REGIONAL— Supporters of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely are hopeful that President Trump could breathe new life in the project if he agrees to undo a decision by the Obama administration to deny renewal of federal mineral leases critical to the project.
That decision, issued last December, is being challenged in court by Twin Metals, a venture controlled by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta. But the company likely faces an uphill battle on the legal front, which is why supporters of the project, like Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan, are hoping for a political end-around that could restore the leases and halt a federal review that could block issuance of any new leases in a large portion of the Superior National Forest for the next 20 years.
Nolan, a DFLer, and Rep. Tom Emmer, a conservative Republican who replaced Michelle Bachmann in Minnesota’s Sixth District, met with Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on April 26, to make the case for overturning the Obama administration’s determination. It’s unclear, however, whether Nolan wants the Trump administration to renew the existing leases, or allow the company to apply for new leases. Equally unclear is what kind of public review process, if any, the Trump administration would conduct ahead of any such decision.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said he’d like to see the president issue an executive order putting an end to a study of a proposed 20-year withdrawal of mineral leasing on 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest located within the Rainy River watershed. He’s also supportive of Nolan’s efforts to get the administration to renew the mineral leases. But Novak said he supports that change for one reason: “To get a final determination through a NEPA process. If that comes back indicating a risk, I don’t want it either. But it has not been flushed through the process.”
The U.S. Forest Service, in December, rejected renewal of the mineral leases, concluding that the mine, which would be located along the South Kawishiwi River, would pose a significant threat to the water quality of a large portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The South Kawishiwi is a major tributary river system to the BWCAW and the mine would be located just a few miles upstream of the wilderness boundary. In the agency’s record of decision, Forest Service officials stated that the risks associated with sulfide-based mining are well-known and difficult to contain, particularly in a region with complex hydrogeology, such as in northeastern Minnesota. “The likelihood of these ore bodies being exposed to water is very high, and given these particular ore bodies’ composition, resulting drainage from the mine workings and mining wastes are likely to be highly acidic,” concluded the Forest Service in moving to block lease renewal.
“Because of the hydrology and hydrogeology of this particular area, should contamination occur, it could cover a very broad region.”
Forest Service officials also noted that a portion of one of the two federal mineral leases overlaps with a state-enacted mining buffer zone established by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1991 to provide further protection to water quality in the wilderness. The DNR prohibits the issuance of state mineral leases or mining development within the buffer zone, putting Twin Metals’ former federal leases in conflict with state directives.
But Nolan is confident that the federal decision can be reversed nonetheless. “I am optimistic that we will be able to work with the new administration to allow this initiative to move forward,” Nolan said in a statement issued last week to the Washington Post, which reported on the meeting with Zinke. “Having met with all the involved agencies and parties, I know renewing these leases is the sensible and correct thing to do.”
While it would be unusual, and potential grist for litigation, for a federal agency to tear up a record of decision and reverse course based on a change in administration, Novak said the initial decision lacks credibility. “The Forest Service was bought off,” he said, and faced pressure from mining opponents who had influence within the Obama administration.
When asked if he had faith in the Trump administration’s commitment to protection of the Boundary Waters from mining-related pollution, Novak demurred. “I’ve been around long enough to have no confidence in any administration to do anything but act in a political way,” he said.
Rep. Nolan declined to answer the same question. His office, in a statement, noted that Nolan has not yet “voiced his support for a Twin Metals project, as a project has not yet been proposed.”
“What Rep. Nolan continues to support is allowing mineral exploration to proceed so we can assess what resources are present in the area. With that said, if a formal mine plan of operations were to ever be proposed, he would carefully evaluate it, as would the appropriate regulators and the wider public through the comprehensive environmental review process already in place.”
Mine opponents react
Nolan’s effort has angered Twin Metals opponents, who believed the mine was effectively dead following the decisions last December. And given the proximity of the proposed mine to the Boundary Waters, Minnesotans share some of the same concerns as the Forest Service and other critics of the project. While Minnesotans are overwhelmingly supportive of taconite mining, a recent statewide survey found 60 percent of residents opposed a copper-nickel mine near the 1.1-million acre wilderness area.
“Rick Nolan’s continued efforts to put the future of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in jeopardy for the benefit of a Chilean mining conglomerate with a history of environmental violations, disregard for local people, and highly questionable ethical practices shows just how out of touch he is with Minnesotans,” said Doug Niemela, National Campaign Manager of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “By large margins the people of this state want the Boundary Waters protected from the threat posed by sulfide-ore copper mining. By seeking to overturn the well-reasoned decision of the U.S. Forest Service ,Rep. Nolan is again showing his willingness to ignore the science and put at risk the future of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the thousands of jobs that depend upon it.”
Critics of the Twin Metals proposal point to Antofagasta’s troubling environmental record in Chile, where the company owns much of that country’s mineral wealth. Last October, Reuters reported that the company faces as much as $23.8 million in fines and possible closure of its Los Pelambres Mine, the largest mine in Chile, over major violations of its environmental permits.
In 2014, the Chilean Supreme Court ordered the company to restore drinking water supplies to a community near the Los Pelambres Mine after the company installed a tailings dam that altered the flow and polluted groundwater that the community depended on for drinking.
Ties to Trump family
Opponents of the mine and ethics lawyers from both U.S. political parties, are also raising concerns over Andronico Luksic’s connections to the Trump family. Luksic is the billionaire owner of Antofagasta, which controls the Twin Metals venture, and he has a history of offering perks to the children of top elected officials. Two years ago, Luksic embroiled Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in controversy after he arranged a $10 million loan from a bank he controlled to Bachelet’s daughter shortly after Chile’s 2013 election.
Here in the U.S., Luksic purchased a $5.5 million mansion in an expensive Washington, D.C. neighborhood, in late December, 2016. Twelve days later, press reports confirmed that the 7,000-square foot mansion’s new tenants would be Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, both of whom serve as special advisors to the president.
Press reports did not detail what kind of rental arrangement the couple has with Luksic, but it raised immediate concerns with ethics lawyers who noted that top government officials typically avoid financial and contractual entanglements with individuals or companies that are seeking to influence policy decisions, or have ongoing litigation with the government.
Twin Metals officials have told major media organizations that they are actively lobbying the Trump administration to overturn the Obama administration’s cancellation of its mineral leases. The company is also suing the U.S. government over the right of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to deny renewal of the company’s mineral leases.
A representative of Luksic told the Wall Street Journal that Luksic had purchased the D.C. mansion as an investment and that the rental to Trump’s immediate family was merely coincidental.