Back on February 7th, in a Joint Status Report filed with the US District Court of the District of Columbia, the Department of Interior agreed to conduct additional searches in response to my Freedom of Information Act request regarding the renewal of mineral leases near the Boundary Waters held by Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta, Plc. This was a tacit admission that the initial searches the Office of the Solicitor conducted (and which produced about 6,000 pages of records) were inadequate, as I complained to the court. Specifically, those first records searches appear to have deliberately excluded any search terms having to do with the Chilean side of this story. Now a new release of documents — just over 1,000 pages, and the first in what is supposed to be a series of monthly releases — helps us fill in the Chilean picture just a little more and add more detail to the timeline.
The new records are mostly emails, all very thoroughly redacted, from the files of Karen Hawbecker, Acting Deputy Solicitor, Energy and Mineral Resources. They include some documents that came along as attachments — briefings, drafts of letters, and so on. As the timeline shows, Hawbecker was in the Twin Metals loop as early as February 7, 2017, just a little over two weeks after the inauguration, and, as these new records remind us, she stayed in the loop.
In fact, one of the more striking records included in this new release takes us well beyond the 2017 decision timeline I’ve been tracing (and beyond the scope of my initial records request). It’s a Building Admittance Request form dated May 8, 2018, that shows Hawbecker meeting with Daniel Altikes, Vice President of Antofagasta, Plc. Along with him is Kevin Baker, Vice President of Legal Affairs, Twin Metals Minnesota, and two lobbyists from WilmerHale.
This meeting comes less than a week after Mitchell Leverette of the Department of Interior notified Kevin Baker that he was reinstating the leases near the Boundary Waters, on May 2, 2018.
Up until now, we knew that Antofagasta had a couple of meetings with high level officials at the Department of Interior about their mineral leases in Minnesota. Now it appears that Altikes and the Chilean company had much easier and more frequent access to Trump administration officials than I ever realized. So, for example, we find Altikes on the calendar of then-Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management Joseph Balash, meeting with Interior officials on October 3, 2018 along with Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne.
This was just about a month after Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that USDA had cancelled a two-year scientific review of a proposed mineral withdrawal for the Rainy River Watershed, removing “a major obstacle to mineral leasing in Minnesota.” The topic of this October 2018 meeting with Altikes and Osborne was: “to share our hopeful schedule/milestones for the next 24 months.” Interior and Antofagasta are now working in synch.
A profile of Altikes in Vanguard magazine gives him all the credit:
…it was the challenge posed by American regulatory regimes that proved the most daunting. Five years after laying the legal groundwork for a massive mining venture, the project — totaling hundreds of millions of dollars of investment — got challenged by U.S. regulators.
For foreign-born lawyers like Altikes, such circumstances — navigating one of the world’s most confounding and complex regulatory structures — would’ve been reason enough to quit and cut the losses.
Owing to his extensive experience working with American firms, Altikes knew that his only recourse was to immerse himself in the head-spinning legal waters of Washington, D.C.
In time, he started interfacing directly with governmental representatives….
Another, earlier example also leads us to Sonny Perdue’s decision to cancel the two-year scientific study. On September 28, 2017, Altikes met with Vincent DeVito, who was then Counselor to the Secretary for Energy Policy. The April documents suggest how this meeting may have come about.
On June 15, 2017, Karen Hawbecker drafted a letter to Ian Duckworth, Chief Operating Officer of Twin Metals Minnesota, and circulated the draft internally for comment. It is a reply to a letter Duckworth sent on May 26, 2017, the contents of which we can infer from Hawbecker’s reply.* Duckworth had complained about the proposed mineral withdrawal of Superior National Forest and asked, or demanded, that the US Forest Service cancel its application for withdrawal, or that the Bureau of Land Management deny the Forest Service’s application. In her response, Hawbecker also acknowledges Duckworth’s request for a meeting with then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and directs Duckworth to contact the administrative assistant for Vincent DeVito and schedule a meeting with him.
DeVito’s 2017 public calendars are not searchable, so they have to be scanned one day at a time. I have not yet come across a meeting with Duckworth on them, but the September 28 meeting with Altikes — the top lawyer for Duckworth’s Chilean boss — obviously followed from Duckworth’s complaint. (As if to prepare for the meeting with Altikes, DeVito also met with Twin Metals lobbyists from WilmerHale three days earlier, on September 25.)
What prompted Duckworth to complain about the proposed mineral withdrawal on May 26 is also clear and worth pointing out: the testimony of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, just one day earlier, at a hearing on the US Forest Service Budget held by the House Committee on Appropriations.
At that hearing, Representative Betty McCollum asked Perdue along with US Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell whether the Forest Service would let the two-year federal scientific study of sulfide mining in Superior National Forest go forward. Secretary Perdue reassured Representative McCollum that he and Secretary Zinke had “already met about this” and he would “absolutely” allow the scientific study to proceed.
He did not, of course, and the Forest Service still refuses to release the findings of the incomplete study. They’ve issued a wholly redacted copy, and now they claim the study includes only “deliberative pre-decision materials” that are not suitable for public release and would only create confusion if they were released.
It remains unclear why Perdue went back on his word and abruptly cancelled the US Forest Service study in September of 2018. We can see that Hawbecker cc’d USDA on her June 2017 reply to Duckworth. Just months later, an executive from Antofagasta would have the high-level meeting Duckworth sought the day after the Secretary of Agriculture said he would listen to the scientists.
*CORRECTION 26 April 2020. In my latest review of the documents produced so far, I found a copy of the Duckworth letter, written the day after Sonny Perdue testified that he would allow the scientific study to go forward. The letter is addressed to both Ryan Zinke and Sonny Perdue. (Hawbecker’s reply mentions only Zinke. We don’t know if USDA replied, or if Hawbecker’s was the only reply.)
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.