Category Archives: Lake Superior

Bernhardt, Biodiversity, and the Boundary Waters

At a hearing yesterday of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Betty McCollum asked newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt —again — for documents regarding the decisions and actions taken on the Boundary Waters. Bernhardt was politely evasive, but made it clear that Interior is more likely to comply with the mining company’s plans than with Congressional demands.

The full exchange is cued up here:

A few notes.

We should take a moment to appreciate that Representative McCollum used some of her time to talk about the recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This global assessment brought alarming news. McCollum started by asking whether it was being taken seriously at Interior, and how Interior could possibly continue to advance Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda in light of the report’s findings:

The UN Report also stated that the health of the ecosystems that we and other species depend on is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Around one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.

So, Mr. Secretary, like the Fourth National Climate Assessment, this information is very sobering, and I believe it’s a call for action. So with the release of this information will the Department of Interior take a pause in its approach to energy development, to reexamine the impacts of these operations on ecosystems, species, and habitats, to see if there are better approaches?

Without waiting for a reply, McCollum continued:

The report also states that the abundance of native species in most land — major land based habitats has declined by 20 percent. And so I want to know how the Department is going to work to sustain native plants on public lands, and …the last thing that I’ll mention that the report highlights is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on nature. With those impacts projected to increase over the coming decades. So I believe, and I believe many Americans would agree with me, that we can’t continue a business as usual approach. So how’s the Department going to incorporate this science into your everyday operations and long range planning? In other words, what are you doing to make sure the United States is a leader, and not a contributor, in the eroding of the foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, and the health and quality of life not only here in America but worldwide?

These remarks set the tone and context for the whole hearing, and for the brief exchange over the Boundary Waters. “The UN Report is on a lot more than just on climate change,” McCollum reminds Bernhardt at the beginning of the clip I’ve included above, “it’s also about pollution, mining, and land use.”

Indeed, the IPBES report notes that mining has “increased dramatically” in recent decades, and that it has already had “significant negative impacts on biodiversity, emissions of highly toxic pollutants, water quality and water distribution, and human health.” It adds that mining has had “strong negative effects on soil, freshwater and marine water quality and the global atmosphere.” As currently practiced, mining even jeopardizes responsible stewardship, as it has frequently led to “indigenous peoples or local communities [being] expelled from or threatened upon their lands.” In light of all this, the report recommends, among other things, “guiding and limiting the expansion of unsustainable agriculture and mining” to protect water and wetlands, which are under more pressure from human activity than ever before.

A thoughtful approach, but Bernhardt’s response was not even remotely satisfactory. He made some noises about how much he respected and appreciated McCollum’s question, but he was careful not to commit to handing over the requested documents. He left himself lots of wiggle room, basically claiming deliberative process privilege. Given his refusal, it was somewhat gratifying to hear that one of the documents I obtained through FOIA — an email to David Bernhardt on October 3rd, 2017, about a briefing on the Boundary Waters — was helpful to McCollum; but it was also frustrating to watch Bernhardt stonewall a Congressional committee.

Like Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Bernhardt assured Representative McCollum in the most earnest tones he could muster that once the mining permit process is underway, he’ll be open to public comment. By then, of course, it will be way too late. “There’s lots of opportunity for comment, review. There’s no way we’re going to approve something that’s destructive to the Boundary Waters. But there are processes we go through to analyze that.” This would be reassuring were it not for the fact that those “processes to analyze” had already been set in place — with the finding by US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell that sulfide mining posed an “unacceptable risk” to the Boundary Waters; with the issuing of Solicitor Tompkins’ M-Opinion; and with the mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest — and Bernhardt, Perdue, and other Trump political appointees abruptly cancelled and reversed all of them.

Why? We don’t know. They refuse to say.

If you listen closely to Bernhardt, his true position becomes clear. “If the applicant” — namely, Antofagasta Plc — “were to go forward, there are lots of opportunities for comment and review.” He’s leaving all discretion to the mining company. He refuses to grapple with the fact that reversals of Obama era protections — the reinstatement of the mineral leases — were unlawful, as McCollum points out here.

We know from the documents we have that Interior basically followed the mining company’s lead, and worked closely and behind closed doors with mining company lobbyists, in making this unlawful reversal. What else is Bernhardt holding back from the public?

Update, 15 May 2019. At today’s hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Alan Lowenthal again pressed Bernhardt on the Boundary Waters leases, and asked about the Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options document identified in the email correspondence I obtained through FOIA.

At the end of last week, the Committee received thousands of pages in response to their request for documents. This document dump consisted mostly of duplicates and materials that had already been made public through FOIA, and some pages were filled with garbage characters — what Lowenthal called “jibberish.” The Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options documents were included, but fully redacted, as they are in the documents I received.

The whole exchange is here.

Bernhardt was non-committal and evasive, as before. But today he had an ace up his sleeve. Toward the end of the hearing, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it had renewed Antofagasta’s copper-nickel mining leases near the Boundary Waters. This is an important step forward for the Twin Metals project.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

A Note on the Jorjani Confirmation Hearing

The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests. And it sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.
-Senator Ron Wyden

Jorjani_ConfirmationWhen asked by Senator Manchin whether he could set aside political allegiances and provide “forthright legal analysis,” Daniel Jorjani offered assurances, but his confirmation hearing on Thursday kept circling back to the question.

Senator Cantwell said she was “trying to get an understanding of your commitment to what is the law and whether you will help follow the law. That’s the key thing I’m after.” Senator Wyden wanted the other nominee in the room, Mark Greenblatt, to give him written specifics about how as Inspector General at Interior he would maintain his independence, “and keep these political appointments”  — people “like Mr. Jorjani,” he added — “from interfering with protecting the public.”  Senator King wanted to know whether Jorjani has had any contact with people associated with Freedom Partners or the Koch Brothers since taking his post at Interior. Jorjani was not prepared to say he had not, and at the end of the hearing promised to go back and check.

When her turn came, Senator Hirono said it was “hard to believe” that Jorjani’s work for the Koch Brothers between 2009 and 2017 “does not influence [his] opinions.” She cited his M-Opinion on “incidental take,” according to which oil companies that inadvertently kill migratory birds (in a spill, for instance) will no longer face penalties or prosecution. Hirono wanted to know why Jorjani issued that opinion.

Hirono: A lot of these challenges under this law have come from, have been lawsuits involving the oil and gas industry. So who benefits most from your opinion that totally stopped prosecutions for incidental take under this law? What industry most benefits from your opinion?

Jorjani: I’m not aware of any particular industry that benefits from this. I’d like to think that he American people benefit from a restrained approach.

Hirono: Yeah, I’d like to think so too. But you cannot escape the conclusion that the people you used to work for before, the Koch Brothers, this is one of their biggest issues that they wanted to have done away with….. I would say the oil and gas industries are the biggest beneficiaries.

Senator Manchin summed up what appeared to be the skeptics’ view:

as Acting [Deputy Solicitor General] you came in and overturned 7 of the 8 [Tompkins] opinions….Those things were basically approved as the previous administration was outgoing. We found also these had been exhaustively studied and Ms. Tompkins was well regarded and following the rule of law. And in all honesty the observance I have is that basically that your political ideology overtook…the rule of law.

For his part, Jorjani made the striking claim that a directive from the president’s Chief of Staff authorized him “to review every regulation and every opinion,” including previous M-Opinions by his predecessor, Solicitor Hillary Tompkins.

The directive in question appears to be the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies issued by Reince Priebus on January 20, 2017, which put in place a Regulatory Freeze, affording Trump’s political appointees “the opportunity to review any new or pending regulations” and specifically any “questions of fact, law, and policy they raise.”

This is the first time I have heard anyone at Interior publicly and directly connect the overturning of Tompkins’ M-Opinions with this directive. Jorjani seems to have read it expansively, virtually as carte blanche.  He called it the “catalyst” for his multiple reversals of Tompkins. It now has a place on the Twin Metals timeline.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

What Is Sonny Perdue Hiding?

Why did Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue abruptly cancel the planned two-year mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest? Why has he so far failed, or refused, to turn over findings from the first twenty months of that study, despite repeated requests from congressional leaders? If, as Perdue claims, the study “did not reveal new scientific information,” what’s there to hide?

The administrative record is being deliberately kept from us, it seems. Congress has yet to see the documents and analysis the Secretary of Agriculture is supposed to have consulted before issuing his decision to clear the way for copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The American public has no assurance that Perdue or the Trump administration “acted in good faith,” as the editors of the Star Tribune put it over the weekend, or even, I would add, in compliance with administrative law. As things stand, “disturbing questions remain about whether [an] industry-friendly outcome was driven by science or politics. If there’s nothing to hide, there should be no delays in providing this information to the public.”

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, April 9th, Representative Betty McCollum asked the Secretary of Agriculture to address some of those concerns. (The video is cued to the start of McCollum’s question time.)

Some highlights.

Back in May of 2017, Secretary Perdue had reassured McCollum and an Interior subcommittee that he would “absolutely” allow the planned two-year study to go forward. But his words, McCollum says, have been “completely belied by [his] actions.”

You failed to live up to your words when you announced in September the abrupt cancellation of the mineral withdrawal study. Twenty months into a twenty-four month study review. Twenty months of collecting public input. Twenty months of science-based assessment. And all you released was a one-page press release. And that’s completely inadequate. We still have not seen any of the science behind the science-based decision. I have sent multiple letters, first in November and then again on March 1st, along with the Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, asking your agency to release the relevant documentation from the twenty-month review. Your own press release said the review included …”a mineral resource report, a biological and economic impact assessment, potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.” Secretary Perdue, were all those reports completed as part of the environmental assessment?

Perdue: I can’t answer that question directly, Ma’am.

McCollum: So if you don’t have complete scientific reports to review before making your decision to cancel the withdrawal, one has to ask what your decision was based on. Do you have any idea what your decision was based on, sir?

Perdue says he does have an idea, but in the exchange that follows, he manages only a jumbled statement.

When I learned that Minnesota really has the last vote on this as a state government, and where the governor had determined already that he was not going to allow this to go forward, it made no sense to me to proceed to — certainly, there’s been not one permit issued, there will not be one permit issued until it’s a complete environmental impact statement and study, based on that, and it looked to me it would be duplicative after I realized that, after my statement to you in May of 17 at my first hearing, and therefore the state of Minnesota has the last vote on this, and I would expect them to do what the citizens of Minnesota would decide.

If I may venture a paraphrase: the Secretary of Agriculture cancelled the scientific study of mineral withdrawal, because — try to follow the reasoning here — once Superior National Forest is no longer subject to withdrawal, and the permitting process for new mining can get underway in earnest, there will be environmental impact assessments done. Those assessments will involve science, or “study.” Why finish the two-year study to determine whether any mining should be done at all, when we’re just going to do more scientific study later, in order to issue mining permits? And since the governor and the people of Minnesota seem to be against the whole thing anyway, science is irrelevant.

This is arrant nonsense, and shows an utter disregard for administrative procedure and a lack of preparation that borders on contempt of Congress. Still, it might help settle the question whether Perdue’s decision was driven by “science or politics.” Secretary Perdue seems not even to understand the role scientific study plays in the Forest Service’s disposition of public lands, or he just doesn’t care. Consider his attitude toward scientific study in the press release he issued back in September of 2018. There, Perdue boasted that by cancelling the two-year study he had removed a “major obstacle,” a “roadblock,” to mineral leasing on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Now, “interested companies may seek to lease minerals in the watershed.”

McCollum was not satisfied with any of this — why should she be? — and she reminded Perdue that his actions have already had serious consequences.

Well, sir, I respectfully disagree with your analysis of this. Once the Forest Service didn’t go forward on the study, BLM started moving forward on lease renewal. Once the study wasn’t completed and I asked for all the information on it, taxpayers paid for it, I have not received it. So sir, I feel that the Forest Service did not fulfill its congressional obligation by moving forward with the full two-year study, and the watershed that the Boundary Waters is in, all water’s precious, but it makes no sense to me at all that the Forest Service abandoned its due diligence research… Your stopping the study started a rollercoaster of events that will lead, possibly, to the destruction of these pristine waters.

McCollum has once again raised the alarm. Where are the whistleblowers?

Read more posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

David Bernhardt’s Briefings on the Boundary Waters Reversal

bernhardttwinmetals4oct2017.pngIt appears the FOIA department of the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of Interior has gone quiet on me, and has made it a practice if not a policy no longer to reply to emails or return phone calls about the status of my outstanding FOIA request. I should not like to think that they are giving me the cold shoulder because I published the first two batches of documents they produced, or that they are deliberately withholding or delaying the release of more documents. But with each passing day it’s getting harder to avoid a conclusion along those lines.

While trying to figure out if I’ve constructively exhausted administrative remedies pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i), which would give me grounds for a legal complaint, I thought I would look at the calendar entries recently posted online by the Department of the Interior for David Bernhardt, and see what I could learn about the role he played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

Before his nomination to be Secretary of the Interior (which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just advanced), Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke. Before that, he was the head of the energy, environment and resources division at the lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt, et al; he represented many oil, gas and mining companies, and it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, he has severed ties with former private sector clients.

Bernhardt has balked at the requirement that he keep an official calendar, which would at least allow the American public to see who he’s been meeting with. The closest we have are typed agendas or “daily cards,” which list appointments and calls. The agenda items offer little detail, rarely specifying the subject of a meeting. This looks like more than just laziness or negligence. Bernhardt seems to believe the rules do not or should not apply to him, and he appears to be contemptuous of administrative process, norms, and law.

Much the same can be said for the PDF of Bernhardt’s calendar entries the Department of Interior released. There was no attempt to fill or even call out gaps in the record. Pages and entries are out of chronological order, November mixed with September, 2017 with 2018. Adding to the confusion, the PDF is not searchable; it is simply an image of the daily cards. Fortunately, my friend Michael Miles was able to perform a little software magic, and — voila! — we now have a searchable version of the 439 pages of daily cards that Interior produced. It’s online here.

We knew before this that Bernhardt was scheduled to be briefed on the Twin Metals matter sometime in August of 2017. As the timeline indicates, on Sunday, August 6th, Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker forwarded a briefing paper to her colleague Jack Haugrud “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a briefing with David Bernhardt.” This was probably some version of the one page briefing that Kathleen Benedetto had prepared for Ryan Zinke back in April of 2017, and which had been adapted and forwarded to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile at around the same time, in preparation for meetings with Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada. Bernhardt’s briefing would have reflected the progress that the Solicitor’s office had made since that time on the effort to reverse Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion, following Seth Waxman’s blueprint.

It’s difficult to say whether this August briefing ever took place. Bernhardt’s daily cards show a meeting with Kathleen Benedetto on August 28th, 2017; and Benedetto at the time was carrying the Twin Metals brief. So perhaps that’s it. The daily cards also help us establish a little context for Bernhardt’s August briefing. We can see from his calendar that Bernhardt was in constant and regular contact with Michael J. Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy before leaving in April, 2018. Bernahrdt and Catanzaro have a weekly call; sometimes they have lunch together. No surprise, as the two men come from the same world of lobbying for oil, gas, and mining interests; but what’s interesting about their regular contact is that it establishes a clear line of communication between the White House, or the Executive Office of the President, where Catanzaro served, and the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

The revolving door puts one powerful lobbyist in the White House and another at Interior, and the two of them get together regularly, no doubt to discuss a shared agenda.

About a week before Bernhardt met with Benedetto, on August 22nd, 2017, Catanzaro meets to discuss the “Minnesota Project” with Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Joining them to discuss the reversal is Stephen Vaden, an attorney from USDA. Two days after that, August 24th*, Bernhardt along with other high level Department of Interior officials hosts the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, with the CEOs of 16 mining companies. I’m unable to determine who those 16 CEOs were, but minutes from the annual meeting of the Women’s Mining Coalition on September 1, 2017, tell us that Pershing Gold was among the invitees, and the focus of the roundtable was “how to remove barriers to critical minerals, concerted focus at high level to improve permitting conditions.” Was anyone there to talk about removing barriers to mine the Duluth Complex? The CEO of Twin Metals? Polymet? Antofagasta? Glencore? I’ll do a little more poking around to see if I can find out who the CEO attendees were, and if I can’t come up with anything, I suppose I’ll have to file yet another FOIA request.

Among the documents already produced by Interior, the earliest reference I’ve found to the Twin Metals matter is a February 2, 2017 Information/Briefing Memorandum [page 4390] prepared by Kristin Ball, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, for Katherine MacGregor, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. (Michael Nedd’s February 7th, 2017 email has been superseded in this regard; and it makes sense that the initiative appears to have come from MacGregor, not from Nedd. The timeline now reflects MacGregor’s role as prime mover.) In her memo, Ball notes that in the Superior National Forest area proposed for withdrawal, there are deposits of “Copper, nickel, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver” and adds, “Deposits contain critical minerals, due to technological applications.” This early memo establishes a theme that will run through Bernhardt’s arrival at Interior and culminate in the December 19, 2017 release of a new list of critical minerals by the United States Geological Service. That comes just three days before the Jorjani M-Opinion is made public. As I noted in an earlier post, emails show political appointee Gary Lawkowski recommending the Office of the Solicitor spin its December 22nd release with talking points about critical minerals.

Bernhardt was next briefed on the Boundary Waters reversal on October 4, 2017. His daily cards show the meeting at 11AM on that day. It was timely. Just one day before, Bernhardt spoke with Representative Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who, along with Rick Nolan and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, has been working steadily to open the Duluth Complex to mining. This phone call now appears on the Twin Metals timeline. What Emmer and Bernhardt discussed is not specified. Gareth Rees was in the meeting, but the 10:30AM call with Emmer does not appear on his calendar [page 192], which on that day starts at 1PM. Curious that he should have omitted or forgotten to note this call with a member of Congress and the Deputy Secretary.

In any case, Bernhardt comes off that call with Emmer on Tuesday and into his Wednesday briefing equipped with three background documents: the widely circulated one page briefing and scenarios papers prepared back in April, and a July 24 BLM paper on the withdrawal. Correspondence shows that Bernhardt asks to see the 1966 and 2004 leases, along with the M-Opinion prepared by Solicitor Tompkins. It’s clear from Karen Hawbecker’s response that the focus of the discussion at this juncture are the renewal terms in the 1966 leases. Hawbecker directs him to them: Section 5, page 8.

HawbeckertoBernhardt4Oct17

Why this focus? Section 5 will be critical to a legal argument Jorjani ultimately makes in his memo, which is that according to the 1966 leases, production — actually getting a mining operation up and running — is not a precondition for renewal: “the commencement of production is…not a condition precedent to the right to a renewal.” This is another argument Jorjani borrows from Antofagasta’s lawyer Seth Waxman; and for Waxman, reading a production requirement into the 1966 leases counts as one of the “overarching errors” in Solicitor Tompkin’s M-Opinion. “Section 5 instead creates a production incentive” (cf. Jorjani page 6). As Representative Alan Lowenthal pointed out in a congressional hearing back in March, this argument may be ingenious, but it flies directly in the face of a 1966 BLM press release specifying a production requirement for renewal.

Regardless, by autumn of 2017, David Bernhardt had been briefed on the Waxman-Jorjani legal strategy. He had coordinated with Catanzaro and the White House and with Republican political operatives. He had hosted mining company CEOs behind closed doors to discuss the disposition of America’s public lands. He was fully on board.

*Bernhardt’s daily cards date this roundtable August 23rd, 2017. But Katharine MacGregor’s calendar (page 24) shows the event on the 24th, and a walk through or rehearsal of the event on the 23rd. I am inclined to trust MacGregor’s calendar over Bernhardt’s sloppily compiled cards. It is entered correctly on another Bernhardt calendar for August, 2017. Why the discrepancy?

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here

A Motion in D.D.C. and Some Updates to the Twin Metals Timeline

A March 1, 2019 motion filed in Voyageur Outward Bound School et al. v. United States et al draws on the collection of documents I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of the Interior. The motion asks Judge McFadden of the US District Court for the District of Columbia to compel the completion of the administrative record. This is from the declaration filed together with the motion to compel:

During the week of February 11, 2019, Plaintiffs learned of a set of 4,490 pages of documents that Louis Galdieri had obtained from the Department of the Interior in response to a January 2018 FOIA request and had published online earlier that week (Galdieri FOIA Production). Mr. Galdieri is unaffiliated with Plaintiffs. After reviewing those thousands of pages of documents, Plaintiffs identified the documents attached hereto as Exhibits A–J as particularly relevant to the issues in this case.

As it now stands, the record before the court paints an incomplete picture. The Exhibits filed together with the motion include key documents from the FOIA production that now appear in the Twin Metals timeline. These documents show Interior officials working closely with lobbyists from WilmerHale, giving short shrift to environmental advocates and setting scientific findings aside, and meeting multiple times with executives from Antofagasta, Plc and Twin Metals Minnesota.

The FOIA production also offers evidence of coordination with the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, where the CEO of Antofagasta met with the ambassador in late April of 2017, and with the Trump White House, where the Antofagasta CEO and his entourage may have had meetings as early as May of 2017.

Overall, the documents demonstrate clearly that the review of the Twin Metals matter undertaken at the Department of Interior was an exercise in a foregone conclusion. The goal from the outset was to reverse the Obama administration and deliver for the mining company.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs called out a some documents that had escaped my noticed. These now appear on the timeline. One document was not there because I could not figure out where it should fall in the chronology: it is dated  “April XX” of 2017. It is a copy of a Memorandum for the Secretary — namely, Ryan Zinke — from the Office of the Solicitor, heavily redacted on the grounds of attorney-client privilege.

The eight page memorandum is pretty clearly the same memo, or a draft of the same memo that Kathleen Benedetto forwarded to Zinke on April 25, 2017. That memorandum was developed from a Briefing Paper that had been in the works at Interior as early as February of 2017. The memo provides Zinke with “a set of options for reversing” BLM’s decision on Twin Metals before he meets with Representatives Tom Emmer and Rick Nolan the next day . Even though the XX in the date is not a Roman numeral but a placeholder, I’ve dated it April 20th, just to assign it a place in the timeline.

AprilXXSol

That redacted document helps bring Zinke into the picture. I’ve also added an October 12th, 2017 meeting between the Office of the Solicitor meets and Twin Metals Minnesota. We know about this meeting from an October 27, 2017 email sent by Briana Collier to Karen Hawbecker and Richard McNeer of the Office of the Solicitor. She reminds them that Jack Haugrud expects the Solicitor’s office to produce “Twin Metals M-Opinion Reversal Draft” in “4-6 weeks from when we met with Twin Metals on October 12th.”

This document might help clear up some confusion I had about how many times the Solicitor’s office met with Antofagasta executives. I had counted only the May 2nd and July 25th meeting with Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada, but a March 1, 2019 letter from three House leaders — Alan Lowenthal, Raul Grijalva and Betty McCollum — to Secretaries Perdue and Bernhardt pointed to a third meeting: “Antofagasta met with Jorjani three times in the months leading up to the issuance of his Solicitor opinion in December 2017,” the letter reads. Maybe this October 12th meeting counts as the third meeting. I’ve written to McCollum’s office for clarification, but have not received a reply.

Even with all the redactions, gaps in the record, and unanswered questions, it seems pretty clear that in the Twin Metals matter the Department of the Interior was serving private interests, and not the public interest. At whose direction we still do not know; nor do we know why the matter appears to have been a priority for the new administration.

Interior has not yet provided me with all the documents I requested back in January of 2018. Maybe some fresh answers will come with the release of additional documents.

Update, 22 March 2019. One day after I posted this, on March 15th, 2019, attorneys for the defense filed a brief in opposition to the plaintiff’s March 1 motion.

Writing for the DOJ, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams maintains that documents obtained through FOIA are not necessarily part of the administrative record. These are merely “internal transmittal emails, deliberative documents, and privileged attorney work product” that the plaintiffs “offer…exclusively in an improper attempt to prove the subjective motivation or mental processes of the decisionmaker.” The federal government cites plenty of case law to support this point.

Further,

this Court should deny Plaintiffs’ belated motion because Plaintiffs have not met the heavy burden of overcoming the presumption of administrative regularity that attaches to an agency’s designation of the administrative record and because the this  [sic] Court’s review of any reviewable, final agency action challenged by the Complaints should be limited to consideration of whether the agencies’ stated reasons are arbitrary and capricious.

To the layperson, it would seem that the arbitrary and capricious nature of those “stated reasons” is exactly what the FOIA production suggests. The Jorjani memo appears to have been an exercise in a foregone conclusion, written from a blueprint set out in 2016 by Seth Waxman, the mining company’s attorney. There are those meetings with the CEO of Antofagasta Plc at the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, at the Department of Interior, and at the White House. There is abundant evidence that Interior worked hand in hand with mining company representatives to reach its conclusions.

None of that should enter into determining whether the FOIA production is part of the administrative record, the federal government argues. The court should look at the emails arranging these meetings, and determine only whether they are rightly considered part of the administrative record. The emails were not themselves “considered in reaching the decisions to reinstate the leases,” they assert. Or, as they put it at the end of their brief, the emails were not “actually before the decisionmaker.”

Finally, Plaintiffs’ motion should be denied because Plaintiffs offer these documents for an impermissible purpose. Plaintiffs admit that they intend to use the documents to attempt to show Federal Defendants’ subjective intent in reaching the challenged decisions. But the law of this Circuit is clear that APA review is limited to an agency’s stated justifications, not the mental processes or subjective motivations that may underlie a decision. For this reason, this Court should deny Plaintiffs’ motion because the proposed supplement is irrelevant to the questions before the Court.

The Court is not going to guess at mental processes or motivations, but can it really come to a decision about the arbitrary and capricious nature of the Jorjani opinion without considering what the plaintiffs call “the why and the how” of the Jorjani opinion? Or without taking into account the fact that the CEO of Antofagasta himself was “actually before the decisionmaker,” several times? That is what these documents show.

Update, 23 March 2019. Yesterday, as I was writing the previous update, the Plaintiffs filed a reply to the DOJ brief.

In this latest filing, the attorneys for Voyageur et al. argue that the documents produced by Interior in response to my FOIA request cannot be dismissed on the grounds that they are just “deliberative” or covered by attorney-client privilege. The agency has already redacted these documents to protect deliberative process and preserve attorney-client privilege, and “plaintiffs only seek to include the documents as redacted.”

They also make clear that their real complaint has to do with the Department of Interior claiming that they were merely correcting an error in the M-Opinion issued by Solicitor Tompkins. “Under the banner of error correction,” Jorjani smuggled in a new policy. “The documents…are relevant to establishing whether the stated rationale was pretextual,” in which case, they would be relevant to the plaintiffs’ claim that the agency did not have the proper authority to issue the new opinion.

Finally, they take up the DOJ’s argument that the documents in question were not “before the decisionmakers.” As I mentioned yesterday, this argument essentially amounts to saying that the decisionmakers did not have the emails themselves before them as they worked. Here, the plaintiffs cite case law to the effect that “a document need not literally pass before the eyes of the final agency decision maker to be considered part of the administrative record,” as a 1996 case, Miami Nation of Indians v. Babbitt, reads. But that is not even the major flaw in DOJ’s argument, they say. 

The documents were “to and from” the decisionmakers themselves, “generated by, and circulated between” them; and “agency decisionmakers considered them directly or indirectly” in reaching their decisions. Some of the documents show decisionmakers running their work by the White House and other policymakers. Looking at the Twin Metals timeline, it is hard to deny that “influential officials responsible for domestic and international policy concerns discussed Twin Metals with the agency decisionmakers in the lead-up to the challenged decisions,” as the Plaintiffs assert here.

Still others show requests coming directly from Antofagasta Plc, and internal discussions at Interior about the meeting between CEO Arriagada and high-level officials. The DOJ has already introduced into the administrative record the April 17, 2017 letter from Ivan Arriagada to Ryan Zinke (which I discuss here). So they admit that’s relevant and part of the record. Why admit that and exclude other correspondence that shows the extent of Antofagasta’s influence over the Office of the Solicitor, its meetings with the State Department, or the Trump White House?

If I may venture a summary: this appears to be a case of high-level public officials blatantly serving the private interests of a foreign mining conglomerate, and pretending all the while to be scrupulous about the law.

Update, 8 April 2019. Today, Judge McFadden issued an order denying the Plaintiffs’ motion to admit documents produced through my January 2018 FOIA request. The court relied for its decision on the “strong presumption” that an agency has properly compiled the administrative record. So “the Court finds that the Federal Defendants have compiled the administrative record here in good faith.” This is a setback for the plaintiffs, and, for what it’s worth, a good occasion for me to think about the record I am producing here.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

“America is Not a Company”: Lowenthal Questions Nedd on the Boundary Waters

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“…documents that have already been released”: the February 2017 email from Michael Nedd that Representative Lowenthal used for today’s line of questioning.

One of the documents I obtained from the Department of Interior through a Freedom of Information Act Request came up for discussion at this morning’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Hearing.

Representative Alan Lowenthal of California kicked off the question and answer period by asking Michael Nedd of the Bureau of Land Management when he first discussed the issues of the Twin Metals mineral leases in Superior National Forest with the incoming administration. Nedd was evasive (as he was throughout the entire hearing, prompting Representative Jared Huffman to remind him, at one point, that he is “not a potted plant”).

A second question from Lowenthal: “do you recall who from the incoming Trump administration first discussed the issue with you?” got an equally vague reply: Nedd said he did not have “a specific recollection.” So Lowenthal offered a reminder:

Well from documents that have already been released, we know that in early February of 2017, you sent out a briefing memo on this topic, which was entitled “Withdrawal Options.”

As the timeline shows, this email is — so far — the first time the Twin Metals matter is raised at Interior after the new administration takes office. It indicates that Nedd was following up on a discussion he had with staff either that day or before that day; and it raises the question why this matter appears to have been a Trump administration priority. Nedd wanted an updated briefing paper, pronto, by close of business on Thursday, February 9th. Why was this matter top of mind for him? Why the quick turnaround? Why the urgency?

Blumenthal also asked for a copy of the original briefing paper Nedd attached, and Nedd was agreeable but non-committal, saying he would take Blumenthal’s request back to the Department of the Interior. We already know that just a few months later, by late April of 2017, this briefing paper would have undergone enough revision so that the Karen Hawbecker could refer to “options we’ve identified for reversing action on the Twin Metals decision.” So that tells us what we need to know about the direction Nedd gave the group for “working together.” They were to reverse what the previous administration had done.

At whose direction? And why? We still don’t have satisfactory answers to these questions.

Here is Lowenthal’s first round of questioning on the Boundary Waters reversal, which includes his exchange with Nedd over his Briefing Paper. (The video here is cued to the start of his question.)

Later in the hearing, at around 1:26, Lowenthal questions Chris French of the US Forest Service on Secretary Perdue’s cancellation of the environmental assessment in Superior National Forest and about the false assurances Perdue gave Representative McCollum, and asks that French provide relevant documents. After that there is some back and forth with Representative Gosar, who complains of executive overreach by the Obama administration, claims the people of Minnesota want these mineral leases renewed, ends by arguing that polling questions can be misleading, and if we had polled people properly back in 1919, we wouldn’t have a Grand Canyon National Park today. I’m not exactly sure how that last argument is supposed to win the day at a hearing on public lands.

For his part, Lowenthal has a strong sense of what’s at stake throughout this hearing. Just consider this excerpt from his opening statement on the Trump doctrine of “energy dominance” that now informs policy at the Department of Interior:

America is not a company. It may seem like President Trump is trying to treat us like one, like many of his other companies, and let us run it into the ground. But America is a country, not a company, and America’s lands are not excess inventory that need to be disposed of. Our natural resources are not reserves that need to be booked, so our stock prices stay high and our investors stay happy. Our public lands are an investment that we’re holding for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and generations beyond. They’re an investment that pays off, by allowing them to know, our grandchildren, great grandchildren, what vast stretches of untainted wilderness look like. That lets them see with their own eyes polar bears, sage grouse, mule deer, and caribou, running wild and free. That lets them learn about ancient native cultures without having to go to a museum, and lets some cultures continue to observe and respect the same traditions that their ancestors have. These are all priceless. They’re irreplaceable. And these are all infinitely more important than whatever extra few dollars can line an oil baron’s pocket over the next few years. I just hope our land management agencies still understand that.

A New Boundary Waters FOIA Request

On Tuesday of last week, the Washington, DC-based organization American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the decision to renew Twin Metals Minnesota’s leases in Superior National Forest, on the edge of the Boundary Waters.

This March 5th request is much broader in scope than the FOIA request I made back in January of 2017, which has so far yielded about five-thousand pages in documents, with more still to come. Slowly but surely, a picture is coming into focus. American Oversight’s question about “outside influence” can already be answered with an unequivocal yes:

Nonetheless, this new request promises to deepen our understanding of how Interior went about reversing Obama era protections for the Boundary Waters, at whose direction they did so, and why the matter appears to have been a priority for the incoming administration.

Three things intrigue me about American Oversight’s request.

First, it extends from January 20th, 2017 to the present. My request for documents from the Office of the Solicitor runs only to December of 2017, when the Jorjani decision was released. So the new request will take us up to the present, and include actions taken by Interior and USDA in 2018.

Second, American Oversight has asked for any communications on this matter from Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, from their official White House accounts and from their personal ijkfamily.com email domain, and from anyone using their personal email domain. This will help clarify the role Kushner, Trump, and the Trump White House might have played in the Boundary Waters reversal, and what connections, if any, we can draw between their rental of the Luksic-owned Kalorama mansion and the renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases. That may involve a foreign emolument. This aspect of the new request also promises to inform a broader American Oversight investigation into Jared and Ivanka’s roles in the administration.

Third, and perhaps most intriguing of all, American Oversight’s request zeroes in on an April 28, 2017 meeting with Wilmer Hale’s Rob Lehman at the Department of the Interior. I added this meeting to the Twin Metals timeline after discovering it on the calendar of Chief of Staff Scott Hommel (which American Oversight obtained back in June of 2018).

A look at the timeline shows that this was an especially busy period for Interior officials working on — or should I say with? — Twin Metals: on April 27th, in preparation for a meeting between Deputy Secretary James Cason and Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada, Raya Treiser of Wilmer Hale forwards some background materials. Among them, the Waxman letter to Solicitor Hillary Tompkins that Interior would use as a blueprint. The very next day, Lehman comes to meet with Kathleen Benedetto, an 11AM meeting. Who else was in the room? We don’t know. We do know that right after that meeting Benedetto briefed her colleagues at the Office of the Solicitor. The purpose of the Benedetto briefing, according to Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker, was “to get some feedback from [Benedetto] on the options we’ve identified for reversing action on the Twin Metals decision.”

So by late April, the course appears already set. The options on the table were all for “reversing”; and as if to seal the deal, one week later, Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada and his entourage arrive at the Department of the Interior for a first meeting. What was discussed on that occasion, and whether any assurances were given to Mr. Arriagada, remains unknown. The actions Interior subsequently took speak for themselves.

Cert Denied in MCRC v. EPA

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18-555 among the denied petitions on this morning’s list of Supreme Court orders.

A public agency’s effort to cut a road through the Michigan wilderness for a Canadian mining company has suffered yet another legal setback.

This morning, the Supreme Court published the list of orders from its March 1 conference. The court has denied the petition for certiorari in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, the dispute over County Road 595 I’ve been following since 2015. This denial means, simply, that the Supreme Court declines to review the case, without further comment, and the decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stands.

The Road Commission’s case turned on the question whether objections by the EPA to the proposal for CR 595 constituted “final agency action.” If so, they would be reviewable by a court. In arguments before the Sixth Circuit, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Miller insisted that EPA’s objections to the Road Commission’s proposal were tantamount to a “veto,” but his repeated use of that word ended up confusing the judges, and their questions about it exposed the weakness of his argument.. The Road Commission, they reminded him, could always have simply gone back to the Army Corps of Engineers with an amended proposal that took the EPA’s objections into account.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Miller made a lot of other arguments before the Sixth Circuit (and the in pages of the Wall Street Journal) that suggest this case was about more than building a haul road from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill. Like others advocating for CR 595, he tried to suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency was in cahoots with environmental groups, and part of an anti-mining conspiracy. These arguments were never intended to go anywhere legally. They were, instead, put forward to raise the profile of the dispute over Country Road 595. They brought in dark money and support from outside groups. They divided people. They helped advance a larger political project.

After a long and fruitless detour through the court system, the Road Commission has come to a legal dead end. But the Road Commission and its allies, within and without Marquette County, still have options. Lundin Mining’s development of Eagle East has extended the life of the mine to 2023 — “at least,” the company says. There is nothing to prevent the Road Commission from revising its proposal, and trying again. The question remains whether doing so would serve the broad public interest, or simply advance the short-term interests of the mining company.

Read other posts about MCRC v. EPA here

What’s Up With the Kalorama Business License?

As of this morning, it looks as if the lawyers for Chilean mining magnate Andronico Luksic Craig decided not to renew, or simply neglected to renew, the District of Columbia business license for Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., the company that owns the Kalorama Triangle mansion rented by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. (For some background, see this post.) A search for the license on the District of Columbia’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs site conducted yesterday at 9:43AM — on the day the license was set to expire — showed that it was “ready to renew.”
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Today, the same search yields no records.

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A search for Tracy DC Real Estate’s corporate information on the DC Business Center site shows the same thing: the entity is active, but does not have a Basic Business License or “BBL.”

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So it’s possible that Tracy DC Real Estate is no longer carrying a business license for the Kalorama mansion, and has been unlicensed in DC as of midnight last night. (District of Columbia municipal regulations require all landlords to have a business license. Those without one cannot legally demand that tenants pay their rent and may incur fines.) It seems equally likely that there is something about the way the system processes renewals that accounts for the disappearance of Tracy DC Real Estate licensing information.

I wasn’t able to learn much one way or the other when I called the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs this morning and inquired about the lack of search results. The clerk told me the license had probably disappeared from the search because the license simply had not been renewed, but, he added, there is always a chance the paperwork is still “in the mail” and the renewal just hasn’t been processed.

In the mail? The DCRA site offers online renewal services, and it seems odd that Luksic’s attorneys, or Tracy DC Real Estate’s corporation agent, CT Corporation Services, would not have taken advantage of that. These are not people who let things lapse or go about their affairs in a careless or haphazard way. (Public records show, for example, that they have scrupulously kept up with property tax payments, incurring no penalties since taking ownership. The next tax payment on the Kalorama mansion — $22,540 — is due on March 31, 2019.*)

As the Twin Metals timeline indicates, Tracy DC Real Estate was formed on December 15, 2016, the same day as Department of Interior Solicitor Hillary Tompkins issued her M-Opinion denying renewal of the Twin Metals leases in Superior National Forest. Corporate records show that incorporation was done by Jonathan Cohen and Richard J. Snyder of the law firm Duane Morris LLP. (Filings list the Duane Morris LLP offices on 505 9th Street NW in Washington, DC as Tracy DC Real Estate’s business address.) A Robert M. Snyder, who does not appear to work at Duane Morris, but appears to be a relative of attorney Richard J. Snyder, is listed as the “governor” of the corporation.

Richard J. Snyder’s bio on the Duane Morris site makes it clear that setting up the business end of the Kalorama Triangle mansion is just one of several matters he handles for the powerful Luksic family. For this same “Forbes 100 listed South American family and certain Liechtenstein-owned U.S. entities,” Synder also handled a “$50 million unsecured loan and mortgage financing involving 14 properties in three states with attendant U.S. tax advice.”** He advised unnamed “South American investors” and a “related Lichtenstein establishment” on corporate restructuring of $72 million in real estate and other assets in six jurisdictions, including France, Panama, Peru, Massachusetts, Florida, and Colorado.

I can’t say what these loans and restructurings are all about, and whether they have any connection to the Boundary Waters reversal story I’ve been pursuing. The Colorado matter, for instance, might simply have to do with Andronico Luksic’s home in Aspen. But it’s pretty clear that these South American and Lichtensteinian matters are all Luksic Group matters. The Luksic and Fontbona families conduct much of the Luksic Group business, including their control of mining conglomerate Antofagasta, Plc, and Quinenco, S.A., an investment firm, through Lichenstein-based vehicles.

It seems unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility, that an attorney entrusted with such grave responsibilities would overlook the simple renewal of a business license. Especially not with such high profile tenants in the mix. If this is indeed an oversight or a matter of waiting for the DCRA system to update, it will probably be corrected in the next few days. If not, it could be a signal that the Kalorama property is going to be put on the market, or transferred to some other entity, and that something else is afoot.

Update 7 March 2019. One week on, and no license renewal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the group behind Tracy DC Real Estate, having gotten what it wanted, or all it’s going to get from this administration, no longer sees any need to keep up appearances, or pretend that the rental ever was a legitimate business arrangement. Non-renewal of the business license strongly suggests that the Kalorama mansion should be looked upon as a foreign emolument.

*Update 26 March, 2019. Still no record online of the Tracy DC Real Estate business license renewal, but the property taxes for the first half of 2019 have been paid. And on 20 March, the corporation filed a biennial report with the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. These reports are due by April 1st of each second calendar year. They appears to be keeping up with everything except the business license.

**Update 5 May 2019. This financing activity may have included the Kalorama mansion. On April 5th, 2018, Rodrigo Swett signed a Deed of Trust for 2.75M on the property at 2449 Tracy Place NW. On the same day, he signed similar instruments for multiple properties in Miami Beach and at least 7 properties in Boston’s Back Bay. That would seem to cover the “three states” (Florida, Massachusetts, and District of Columbia) to which Synder refers in his bio.

Update 9 June 2019. The business license for the mansion was renewed on 31 May, 2019, a full three months after it was allowed to expire.

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What accounts for the three month lapse? An oversight by Luksic’s lawyers seems the most likely explanation. Or maybe, after borrowing against the property in April 2018, the owners planned to change its status, then decided to stay the course.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here

A Standing Offer to Steve Kornacki

Last week, Richard Painter tweeted out this clip of an interview he did with NBC’s Steve Kornacki back in April of 2018. At the time, Painter was running against Tina Smith for Al Franken’s senate seat.

Notice what happens just before Kornacki pushes Painter on the credibility of Franken’s accusers — starting around the 1:07 mark here. Painter says that Smith should be “a lot stronger against” Trump on three fronts: first, she should have come out against his trade war; second, she should call for his removal from office, because he is unable to execute his constitutional duties; and

furthermore, we have serious problems in the state of Minnesota where out of state mining interests are coming into our state, large conglomerates, with the support of the Trump administration, seeking to destroy our Boundary Waters and other waterways in the state of Minnesota. Our establishment Democratic, Farm Labor, senators and members of Congress, most of them are not standing up to that. So we need to have — both parties to be fixed; both parties need to be fixed.

Kornacki sums up what he is “hearing”: “I’m hearing trade, I’m hearing impeachment,” and then he rushes headlong into the topic that will dominate the rest of the segment: whether Richard Painter believes Al Franken’s accusers. How is it possible Kornacki didn’t hear the bit about mining interests? It’s all the more remarkable because Painter spent the most time on the mining story, about twice as much time as he did on impeachment, and a lot more time than he did on trade. How could Kornacki simply skip over it? Why no follow up?

The most likely answer is, Kornacki already knew where this interview was heading — back to Al Franken — and the mining story looked like nothing more than a detour. In retrospect, however, it looks as if Kornacki missed a big political story, or several stories, details of which are only now coming to light.

To stick just to the Boundary Waters story for the moment: a foreign mining company and its lobbyists appear to have dictated decisions at the US Department of Interior. As documents obtained through FOIA make clear, these decisions were coordinated at the highest levels of the US government, with USDA, the White House and the State Department all in the loop. And it sure looks as if the fix was in from the very first days of the new administration, with a predetermined outcome guiding the moves federal government officials made behind closed doors, without public input, and with disregard for science, economics, and the law.

I’ve offered to buy Steve Kornacki lunch and walk him through the details of this story. That’s a good faith, standing offer. There is even more at stake here than the just administration of public lands and the protection of waterways. This is also a story about a coordinated effort to sidestep democratic governance and undermine our shared public life. That ought to be of some interest to a national political correspondent for NBC News.

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters Reversal here.