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Federal judge upholds Twin Metals' mineral leases

Businesses and environmental groups had argued against the Trump administration's reinstatement of mineral leases near the BWCAW.

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Visitors paddle a quiet stretch of the Kawishiwi River near Ely on a day trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (2002 file / News Tribune)

A federal judge Tuesday said the U.S. Department of Interior did not err when it reinstated mineral leases to Twin Metals, the controversial proposed copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Trump administration in 2017 reinstated Twin Metals' mineral leases , reversing a decision made in the final days of the Obama administration that rescinded the mining company's federal mineral leases over concern it would pollute the BWCAW if it ever opened a mine in the same watershed.

A group of nine businesses — mostly canoe outfitters — then sued the Department of Interior 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.

In a 32-page decision filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C on Tuesday, Judge Trevor McFedden disagreed with the business and environmental groups and sided with the Department of Interior.

"The Court agrees with Interior," McFedden wrote. "Because Interior has inherent authority to timely reconsider its prior decisions and reasonably did so here, the Court will grant summary judgment to the Defendants."

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Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, one of the environmental groups that filed the lawsuit, said it would appeal the case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The plain, straight-forward language of the leases makes it clear that Twin Metals is not entitled to an automatic renewal of the mineral leases,” Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a emailed statement. “The court is giving Twin Metals a forever lease. Based on the original contract, this is an overreach that defies common sense."

In a statement, Save the Boundary Waters Executive Director Tim Landwehr also said his group would appeal the decision.

Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said the company was "pleased" with the court's decision.

"This decision once again validates our position that these mineral leases that have been held by Twin Metals Minnesota and its predecessor companies for more than 50 years should have been renewed in 2016," Graul said in a statement to the News Tribune.

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.

This story was updated at 7:04 p.m. March 17 with reaction from Save the Boundary Waters and Twin Metals. It was originally posted at 4:10 p.m. March 17.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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