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Twin Metals sues Biden administration over lease cancellation

The company and its supporters want an environmental review of its project, not a blanket ban or study on hypothetical projects within the watershed.

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Twin Metals' headquarters in Ely.
Clint Austin / 2017 file / Duluth News Tribune
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HERMANTOWN — Twin Metals is taking the Biden administration to court over its decision to cancel the company's mineral leases for its planned mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness earlier this year.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on Monday afternoon, the company and its exploration subsidiary Franconia Minerals sued the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management, arguing the federal agencies' decision to cancel their mineral leases in January was "arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful evisceration" of the company's mineral rights.

Since President Joe Biden took office, his administration has reinstated a number of Obama-era moves that the Trump administration then reversed. The actions, including a mineral withdrawal across the entire Rainy River Watershed , were aimed at protecting the BWCAW from pollution by preventing Twin Metals and other companies from mining within the same watershed.

A study released by the U.S Forest Service in June found that hardrock mining in the Rainy River Watershed would pose an environmental risk to the BWCAW.

At a news conference held Monday afternoon at the Iron Workers Local 512 Training Facility in Hermantown, Dean DeBeltz, Twin Metals' director of operations, said the company remained dedicated to opening the mine.

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"Our goal is to continue to move this mine forward and reverse a series of actions aimed at shutting down Twin Metals' project," DeBeltz said.

DeBeltz and other speakers, which included labor and pro-mining and industry groups, all shared a similar message: They want the project itself to be reviewed, not a blanket ban or study on hypothetical projects within the watershed.

Although Twin Metals submitted its mine plan to to federal and state regulators in late 2019 , actions by the Biden administration have halted the lengthy permitting process at both the state and federal levels. The review was in its early stages.

The company, owned by Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, is hoping to build a large underground copper-nickel mine and dry-stacked tailings storage facility near Ely and Birch Lake, within the Rainy River Watershed and 5 miles from the BWCAW. Critics say the project could send tainted runoff into the BWCAW, while supporters say the mine would bring much-needed jobs to the region.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said she believed the Biden administration's decisions would remain in place.

"The Biden administration's actions to protect the Boundary Waters were well-considered, consistent with legal precedent and established public policy, and reflect the will of Minnesotans and the American people," Rom said in a statement Monday afternoon. "This lawsuit is destined to fail."

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.

But in January 2022, Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, acting deputy solicitor of Indian affairs for the Department of Interior, wrote in a memorandum that the 2019 lease renewal by the Trump administration violated Bureau of Land Management regulations and that the agency prepared an "inadequate (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis of the renewal decision."

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The Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management declined to comment on Twin Metals' lawsuit.

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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