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Coalition appeals Twin Metals ruling

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/17/20


REGIONAL— A coalition of nine Minnesota businesses, Ely-based Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, and several other environmental organizations have filed an appeal they hope …

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Coalition appeals Twin Metals ruling


REGIONAL— A coalition of nine Minnesota businesses, Ely-based Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, and several other environmental organizations have filed an appeal they hope will overturn a Trump administration decision to reinstate federal mineral leases for a controversial proposed copper-nickel mining project near Ely.

The coalition, part of the national Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, is asking the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn a March 17 district court ruling that dismissed the group’s claims. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, concluded that the Trump administration had a right to “a mulligan” regarding a prior decision issued by the Obama administration not to renew mineral leases controlled by the Chilean copper mining giant Antofagasta. The company has proposed an underground copper-nickel mining operation, processing plant, and tailings disposal just upstream of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Environmental groups and many local businesses that serve wilderness users strongly opposed the company’s proposal.

While acknowledging that the contract terms that applied to the original mineral leases, issued in 1966, were not expressed clearly, McFadden determined that the Interior Department’s decision was “reasonable,” based on the available evidence and notes that courts can only overturn an agency decision when it is deemed “arbitrary or capricious.”

The Obama administration declined to renew the leases in 2016 after substantial public comment in opposition to the proposed mining operation and after the Forest Service concluded that the mine posed an unacceptable risk to water quality in a major watershed within the BWCAW.

“We are appealing the district court’s ruling because the fate of America’s most popular Wilderness is at stake,” said Tom Landwehr, Executive Director for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. “The U.S. Forest Service not only had the right, but the obligation to cancel Twin Metals’ risky leases. The reversal of this decision by the Trump Administration goes against science, public opinion, and established environmental policy.” 

The coalition remains hopeful that the D.C. appellate court will provide a thorough review of the decision. “We always knew this would be an appellate decision and the DC Court of Appeals is very familiar with cases under the Administrative Procedures Act,” said Becky Rom, chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “They roll up their sleeves and work hard. And with the strong administrative record we have in our case, it’s the kind of appellate court you want."

The court will review the district court decision “de novo”, which means it takes an entirely new look at the case, without deference to the prior court decision. The process is expected to take at a least a year, possibly longer, to reach a decision.

At stake in the case is whether the Trump administration’s renewal of two half-century-old mineral leases was lawful. A ruling against the administration could well reinstate the Obama era decision to cancel the leases, which would deal a severe blow to proposed Twin Metals project.


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