A coalition of environmental groups and canoe outfitters allege Republican congressmen Pete Stauber, of Hermantown, and Tom Emmer, of Delano, illegally pressured federal agencies to remove requirements from mineral leases later granted to Twin Metals, the company proposing a copper-nickel mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In an amended complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the coalition, led by groups such as Save the Boundary Waters and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, argue emails from legislative assistants to Stauber and Emmer show "undue political interference" to remove a stipulation that would’ve required the U.S. Forest Service to agree to any future mineral lease renewal issued by the Bureau of Land Management.
While the stipulation was included in the leases' December 2018 draft environmental assessment, it was not included in the final leases issued in May 2019 to Twin Metals.
The groups said a March 2019 email from a Stauber legislative assistant to an Emmer legislative assistant and member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's secretary office set up a meeting to discuss concerns over the stipulation. The email chain later shows the trio scheduling a meeting with Chris Marklund, chief of staff for the undersecretary of natural resources and environment at the USDA. The Forest Service is part of the USDA.
"The company (Twin Metals) is getting increasingly concerned about the stipulations put forward by the Forest Service on the up-or-down vote they require for mineral lease renewals every 10 years," the email said. "Both Reps. Emmer and Stauber are increasingly concerned that these stipulations could deter Twin Metals from making further investment in the area and slow down economic development in turn."
An earlier email chain from January 2019 started by a Emmer legislative assistant to the Stauber legislative assistant also resulted in a meeting with Forest Service officials.
While a federal agency can receive congressional input, the groups argued this was illegal.
“Clear and simple, Congressmen Stauber and Emmer pressured the Forest Service to break the law and forfeit its ability to protect the Boundary Waters,” Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the plaintiffs, said in a news release Thursday. “The Forest Service, which had voiced grave concerns over the proposed copper-sulfide mine in the past, was pressured into submission, shirking its responsibility and furthered the interests of a foreign-owned mining company.”
Stauber responded to the amended complaint in an email statement to the News Tribune and said the "anti-jobs, anti-mining groups" were "weaponizing the courts with well-funded, out of state money."
“From the beginning, I have always believed these projects should have a fair, rigorous regulatory process. It is the job of my staff and myself to ensure my constituents and their livelihoods get the fair shot they weren’t getting under the political interference we saw under the Obama-Biden Administration," Stauber said. "I have always been an unabashed supporter of the process."
Emmer echoed Stauber in a separate emailed statement.
“Any economic development project in our country should have the opportunity to prove it can meet our rigorous environmental standards," Emmer said. "Our work has always focused on pursuing this simple principle and we will continue to fight for the hardworking men and women whose livelihoods depend continued economic development.”
The amended complaint was filed as part of the groups' ongoing case arguing federal agencies failed to conduct a thorough environmental review ahead of the renewal of Twin Metals' key leases in May 2018
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.
"Time after time we have seen the Trump administration bend to the will of the rich, elite, and politically connected when it comes to the fate of America's most popular Wilderness," Tom Landwehr, executive director of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource, said in a news release Thursday morning. "The administration has canceled important studies and hidden critical scientific information, it has short-circuited environmental review, and it has jumped every time this foreign mining company says, 'hop.'"
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, which advocates for copper-nickel mining, said members of Congress meeting with agencies about projects in their district is called "doing their job."
"When an anti-mining member of Congress like Congresswomen (Betty) McCollum works to stop mining with agencies, then it's OK? There's something that doesn't make sense there," Ongaro said.
In an emailed statement, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said the company was reviewing the complaint and would respond through the court system.
"Twin Metals received a copy of the amended complaint this morning and is currently reviewing its contents," Graul said. "Our answer to the amended complaint is due on September 10, and we will file accordingly."
The Forest Service said it did not comment on pending litigation.
The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment Thursday.
This story was updated at 8:47 p.m. Aug. 27 to correct Congressman Tom Emmer's hometown and at 5 p.m. with quotes from Emmer and Frank Ongaro of Mining Minnesota. It was originally posted at 1:23 p.m.
This story originally contained the incorrect title for Chris Marklund. It was updated at 4 p.m. Aug. 28. Marklund is chief of staff for the undersecretary of natural resources and environment. The News Tribune regrets the error.