Twin Metals’ demand for a mine plan review is a farce

August 31, 2022 8:33 am

Seagull Lake in the Boundary Waters. Superior National Forest is home to 20% of all fresh water in the entire national forest system. Photo by Christina MacGillivray.

On August 22, Twin Metals sued the Interior Department in a shameless effort to gain sulfide-ore copper mining leases next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Biden Administration had nullified those leases after the prior administration renewed them.

The accompanying propaganda pitch by Twin Metals, whose owner is the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is as baseless as the lawsuit. They demand environmental review of a hypothetical mining project that is not viable – it doesn’t possess the leases it depends on and, thanks to the wisdom of Gov. Tim Walz’s administration in prohibiting the use of state land, it has no place to put its toxic tailings.

Antofagasta’s Twin Metals complains that it’s not fair unless environmental review occurs in a permitting process for a mine plan. It does that because it knows it cannot pass the initial, crucial test.

Environmental review of sulfide-ore copper mining on national forest lands in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters is underway right now. It follows the long-established federal process for determining if federal public lands of high value or unique vulnerability should be open for mining at all.

This very process was employed by the Trump Administration for areas in Washington, Oregon and Montana. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has described this process for the headwaters of the Boundary Waters as even more important than those mining bans.

Twin Metals would rather take Minnesotans down a rabbit hole by demanding state and federal review of a non-viable mine project. It relies on the unlawful actions of the Trump Administration to stake this frivolous claim.

In 2015, Antofagasta purchased the near-bankrupt Duluth Metals and its subsidiary Twin Metals for pennies on the dollar. With the purchase, Antofagasta acquired renewal applications for two expired federal mineral leases.

But even before Antofagasta’s purchase, the U.S. Forest Service, alarmed at the potential for damage to the Boundary Waters if sulfide-ore copper mining were to proceed on neighboring lands just upstream of the Wilderness, was studying the likely negative impacts.

The Forest Service announced its preliminary decision by June 2016 and, after an opportunity for the public to comment, issued its science-based decisions to withhold consent to renewal of the two federal leases and to request a 20-year mining ban on national forest lands in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters.

The Forest Service has stood by these decisions through three federal administrations (Obama, Trump, and Biden). Donald Trump believed it was to his personal political benefit to open closed portions of the Superior National Forest to sulfide-ore copper mining; at a political rally for candidate Pete Stauber, Trump announced exactly that.

Nevertheless, despite intense political pressure from Trump, the Forest Service refused to consent to renewed Twin Metals leases. Trump’s top lawyer at the Interior Department, a political appointee formerly with the right-wing Koch brothers, ruled that such consent was not required, leading to the unlawful renewal of the leases in 2019.

Fortunately, this action was addressed by the current Department of Interior, and the illegal leases were cancelled last January.

Six federal administrations – three Democrat and three Republican – consistently followed the law that governs federal mineral leases in the Superior National Forest. These six federal administrations read the law correctly, that the U.S. Forest Service must consent to all mining decisions.

Only one administration – Trump’s – ignored the law and the consent requirement.

In December 2019, while Twin Metals held illegal federal leases, Twin Metals submitted a mine plan of operation to the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for environmental review, a precursor to permitting.

After two years of review, the BLM and the DNR rejected the Twin Metals mine plan for failure to meet the most basic legal requirements necessary for review, that it have a right to mine the public minerals it sought and a right to store its toxic tailings on state land.

Twin Metals and its political supporters now claim foul – arguing bizarrely that Twin Metals should be entitled to this review for a project that cannot meet the most basic legal requirements and no longer exists as a practical matter.

That Twin Metals seems to believe it is above the law is no surprise.

Even a brief search reveals a catalogue of bribery schemes, community betrayals, and environmental destruction emanating from the Chilean mining conglomerate and its ruling family, the Luksic family.

Many Minnesotans will remember how they kicked off their million-dollar lobbying of the Trump Administration by buying a mansion in Washington, D.C. in December 2016 and renting it to Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner.

More recently, the patriarch of the family, Andronico, made news throughout South America by meeting with his disgraced business partner, Horacio Cartes, the former Paraguayan president, who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Government for corruption, money laundering and ties to terrorism.

Antofagasta acts as if America’s laws don’t apply to it. The shocking question is why northern Minnesota politicians support Antofagasta, to detriment of the law, democracy, and the well-being of our region and the country.

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Becky Rom
Becky Rom

Becky Rom, an Ely resident, is the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.