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Judge again denies challenges to Twin Metals' mineral leases

New evidence introduced by opponents "would not have tipped the scales," a federal judge said.

Twin Metals.jpg
Twin Metals' headquarters in Ely. Even with federal approval, Twin Metals' proposed underground copper-nickel mine would face years of environmental and permitting review. (2017 file / News Tribune)
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A federal judge again denied challenges to the Trump administration's reinstatement of key leases to Twin Metals' proposed copper-nickel mine.

In a memorandum order filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C, Judge Trevor McFadden said new evidence introduced by opponents of the project would not have changed his earlier March 2020 decision that upheld the Trump administration's decision to reinstate the leases.

The coalition of environmental groups and outfitters, led by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, had argued that the Trump administration's overturning of the Obama administration's decision not to renew Twin Metals' leases was a policy reversal, not legal error correction as the Trump administration had claimed.

McFadden said the new evidence couldn't prove it.

"Plaintiffs have moved the needle from 'no evidence' to 'some evidence.' But they are still far from submitting the 'clear evidence' needed to surmount the presumption that Interior faithfully discharged its duties. ... The Court will not stretch to infer bad faith when case law mandates otherwise. The new evidence would not have changed the outcome in this case.," McFadden said.

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The new evidence comes from a batch of emails obtained by the group American Oversight that show discussion about the project among members of congress, lobbyists for Twin Metals and staff at the federal agencies responsible for the leases.

Opponents said a March 2017 letter from U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, to Ryan Zinke, Trump's Interior Secretary, urging him to reverse Obama's decision on Twin Metals was "political pressure." Additionally, opponents said the emails show "Interior staff expressly requested 'policy direction'" on an opinion from the Interior's Office of Solicitor that that called Obama's move to pull the leases a legal error.

"Collectively, these documents establish that the 2018 Reversal was not prompted by any internal process in the ordinary course to correct a basic legal error in the interpretation of the leases, but by a shift in policy after Congressional Representatives and the mining company pressured the new administration about the alleged importance of the mine proposal," the groups wrote in a November joint motion asking McFadden for a relief from judgement so it could be remanded to the Court of Appeals.

But on Thursday, McFadden disagreed and denied their motion.

"The Court is confident that these documents would not have tipped the scales," he wrote.

Twin Metals celebrated the decision in a statement Thursday.

"Twin Metals Minnesota is pleased with the U.S. District Court’s conclusion that our leases were reinstated in accordance with the law," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul said. "We also applaud the court’s thorough and thoughtful decision-making in denying the plaintiffs’ motion."

A spokesperson for the Campaign to the Save the Boundary Waters said the groups were reviewing the decision and did not immediately respond to Thursday's order.

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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.

Twin Metals submitted plans in December 2019 for an underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake near Ely. Birch Lake flows into the Kawishiwi River, which then flows into the BWCAW.

Related Topics: ENERGY AND MINING
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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