A Final Batch of Boundary Waters FOIA Records

Last week, the Biden administration determined that Antofagasta plc’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters had been improperly renewed in 2019.

Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Interior Ann Marie Bledsoe Downs found that changes made to the Bureau of Land Management’s standard lease form were irregular and amounted to giving the Chilean firm “special treatment.” She also withdrew the “flawed” Jorjani M-Opinion, M-37049; its specious claim that Antofagasta had a “non-discretionary right” to renewal of its leases, she wrote, “spurred the improper renewal decisions.” The Jorjani opinion led the agencies into a procedural and legal morass.

“As a consequence of the Jorjani M-Opinion,” Bledsoe Downs writes, the Department of the Interior ignored or sidestepped the Forest Service’s statutory consent authority. Jorjani all but eliminated this authority and swept aside the fact that the Forest Service did not consent to a renewal of the leases back in December of 2016. That determination was invalid, he claimed, because the mining company had a non-discretionary right to renewal. Not just the Forest Service, but “the United States” itself had no say. The leases had to be renewed; the Forest Service could make some stipulations, nothing more.

A small batch of Boundary Waters documents that arrived last night — the 19th supplemental release of records compelled by my FOIA lawsuit against the Department of the Interior — does not shed much new light on how these decisions were taken. This is probably the last batch of records, with the exception, maybe, of those records whose redaction I am contesting.

These records are almost entirely redacted. Nothing but black. I added them to the collection on documentcloud anyway, here.

The new records include three (totally redacted) drafts of a BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement in 2018 of Antofagasta’s mineral leases.

They also include two fully redacted memos from Mitch Leverette, Acting Eastern States Director at the Bureau of Land Management, to Tony Tooke, Chief of the US Forest Service. Even the dates are redacted on these! But we know that they must have been written between September 2017 and March 2018, during Tooke’s brief term as Chief.

The dates, but not much more than the dates, are not redacted on two DOJ communications from Lisa Russell, Chief of the Natural Resources Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Russell’s July 10, 2018 memo is addressed to Karen Hawbecker in the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior; this is followed by a 14 page draft litigation report on the Voyageur v. United States and Friends of the Boundary Waters v. BLM cases. Those cases had just been filed. Another report, from Russell at DOJ to Jeffrey Prieto, General Counsel at USDA, dated January 18, 2017, deals with Franconia Minerals v. United States, the lawsuit brought by the mining company in September, 2016, claiming a right to renewal of the mineral leases.

Though their contents have been completely obliterated, these records still tell us a little something. Both Leverette at BLM and Russell at DOJ are consulting with the Forest Service; the memos may simply bring the Forest Service into the loop of the the legal work being done at these agencies; they might well address the critical issue of its statutory authority; and in Leverette’s case, at least, the memo might reiterate the Jorjani argument that the USFS 2016 non-consent determination was invalid. The redactions make it impossible to say for certain.

When it comes to the three drafts of the BLM News Release announcing the reinstatement of Antofagasta’s leases, we have very little to work with. The news release comes from Leverette’s Eastern States division. The headline in all three cases reads: “Bureau of Land Management reinstates Minnesota mineral leases. Consideration of application for renewal also re-started.” All three drafts are marked “for immediate release.” While one of the drafts is dated May xx, 2018, two of the drafts are dated “February xx, 2018.”

The official date of the reinstatement was May 2, 2018, but we know from records I’ve previously obtained that the February draft of the news release caused a flurry of activity at the Department of Interior. For example:

The language requested by Leverette might well have been some legal justification of the reinstatement along the lines prescribed by Daniel Jorjani: Antofagasta’s leases could be reinstated because, due to a legal error, the Forest Service’s non-consent determination was invalid. Consider this paragraph from Leverette’s May 2, 2018 official Reinstatement Decision memo:

Because the BLM’s prior request for Forest Service consent was based on the legal error that the United States had discretion to decide whether to renew the leases, we informed the Forest Service that its December 2016 non-consent determination was not legally operative. The Forest Service has not objected to that conclusion.

This just leads me back to the question I asked on Twitter. Why didn’t the Forest Service object? Why didn’t it stand by its earlier conclusion? Why didn’t it make an effort to protect the integrity of the scientific study then underway? Or was there an objection that took from February to May to settle? Was that the subject of the two memos from Leverette to Tony Tooke? Did Tooke’s resignation in March 2018 help resolve the matter?

Of course, there are other explanations for the February-May delay. The federal bureaucracy is a slow-moving beast. Tooke was under siege in the last months of his career at the Forest Service and in no position to dictate terms. And, as Bledsoe Downs points out in a footnote to her legal memo, the decision to reinstate the leases was “concurred in by Joseph Balash, Dep’t of the Interior Assistant Sec’y for Land and Minerals Mgmt.” It may have taken from February to May of 2018 to obtain that concurrence.

What we do know for certain is that on May 2, 2018, on the very day the Bureau of Land Management reinstated these mineral leases, the CEO of Antofagasta plc met with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The pressure only mounted from that point on. Though Jorjani had asserted back in December of 2017 that the US Forest Service had no power to say whether the Chilean mining company’s leases should be renewed, the mining company, the agencies, the White House, and several members of Congress dedicated significant resources over the next year to making sure of that and getting Sonny Perdue to cave to their demands.

You can find all the Boundary Waters records I’ve received to date here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

2 thoughts on “A Final Batch of Boundary Waters FOIA Records

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Alex – This was beautifully done. The loon call went right through me. And I didn’t know anyone could prefer northern to trout. You really bring the whole adventure to life here, situate it in the present moment, and hit the big questions without preaching. Thanks so much for sharing.

      Reply

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