REGIONAL— Top Trump administration officials in the Interior and Agriculture departments are facing increasing congressional scrutiny over their decision to reinstate federal leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely and to cancel a study of a proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal affecting a portion of the Superior National Forest.
In a March 1 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, the chairs of three congressional committees or subcommittees issued an expansive request for documents related to agency decision-making on both the Twin Metals leases and the proposed withdrawal. Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Betty McCollum, of St. Paul, who chairs the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, and Alan Lowenthal, chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, are making the request.
The Democratic House members are seeking what is likely to entail thousands of pages of government documents, communications, and scientific or economic reports that administration officials used to justify the cancellation of an environmental assessment of the proposed withdrawal as well as reinstatement of the Twin Metals leases. The Obama Interior Department had cancelled those mineral leases in late 2016, a decision that appeared at the time to all but end prospects for the proposed mine. Yet the Trump administration reinstated the leases last May after the department’s newly-installed legal counsel, Daniel Jorjani, issued a legal opinion concluding that the cancellation was the result of “legal error.” That legal opinion and the subsequent decision to reinstate the leases is currently under challenge in federal court.
The members of Congress appear skeptical of Jorjani’s claim, and take issue with his history. “Prior to issuing his convoluted and legally questionable opinion reversing the expiration of Twin Metals’ mining leases near the Boundary Waters, Jorjani made a career helping companies acquire energy resources in foreign countries,” wrote the three chairs in their letter. “This is strikingly similar to what he is doing now: handing U.S. resources to Antofagasta, the Chilean owner of Twin Metals. Antofagasta met with Jorjani three times in the months leading up to the issuance of his opinion in December 2017.”
The members of Congress also take issue with the administration’s decision to intercede to halt an ongoing environmental review of a proposed mineral withdrawal. The Trump Interior Department has allowed two other withdrawal studies to move forward, only cancelling the one affecting the Superior National Forest. In announcing the cancellation, the Trump officials stated that there was no new scientific information related to the risks of sulfide-based copper-nickel mining on the Superior National Forest. “We reject your assertion,” the House members state in their letter. “Rather, the abrupt cancellation implies that the mounting evidence against mining that emerged did not support your position, and so you instead chose to waste taxpayer funds, ignore public comments, and suppress scientific information rather than have this evidence revealed to the public.”
The members also question the proposed mine’s economic viability, noting that the original lease term dates back to 1966, yet the deposits in question have yet to be mined more than half a century later.
Back in 1966, according to previous reporting by the Timberjay, officials with the Interior Department had objected to demands by the International Nickel Company, or INCO, for unusually low royalty rates and a longer-than-normal lease term given the marginal economics of the deposit in question. Officials ultimately agreed to the friendly terms under pressure from then-Eighth District Rep. John Blatnik, who was hoping a new mining venture could provide employment for Ely mine workers left jobless by the then-pending closure of the Pioneer Mine.
The two mineral leases issued to INCO, which have since been assumed by Twin Metals and affiliated Franconia Minerals, did provide for three subsequent ten-year renewals, but only if the mine was under production within the initial 20-year term. “Despite a low royalty rate, two renewals, and royalty waivers, Twin Metals produced nothing,” write the three members of Congress. “Even the Reagan administration was skeptical these leases were worthy of a first discretionary renewal, questioning whether a lease should be renewed when production had yet to occur.”
The members further question the national interest in handing over rights to U.S. minerals to a foreign corporation at this time. “The bottom line is this: for more than half a century, Twin Metals and administrations from both parties have questioned the economic and environmental feasibility of hardrock mining leases in the Rainy River watershed. Which begs the question: why push this operation now? Copper and nickel are not in short supply; they did not even make it on to your own administration’s overly broad critical minerals list.”
The members of Congress are requesting the following:
1) All documents and communications between federal agencies and the White House regarding the reinstatement of the Twin Metals leases and renewal application as well as the September 2018 decision to cancel the withdrawal application and associated environmental review.
2) All documents and communications forming the basis for the cancellation of the withdrawal application, including items mentioned in a press release put out by the Agriculture Department announcing the cancellation. Specifically, that press release cited a mineral resources report, an economic impact assessment, a biological assessment, and assessments of the “potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.
The members are also seeking a detailed list of all contracted work that was part of the environmental assessment, all scientific reports or letter received as part of that assessment, as well as the dates and names of participants of all meetings by federal officials on the withdrawal proposal since President Trump assumed office.
3) All documents and communications regarding additional pending or potential mineral actions in the Superior National Forest.