REGIONAL— A coalition of Minnesota business owners and environmental groups has filed a new legal challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate two federal mineral leases …
REGIONAL— A coalition of Minnesota business owners and environmental groups has filed a new legal challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate two federal mineral leases critical to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely.
It’s the second legal challenge mounted by the same group of plaintiffs against the 2018 decision by the Trump administration to reinstate mineral leases that had been cancelled in waning days of the Obama administration.
“Nothing about the Twin Metals lease renewal process has been normal,” said Tom Landwehr, former Minnesota DNR Commissioner, who now serves as the executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “And the environmental review of the lease renewal is no exception.”
According to Landwehr, “the federal agencies conducted the most superficial of reviews and, by their own admission, did not even consider the impacts of mining in renewing the leases. Such shoddy analyses on a proposal as devastating as allowing sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters is unconscionable.”
The four-count lawsuit specifically alleges that the U.S. Forest Service acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it failed to insist on changes to the new leases issued by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to address environmental concerns about the proposed mine that the Forest Service had documented in a 2016 report.
“The Forest Service did not withdraw its December 14, 2016 findings that developing a mine would pose ‘unacceptable . . . inherent potential risk,’” argue the plaintiffs. “Nonetheless, the Forest Service included no stipulations to the leases to prevent those risks and even worked with the [BLM] to add stipulations that would limit the Forest Service’s ability to withhold consent...”
Plaintiffs argue that the Forest Service’s action “directly contradicts its previous position,” and violates federal law that requires Forest Service consent for any mineral development in the Superior National Forest. “The Forest Service has offered no justification for its policy reversal, which ‘rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy,’” conclude the plaintiffs.
The suit also alleges that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement prior to renewing the Twin Metals mineral leases in an open-ended way that does not retain the agency’s ability to restrict mine development on the affected lands. “The EA did not evaluate the impacts of the associated proposed mine, nor did it meaningfully consider lease stipulations that would have mitigated the impacts of the mine,” argue the plaintiffs in their brief. “By failing to prepare an EIS, which would have taken a hard look at the environmental impacts of a mine on the doorstep of the pristine Boundary Waters, in the context of a decision that could prevent or reduce that impact, the Bureau violated NEPA.”
In addition, the plaintiffs argue that the BLM violated NEPA by failing to consider the cumulative impacts associated with a mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters as part of the more limited environmental analysis, or EA, that the BLM actually completed on the lease renewal.
Finally, the plaintiffs contend that the BLM failed to consider alternatives to the proposed mine leases and mine, as required by NEPA. “This alternatives analysis is the ‘heart’ of NEPA review,” wrote the plaintiffs in their brief. “Consideration of reasonable alternatives is necessary to ensure that the agency has taken into account all possible approaches to, and potential environmental impacts of, a particular project. These alternatives must include a ‘no-action’ alternative.”
The new court action, filed Wednesday, comes as the coalition prepares to appeal a federal district court ruling last month that found in favor of the administration and Twin Metals on a separate legal argument over whether the Trump administration acted legally when it reinstated leases that had already been denied by the previous administration. A federal judge appointed by President Trump had rejected that argument and that case is now headed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The proposed Twin Metals mine plan, which the company submitted to regulators last December, is currently in the early stages of environmental review. The federal review is being overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, while the Minnesota DNR is conducting its own separate review of the mine plan. There is no timeline for when such a review might be completed, yet the refusal of the Trump administration to share relevant data with the DNR could well slow the state’s review efforts.
Critics see special interests at work
Environmental critics of the administration’s actions have called the Twin Metals lease renewal a “give-away” to a foreign billionaire, Andronico Luksic, who controls the Chilean copper giant Antofagasta, which owns the Twin Metals project. Luksic purchased a Washington D.C. mansion shortly after Trump’s election, which he then rented to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
“This is just one in a series of handouts to a Chilean mining company seeking to profit off the destruction of one of America’s most treasured landscapes,” said Landwehr. “We simply can’t and won’t let this go unchallenged.”
The Timberjay contacted Twin Metals for a comment for this story. The company did not immediately respond. Any comment will be added when it becomes available.