Did Interior Abandon NEPA for Antofagasta?

New documents show top officials at the Department of the Interior planned to review Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, before renewing them. That plan appears to have been abandoned after meetings with Chilean mining company executives in spring of 2018.

The latest Boundary Waters documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit come from Daniel Jorjani, who was Deputy Solicitor at the Department of the Interior when these records were created. The release consists of 122 heavily redacted pages, mostly emails and briefings that circulated as the Department of Interior was preparing to announce that it had reinstated Antofagasta’s mineral leases on May 2, 2018.

These records show that the Bureau of Land Management decided against any “proactive” statement (like a press release) on the reinstatement, and opted instead to create an “if-asked” statement for the press. Russell Newell drafted the if-asked statement and Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker reviewed and edited it on Monday, April 30. Deputy Solicitor Jorjani approved Hawbecker’s edits at 5:30PM the same day.

Newell’s draft and Hawbecker’s edits of the if-asked statement are both fully redacted, but we know what the if-asked statement said because Dylan Brown, a journalist writing for E & E News, asked.

Lori Mashburn, White House Liaison at the Department of the Interior, included the official response to Brown’s query in her May 4 Daily Update for Cabinet Affairs. The Update went to Jorjani, David Bernhardt, Doug Domenech and other political appointees as well as Russell Newell. 

At the end of April, 2018, the Department understood that the lease renewals would require “review under the National Environmental Policy Act.” That is also the understanding of the law set forward by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the lease renewals currently before the US District Court for the District of Columbia: 

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) requires that agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of their actions before the actions occur, and that they prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) for “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C); Kleppe v. Sierra Club, 427 U.S. 390, 410 n.21 (1976). Courts have clarified that in the mineral leasing context, an agency must prepare an EIS analyzing the ultimate effect of mineral development when it issues a lease without reserving absolute authority to prevent development on the lease. 

But when it came to renewing Antofagasta’s mineral leases, one year later, the Department of the Interior set NEPA aside. Instead of taking a hard look, as required by NEPA, they issued an EA or Environmental Assessment — which is really only a first step in determining whether a project will have significant environmental impact. 

Why the change of plan? As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the Department of the Interior seems to have abandoned plans for an EIS after meetings with executives from Antofagasta in spring of 2018.

In a March 6 meeting summary included with a previous release of documents, Antofagasta officials explicitly stated that an EIS would interfere with their plans. They wanted a Categorical Exclusion; they would settle for an EA. That is exactly what they got.

So it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that top Interior officials knew renewing the leases would require review under NEPA, but they deliberately set aside US law in order to do the bidding of Chilean mining executives.

The August documents are now online here, and all the Boundary Waters documents I’ve obtained to date are here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

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