REGIONAL— The Trump Interior Department has reversed previous legal opinions issued by both the Reagan and Obama administrations and concluded that the Bureau of Land Management has no choice but …
REGIONAL— The Trump Interior Department has reversed previous legal opinions issued by both the Reagan and Obama administrations and concluded that the Bureau of Land Management has no choice but to renew mineral leases to Twin Metals for its proposed copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The latest legal opinion would appear to pave the way for Twin Metals to reapply for two mineral leases on about 4,800 acres of the Superior National Forest, within the Kawishiwi River watershed. The opinion was drafted by Deputy Solicitor Daniel H. Jorjani, who served most recently as Director of Research at the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation. Charles Koch, an avowed libertarian, is one of the largest GOP funders in the country.
The decision was something of a surprise, but appeared to be a reaction to abortive attempts in the U.S. House to restore the mineral leases to Antofagasta, the Chilean copper mining giant that controls Twin Metals, and had controlled the leases until they were cancelled one year ago.
Twin Metals proposed copper-nickel mine had appeared all but dead following the actions by the Obama administration. The company can now reapply for its mineral leases, although it still faces many obstacles, including the project’s questionable financial viability. Meanwhile, the Ely-based Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters issued a statement in response, vowing to sue.
"The Interior Department's decision is a big fat Christmas gift for a giant foreign mining corporation willing to do anything to exploit the watershed of Minnesota's crown jewel wilderness,” said campaign manager Doug Niemala. “It runs contrary to fact, contrary to the law, and contrary to the views of Minnesota voters who love the Boundary Waters and rely on it for thousands of jobs, world-class hunting and fishing, and some of the cleanest water on Earth. We plan to challenge this illegal decision in court.”
Campaign chair Becky Rom said the decision is “wrong on the facts and wrong on the law…we’re going to challenge this is court and are confident we’re going to win. “
It appears that the opinion will not terminate an ongoing study of a proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal. Earlier this year Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, pledged that process would proceed, and the opinion does not alter his promise. But if the federal government ultimately decides to set aside the roughly 234,000 acres of federal land from the federal mineral leasing program, it would have to carve out the lands affected by the Twin Metals lease.
While questions remained in the immediate announcement of the ruling, it appears that the decision renders a lawsuit filed by Twin Metals moot. The company had filed suit in an effort to block the Obama administration’s cancellation of the leases. A measure to restore the mineral leases through congressional action narrowly passed the House in November, but appeared to have little traction in the U.S. Senate.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has voiced strong opposition to the Twin Metals proposal, expressed some anger with the decision. “This shameful reversal by the Trump Administration shows that big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington,” the governor said. “We will have to uncover why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota's priceless Boundary Waters Canoe Area.”
Company officials were more sanguine as of the Timberjay’s early holiday deadline, noting that they were still reviewing the lengthy opinion. “The company will provide further comment following this review,” said company spokesperson Bob McFarlin.
The company has projected the mine could create 650 jobs and operate for at least 30 years.
And that had some GOP state lawmakers expressing support for the ruling.
"It's refreshing to have an administration that understands the importance of mining to Minnesota and the entire United States," Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said in a statement.
"This move brings Minnesota one step closer to thousands of good-paying jobs and billions in revenue that will be a boon to Northeast Minnesota's economy," state Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, added in the statement. "We need government at every level to be a partner and referee rather than an adversary for job-creating projects..."
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak also sees the development as a positive one. “I think it’s in line with the position I’ve maintained from the beginning. If it’s proven it can be done safely, then let’s do it. We’ll follow the science.”
Novak said he’s hopeful that the decision will mean a few more local hirings as Twin Metals begins work on its project again. “If it progresses to the EIS phase, we’ll be getting more government people coming to town, and maybe some of them will choose to live here,” he said.
Yet it appears the economic benefits of the project could be mixed, based on a number of economic analyses. Rom worries that the decision potentially guarantees years, if not decades, of continued deep divisions in Ely over the wisdom and economic benefits and downsides associated with it.
Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.