota. They argue the Trump administration circumvented the law last year when reinstating a pair of mineral leases for Twin Metals to build a copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The plaintiffs — including Voyageur Outward Bound School, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness — are now asking a federal judge to “vacate and set aside” the move “as arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law, and, with respect to the 2018 reversal, in excess of the Bureau’s authority,” according to the 53-page document filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Several Ely-based businesses and groups have been listed as plaintiffs in the motion, such as Piragis Northwoods Company, Inc., Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, Women’s Wilderness Discovery, River Point Resort and Outfitting Co. and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
The Hibbing Daily Tribune reached out to the Ely plaintiffs and Twin Metals for comment. Spokespersons for those reached, including the mining company, provided background information but declined to comment during ongoing litigation.
The court proceedings come several days after pro-mining President Donald J. Trump visited Minnesota, where Republicans like Representative Pete Stauber, of Duluth, as well as a faction of the DFL tout the creation of 650 direct full-time jobs and 1,300 spinoff jobs and economic boosts as reasons to explore the valuable metals in the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters. Meanwhile, Democrats such as Representative Betty McCollum, Minneapolis, seek to stop mining projects they claim would generate acid mine drainage, potentially contaminating forest and waterways. The Interior Department has until mid-May to respond to the motion.
Twin Metals is a subsidiary of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, which has set its sight on operating the state’s largest copper-nickel mine about nine miles southeast of Ely. In December 2016, the Obama administration chose not to renew two federal leases for Twin Metals, which it held for five decades. Instead, the Agriculture and Interior departments proposed to withdraw federal minerals on 234,328 acres of SNF lands from the federal mining leasing program, which included copper-nickel mining, for 20 years. The Forest Service went on to start a two-year environmental assessment of mining in the watershed of the SNF and Boundary Waters. But then in December 2017, the Trump administration’s Interior Department reversed the decision and reinstated both leases.
Then DFL Gov. Mark Dayton blasted the decision to reinstate the leases as a “shameful reversal” that showed “big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington.”
Supportive politicians, such as GOP Representative Tom Emmer, of Otsego, argued that the move proved “a commitment to unwind the politically motivated actions by the previous administration and put Minnesota and the nation on a path to prosperity.”
In September 2018, the Agriculture Department abruptly announced that the agency had “removed a major obstacle to mineral leasing in Minnesota, through the cancellation” of the withdrawal proposal and, in turn, put an end to the environmental assessment. After conducting a “thorough review on this issue and listening to thousands of citizens,” the agency found that the “analysis did not reveal new scientific information.”
The Agriculture Department concluded: “Interested companies may seek to lease minerals in the watershed.”
Stauber and local pro-mining supporters such as Frank Ongaro of Minnesota Mining, have opined how the environmental assessment was unnecessary since Twin Metals had yet to produce a formal mine proposal, which would spak environmental reviews from federal and state agencies.
Before becoming chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Committee, McCollum said she would continue “opposing Trump administration policies that create unacceptable risks for our federal lands and the environment.” Last week, McCollum told Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a hearing that she had long been trying to obtain the 20 months worth of government studies on Twin Metals from the previous year. Perdue did not provide the study as requested.
Meanwhile, Twin Metals announced its appointing of Julie Padilla and the new chief regulatory officer to oversee the release of such plans which she expected to be submitted to the government this year. Padilla’s hiring happened roughly a month after Tom Landwehr, the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources under Dayton, signed on as executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, one of the plaintiffs listed in this week’s motion.
Over the weekend, the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota, published a piece titled, “End the secrecy and release federal BWCA study,” in which the Editorial Board called on the Trump administration to “swiftly release the data, documents and analysis it relied on to make a controversial 2018 decision advancing” the copper-nickel mine. “Until it does, disturbing questions remain about whether the industry-friendly outcome was driven by science or politics,” the editorial reads. “If there’s nothing to hide, there should be no delays in providing this information to the public.”