MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Developers of a proposed copper-nickel mine upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota sued the Biden administration Monday to seek the reinstatement of federal mineral leases that is critical to the $1.7 billion project.
Twin Metals Minnesota argued in its lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington that the Interior Department acted illegally earlier this year when it canceled the leases. The company asked the court to declare that those leases remain valid and in effect so that it can continue with its environmental review and permitting process.
A proposed underground mine located southeast of Ely near Birch Lake is fighting for survival amid shifting political winds. In recent weeks, the Obama administration decided not to renew two leases that had been in place for more than 50 years. The Trump administration reversed this decision and renewed the leases. But the Biden administration In January, the lease was canceled after renewing a potential 20-year mining moratorium in the area that the Obama administration was trying to launch.
After a change in administration in 2021, the suit alleges, Internal Affairs officials “engaged in a tightly coordinated set of wrongdoing” that culminated in the loss of Twin Metals’ lease. “This coordinated campaign was nothing more than an illegal attempt to rewrite the policies passed by Congress regarding the proper balance between environmental concerns and the availability of minerals on public lands,” the lawsuit states.
The representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to comment on the lawsuit.
“We are asserting our right to a fair and consistent environmental review of our proposed mining project,” Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals’ chief operating officer, said in a statement. “Our plan is based on decades of research and analysis and is based on the most environmentally sophisticated design that is tailored to our project location and mineral deposit. It deserves a fair evaluation by federal regulators on its merits.”
The moratorium proposal would “set aside” 352 square miles (912 square kilometers) within the Rainey River watershed in the Superior National Forest from a new mineral lease for 20 years. This threatens the demise of Twin Metals. But that would not affect a separate project, PolyMet’s proposed mine near Babbitt and Hoyt lakes, which are in a different watershed.
The US Forest Service released a draft environmental assessment in June to lay the groundwork for the moratorium, saying it aims to “prevent further adverse environmental impacts from future mining operations.” The public comment period ended on August 12. Interior Minister Deb Haaland will make the final decision.
Environmental groups have fought Twin Metals for years, saying the risk of acid mine drainage poses an unacceptable threat to the nation’s most visited federal wilderness area.
“The Trump administration has illegally renewed these mineral leases,” Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said in a statement. “After a careful review of the law, policy and science, the Department of the Interior appropriately prevented this illegal mining operation from continuing. This frivolous lawsuit puts profits before people and threatens the clean water of the Boundary Waters.”
Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, claims that its underground structure and other features prevent acid formation by limiting the exposure of sulphide ore to air and water. It was in the early stages of seeking state permits when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stop its own environmental review process in February, citing the company’s loss of its federal leases.
The company and its supporters say the project is critical to securing domestic sources of copper, nickel and others minerals needed for expansion wind and solar energy and electric vehicles. The company says it has already invested more than $550 million in the project over the past 12 years and that the mine will create more than 750 high-paying mining jobs, plus 1,500 additional jobs in the region.
A U.S. House committee last month passed a bill from U.S. Democrat Betty McCollum to permanently ban copper-nickel mining in the same area covered by the proposed moratorium.
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