A coalition of environmental groups and canoe outfitters sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, arguing federal agencies failed to conduct a thorough environmental review ahead of the renewal of key leases to Twin Metals, the proposed copper-nickel mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The groups and businesses, which are suing the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, argued in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. that the federal agencies did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, when reviewing the leases and the Forest Service "arbitrarily approved" the leases despite finding evidence the mine could damage the BWCAW.
“Nothing about the Twin Metals lease renewal process has been normal, and the environmental review of the lease renewal is no exception. The federal agencies conducted the most superficial of reviews and, by their own admission, did not even consider the impacts of mining in renewing the leases," Tom Landwehr, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, one of the groups leading the effort, said in a news release.
The leases, first issued in 1966, were rescinded in the final days of the Obama administration in 2016 over concern the mine would pollute the BWCAW if it were to ever open in the same watershed. The Trump administration then reinstated the leases in 2017, and moved to renew the leases in 2018. The 10-year leases were then formally renewed in May 2019.
The groups also argue the federal agencies:
Did not consider an alternative of denying renewal, a requirement under NEPA.
Did not consider any negative environmental impacts from the potential development of a copper-nickel mine.
Did not include dozens of scientific reports about sulfide-ore copper mining in the headwaters of the BWCAW, including the reports cited by the Forest Service in its decision of December 2016 rescinding the leases.
Did not comply with the Forest Service’s consent authorization.
Environmental groups Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, The Wilderness Society, Izaak Walton League of America and Center for Biological Diversity also joined the lawsuit.
"If Twin Metals were to open its toxic mine near the Boundary Waters, it would permanently pollute some of the cleanest water in the country. In renewing Twin Metals’ leases, the Trump administration acted illegally under federal law," Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a news release.
Twin Metals, a mining company owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, wants to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, within the Rainy River Watershed and on the edge of the BWCAW. Critics of the mine worry it could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW, while supporters say it would improve the region's economy.
The project faces a years-long review from both state and federal agencies.
In a statement, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said, "The renewal of the leases was lawful and fully compliant with all environmental and other requirements.
"No mining can occur under the leases prior to the approval of a mine plan. Any proposed mine project, like the one submitted by Twin Metals in late 2019, will be subject to thorough environmental review by federal, tribal and state governments and will include multiple opportunities for public participation,” Graul said.
Other plaintiffs on the lawsuit included Ely Outfitting Company, Boundary Waters Guide Service, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Northstar Canoe, Piragis Northwoods Company, River Point Resort and Outfitting Company, Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, Voyageur Outward Bound School, Wenonah Canoe and Women's Wilderness Discovery.
Separately, the coalition sued the Department of Interior in 2018 over its decision to reinstate the mineral leases, arguing pollution in the BWCAW would hurt their businesses. Environmental groups then filed two separate, but similar, lawsuits arguing the lease reinstatement was unlawful. All three lawsuits challenging the mineral leases eventually merged.
A federal judge in March sided with the Department of Interior, but the groups have appealed the decision.
The Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to the News Tribune's request for comment Wednesday, but a spokesperson did point to past news releases the department has made about the lease renewals.
In March, the department celebrated the court's decision to uphold its lease renewal to Twin Metals because it reaffirmed the department "does not have the discretion to deny the (lease) renewal application.” It also pledged to thoroughly study the mine's potential environmental impacts as it considers the Twin Metals mine proposal.
This story was updated several times with quotes from Twin Metals and the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The final version was published at 1:15 p.m. May 6. The initial version was posted at 8:30 a.m. May 6.