The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has canceled two mineral leases near the Boundary Waters owned by Twin Metals, saying their renewal three years ago was illegitimate.
DOI announced its decision Wednesday following the conclusion of a legal review by the department's Office of Solicitor. That review found "significant legal deficiencies" surrounding the Trump administration's 2019 decision to revive the leases, which had been halted in 2016 by the Obama administration.
The renewals gave Twin Metals permission to explore a large area of national forest land — which lies 9 miles southeast of Ely and adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — for copper-nickel reserves. Twin Metals has been angling for a $3 billion underground mine project in the area.
Opponents have regularly argued such a mine would endanger one of the country's most-visited and pristine natural areas.
According to a memo detailing the findings of the legal review:
- The lease renewal forms violated DOI's regulations by straying from the standard lease form, with "customized lease terms designed specifically for Twin Metals.
- The DOI at the time did not request nor obtain consent from the Forest Service, which has authority in these situations.
- And the environmental analysis was "inadequate," lacking a no-renewal, no-action alternative.
"In light of these considerations, I find that the Twin Metals lease renewals were improperly issued and are subject to cancelation" under the law, the principal deputy solicitor wrote in the memo.
Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, called Wednesday's announcement a "major win" for protecting the BWCAW, arguing it "re-establishes the long-standing legal consensus of five presidential administrations and marks a return of the rule of law."
"Twin Metals leases should never have been reinstated in the first place, and this announcement should stop the Twin Metals mine threat," Rom continued.
A number of Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Betty McCollum and Dean Phillips, also expressed support for canceling the leases.
Twin Metals, which is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, was defiant in expressing its disappointment with the decision.
"This is not about law; this is a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law," the company said in a statement.
A study looking into how mining in that area might affect the nearby environment is exactly what's happening right now. In October, the Biden administration kickstarted a mineral withdrawal process. Over a two-year period, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will conduct this environmental analysis.
(The Obama administration had initiated this same study in late 2016, but it was canceled by the Trump White House just a few months prior to its conclusion.)
Once completed, the Secretary of the Interior could ten institute a 20-year ban (the maximum allowed under the law) on any new mining or mineral exploration in the area. A permanent ban would require Congressional action.
“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” said Secretary Deb Haaland in Wednesday's announcement. “After a careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them.”
Twin Metals vowed to keep fighting.
"We will challenge this attempt to stop our project and defend our valid existing mineral rights," the company said. "We expect to prevail."