Department of Interior in Need of a Paddle? Lawsuit filed over approval of mines in Boundary Waters Canoe Area

A coalition of nine Minnesota businesses and an environmental group filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. against the U.S. Department of the Interior challenging its decision to reinstate federal mineral rights leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area near Ely, Minnesota. The lawsuit alleges the Department of the Interior exceeded its authority and poses an immediate threat to businesses, the environment and the region’s outdoor recreation economy. The plaintiffs include four outfitters, a resort, two canoe companies, two wilderness discovery programs, and the environmental group, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

Last month, the Department of the Interior reversed a 2016 decision by President Barack Obama’s administration and reinstated Twin Metals’ expired mineral rights leases. The Obama administration, citing the potential harm to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from acid mine drainage, rejected Twin Metals’ application to renew their mineral rights lease. Twin Metals has proposed a mine site upstream from the popular wilderness area, which is part of the Superior National Forest. The official lease reinstatement followed a legal opinion from the Department of the Interior’s solicitor that concluded that Twin Metals has the right to renew its two leases. The solicitor determined that because Twin Metals’ leases date back to 1966, the Department of the Interior did not have the discretion to deny Twin Metals’ leases for the mining of copper, nickel and precious metals under laws enacted after that date. The complaint alleges the Department of the Interior’s reversal was “arbitrary and capricious” and asserts that the original decision under the Obama administration was correct. The suit argues that the original decision was based on findings by the U.S. Forest Service that the project posed unacceptable risks of causing “serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.”

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area contains a large mineral deposit, mostly copper and nickel, that has an estimated worth of $300-$500 billion. However, the valuable minerals are contained in sulfide minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants if exposed to air and water. The plaintiffs argue their businesses depend on the Boundary Waters “remaining in an undiminished, pure state and on the Superior National Forest remaining a welcoming place for tourists and recreational users.” Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company, said that the proposed mine would drive away his customers. “They will stop using substantial areas of the Boundary Waters, including important entry points and major canoe routes,” Mr. Piragis said. “Others will cease to visit at all because it will no longer be the place they love and remember.”

Twin Metals, which is owned by the Chilean mining company Antofagasta, has proposed an underground mine and ore processing facility to utilize the leases. Twin Metals estimates the mine would create 650 direct jobs as well as 1,300 spinoff jobs in the region. Twin Metals spokesman Bob McFarlin said the company is reviewing the suit. “Twin Metals firmly believes there is no basis for a court to disturb the reinstatement of the leases, and will take appropriate steps to defend the government’s actions.” We’ll continue to monitor this suit as it provides the newest example of environmental groups attempts to use the courts to stymy the Trump Administration’s efforts to loosen regulations on regulated industry.

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