Category Archives: The Boundary Waters Reversal

A New OpEd and an Upcoming Webinar on FOIA and the Fight for the Boundary Waters

In today’s MinnPost, Chris Knopf and I discuss one finding of the documents I obtained through FOIA: Chilean mining company Antofagasta set the terms — the calendar and the scope — of environmental review for the renewal of its mineral leases near the Boundary Waters. The OpEd is here.

On Wednesday, I’ll be presenting some of my research (and talking about the Freedom of Information Act and good government) in a free online webinar hosted by Friends of the Boundary Waters. You can register here.

Update 9 July 2020: here is a recording of the webinar.

Heavy-Handed Assertions of Privilege

 

With Aaron’s encouragement, I wrote on June 23 and again yesterday to Lance Purvis, Office of the Solicitor FOIA Officer at the Department of the Interior, asking about the redaction of what are essentially public relations exercises: Talking Points and a “brief blurb” drafted by Gary Lawkowski in December of 2017 to explain the reversal of the Obama administration’s legal opinion on Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.

The redacted documents, which I posted on Twitter and included in a previous post, are marked with Exemption (b) (5). This covers attorney/client, attorney work product, or deliberative process privilege; and it is intended to protect documents that are pre-decisional, or unfinalized, where someone at an agency seeks legal advice for formulating policy, or where agency officials deliberate about a policy or decision.

Though Gary Lawkowski is an attorney and was at that time working for Solicitor Daniel Jorjani — they are fellow travelers from the Koch Brothers-backed Freedom Partners — these public-facing communications do not constitute legal advice for formulating policy. Can they be withheld as internal agency deliberations? Only if they are pre-decisional and their release would confuse the public about steps the agency decided not to take; and that would be a real stretch, as these documents explain a decision already taken, namely, the new legal opinion. So how can communications of this kind, talking points and blurbs intended for public consumption, be covered by Exemption 5?

The most relevant case in the Justice Department’s own archive of court decisions on Exemption 5 appears to be Fox News Network LLC v. Dept of Treasury. This was a 2012 case that dealt directly with the assertion of Exemption 5 to withhold public relations documents and communiques. The outcome was mixed: the court granted and denied motions for summary judgment in part for both the plaintiff and the defendant.

The documents at issue relate to press releases, inquiries from the press, and related e-mails, which were withheld because “they reflect ‘how best to present Treasury’s position.’  In an earlier decision [a 2010 decision on Fox v. Treasury which Judge Frank Maas refers to as Fox I], the court explained “that communication concerning how to present agency policies to the press or public, although deliberative, typically do not qualify as substantive policy decisions protected by the deliberative process privilege.” The court states: “Drafts of public relations documents therefore may properly be withheld if their release would reveal the status of internal agency deliberations or substantive policy matters.” Applying these principles, the court finds that disclosure of drafts of certain press releases and related e-mails would “reveal the evolution of Treasury’s thinking regarding the proposed restructuring of the AIG investments.” However, where it cannot be “shown that the materials relate to anything other than past events…[and] there is no indication that the ‘public response’ about which the author speaks involves policy action, rather than mere messaging[,]…documents are not entitled to protection under the deliberative process privilege.” [emphasis mine]

 A full week has gone by without reply or even acknowledgement. These documents are being released as part of an agreement reached in my pro se FOIA lawsuit against the Trump administration, so the issue will need to be addressed. And while these heavy-handed assertions of privilege may seem small and not worth arguing over — what are we going to learn from those talking points that we don’t already know? — they are part of a larger pattern of abuse.

 

A Small Set of Jorjani Boundary Waters Documents

A new set of documents released yesterday in response to my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit offers a little more insight into the role high-level political appointees at the Department of Interior played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

This latest release is the smallest I’ve received to date: 197 pages, whittled down by reviewers from 1,000 potentially responsive pages. As always, the documents are pretty thoroughly redacted, with most of the redactions made under Exemption 5, which covers attorney-client, attorney-work product, and deliberative process privilege.

Most of the documents appear to be email correspondence to and from Daniel Jorjani, who was then Principal Deputy Solicitor at the Department of Interior. I’ve written about Jorjani before (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4). Some of these documents have already been made public. But even these duplicates can be revealing. For example, an exchange between Daniel Jorjani and David Bernhardt mocking Governor Dayton includes the Principal Deputy Solicitor’s approving reply (“perfect”) to Bernhardt’s sneer, which I had not seen before:

perfectSalazar

Or consider this example, which I posted on Twitter yesterday:

Lawkowski thought it might be a good idea, for public relations purposes, to make it seem that Chilean mining giant Antofagasta’s copper and nickel mining operation in Minnesota would deliver critical minerals: “the Forest Service has indicated that they believe there are potentially cobalt and platinum deposits underneath Superior National Forest,” he writes on December 20th, 2017, noting that cobalt and platinum were included on the new list of “critical minerals” published by the US Geological Survey earlier that same week.

He may have shared the same line of thinking with Downey Magallanes, another political appointee, at around the same time. “Are you working on twin metals [sic],” she writes, asking if Lawkowksi can “do a blurb for the weekly report much like you did for MBTA [the MIgratory Bird Treaty Act, subject of another controversial December 2017 Solicitor’s opinion]?”  Lawkowski is ready to help, and runs his (here, wholly redacted) effort by Haugrud and Jorjani:

lawkowskimagallanes

At the time, Magallanes was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy at the Department of the Interior. (She now works in Government Affairs at BP.) As the timeline indicates, she had been in the Twin Metals loop since at least April of 2017. In December, as Deputy Solicitor Jorjani prepared to release a new legal opinion that would clear the way for the reinstatement and renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters,  it would have been Downey’s job to integrate the legal opinion into a broader policy framework. Invoking the new list of critical minerals would have helped her do that.  Platinum and cobalt deposits in the Duluth Complex would provide a policy rationale — or at least a convenient pretext — for allowing Antofagasta to mine copper and nickel on the edge of the Boundary Waters. 

You can explore the new set of documents here, and all the Boundary Waters records I have received to date here

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

A Debate Over Environmental Review? New Boundary Waters Documents

“Again pinging BLM”: in 2017, the US Forest Service appears to have been concerned over what standards of environmental review applied to the proposed mineral withdrawal in Superior National Forest.

A new set Boundary Waters documents arrived yesterday. This is the latest monthly installment in a “supplemental production” of responsive records the Department of Interior agreed to make after I sued for failure to comply with FOIA. This batch includes 378 pages, pretty thoroughly redacted. I’ve put them online (1,2, 3, along with the rest of the Boundary Waters documents I’ve obtained) and started to go through them.

Their arrival might be timely. Some of the records show officials at the Department of Interior trying to decide on appropriate standards of environmental review as they work on renewing Chilean mining giant Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest. That is a question at the heart of a new lawsuit filed at the start of this month in US District Court for the District of Columbia.

Wilderness Society et al. v. David Bernhardt et al. says the Bureau of Land Management failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in renewing Antofagasta’s mineral leases. It also charges that the US Forest Service acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner (in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act) when it reversed course and promoted mine development, despite having previously found that allowing sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters would pose unacceptable risks.

Hopefully this case is going to shed light on the question why Interior rushed to renew Antofagasta’s mineral leases, and at whose direction, and why Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue abruptly cancelled the scientific study of sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters.

While the new documents don’t answer those questions directly, they conform to the pattern we’ve seen in previous document releases. They paint a picture of nearly complete regulatory capture, with Interior officials meeting and working closely with executives from Antofagasta and their Twin Metals Minnesota subsidiary as well as lobbyists from WilmerHale.

There are, for example, records here of a March 6, 2018 meeting and another on March 22nd. Daniel Altikes (the Antofagasta executive I discussed in a previous post) flies up “from Chile” for that one:

The documents also show Antofagasta/Twin Metals weighing in on what standards of environmental review should apply to the renewal of their mineral leases as well as their preference right lease applications (or PRLAs). According to the meeting summary prepared by Ryan Sklar of the Office of the Solicitor, the mining company recognizes “that there is debate about the type and scope of review that is necessary/appropriate.” Not surprisingly, they would prefer a Categorical Exclusion (CX: meaning the renewal would essentially be exempt from environmental review!), but they will settle for a “limited EA” (which is essentially what they got).

The meeting with Altikes and the lobbyists from WilmerHale on Thursday, March 22nd appears to be the follow up Sklar mentions here. It’s unclear from the documents I have whether there was much debate on that occasion or any dissent in the room at all.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

An April Set of Boundary Waters Documents, or, Mr. Altikes Comes to Washington

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.

These documents (in five parts, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) are now posted on documentcloud.org along with the other Boundary Waters documents I’ve obtained through FOIA.

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.

Altikes3Oct2018

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.)

The letter accompanied a four-page Twin Metals legal memorandum.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

What’s Being Hidden?

McCollum Fong

“One page after another. Nothing.”

This is what science looks like under the Trump administration. Just imagine what’s happening with the coronavirus outbreak.

Here is Representative Betty McCollum at a February 11th hearing holding up the USDA report on the nearly-completed two year Forest Service study of sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. Every single page of the report except the cover was completely redacted under deliberative process privilege before it was released. That’s nearly two full years of scientific study, obliterated and kept from public view.

“That begins to beg a question,” McCollum says. “What’s being hidden?”

Update, 12 March 2020. Senator Martin Heinrich asked Secretary David Bernhardt about these redactions at a March 10th Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing.

“Having sat on the Intelligence Committee,” he noted, “I’ve never seen something so fully redacted in my life.”

Bernhardt was simpering and evasive.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

New Boundary Waters Document Releases Coming

This week offered some reminders of how little we still know about the Trump administration’s decision to allow copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters.

On Tuesday, Friends of the Boundary Waters filed suit in US District Court in Minneapolis to compel the Bureau of Land Management to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, and made the case that BLM appears to be trying to keep its actions “secret.” The very next day, Representative Alan Lowenthal took up the same theme at a hearing on HR 5598, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act.

Everything the administration has done on this issue raises serious questions. Why was the environmental review cancelled? Why is there a solicitor’s memo that is so at odds with the historical record? Who applied pressure to reinstate the leases? Did it have anything to do with the fact that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are renting a house from the head of the mining company that’s developing the project? This committee has requested documents from both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, in an effort to get to the bottom of this decision-making. But instead of sending us what we requested, we got pages and pages of nonsense, with just a few relevant documents mixed in. I also directly raised the issue at a hearing with both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service last year, and my questions were met with obfuscation and a supposed lack of knowledge on certain details.

Obfuscation is a polite way to describe the behavior of Interior officials at this very hearing. Take, for example, what happened when Lowenthal asked Chris French, Deputy Chief of the National Forest System, why Secretary Perdue had cancelled the planned two-year scientific study in Superior National Forest, after publicly committing to see it through. It’s a full five minutes of French repeating the same bureaucratic non-answer, and then failing to answer when the question is put to him as a yes or no. The video is cued to the exchange.

Just today, in response to my own FOIA suit, the Department of Interior all but admitted that they had failed to conduct an adequate search of records. From the very start, it appears, the scope of the search was deliberately narrowed, in a very specific way, but to what end I cannot say. It turns out their initial search, which produced about 6,000 pages of records, and which they claimed was complete, used only a few of the terms from my original request. Notably, the original search excluded references to Antofagasta Plc, Andronico Luksic Craig, and the Luksic family, as if to keep the Chilean mining conglomerate, its billionaire owner, and the Chilean side of this story entirely out of view. From today’s Joint Status Resolution:

as of February 6, 2020, nearly 22,000 pages have been received using the more expansive set of search terms, with searches still to be run against one custodian (whose records need to be processed by the Interior’s Office of the Chief Information Officer). This page number is therefore subject to change as Defendant awaits the final custodian’s records. The page count will also change, and is expected to decrease significantly, after the FOIA office completes de-duplication within the new search results and cross-checks against records that have already been produced to Plaintiff. The parties have agreed to monthly releases of 750 pages beginning March 15, 2020.

A slow trickle, but I’m cautiously optimistic that these monthly installments will fill in some more details of a picture that remains sketchy. I plan to share them on documentcloud as they arrive.

Update, 7 April 2020: The first of these releases was delayed due to the coronavirus emergency. Interior’s FOIA office began teleworking on March 13th, just two days before the first production was due. According to the Joint Status Report filed today, “two, approximately 700-page productions” are now scheduled for release “before April 15, 2020.”

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

A Brief Note to Close the Year

Having my research on the Boundary Waters reversal featured in a front page New York Times story ought to have been the highlight of my year. But whatever satisfaction I might have felt when the story ran back in June of 2019, or when some of the documents I obtained were cited in Congressional hearings, has now given way to more deeply felt concerns about the direction things appear to be taking and the inadequacy of my efforts to do anything about it, except, perhaps, to point to more evidence of corruption, undue influence, and administrative malfeasance.

Over the past year, my plans for a documentary film about the mischief I’d begun to uncover were sidetracked, and — who knows — maybe even fatally derailed by a complex paper chase, which at this point involves about a half dozen Freedom of Information Act requests and a pro-se FOIA lawsuit I brought. The detour is now the road. It happens more often than not. Maybe the best I can do, at present, is to keep following the story where it leads and report on what I find along the way.

With the outcome of my records requests and the larger project of which they are a part uncertain, and with other projects also needing my attention, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. Besides, the frustration of my own plans counts for very little when you consider the bigger picture.

Having obtained a favorable legal opinion from the Department of Interior and put the kibosh on a planned two-year scientific study, the mining company and its government touts are charging ahead. In just the past few weeks, we have seen Twin Metals submit a mine plan to the Bureau of Land Management and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Republicans have worked together with Treasury, OMB, and the Executive Office of the President to strip language from the 2020 budget that would have funded a new study by the National Academy of Sciences. Representative Betty McCollum has asked the State Department to submit a report on how the US will meet its obligations under Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 if sulfide mining in Superior National Forest should proceed; and Voyageur et al. v. US, the most serious legal challenge to the Twin Metals project, is ongoing. But right now the momentum appears to be with those who would refuse science, ignore history, and subvert the law.

On September 27 of this year, the Department of State informed me that a Freedom of Information Act request filed in November of 2018 will not be completed until April of 2022.

In this regard, the momentum around Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project describes what is by now a familiar pattern. Many aspects of this story fit the new mold of our dysfunctional politics. Two of my pending FOIA requests — one to State, the other to Interior — seek documents on the use of the United States embassy in Santiago, Chile as a business backchannel. We don’t know why or to what extent the State Department was involved in advancing the business interests of a Chilean conglomerate. Questions persist about Trump’s first nominee for ambassador to Chile — Andrew Gellert, a longtime business associate of the Kushners — and about the nominee who replaced Gellert after his nomination was quietly withdrawn: Leora Levy, a republican fundraiser and Trump campaign surrogate from Connecticut who donated $25,000 to Trump’s inaugural. The quid pro quo shenanigans revealed by the Ukraine fiasco suggest these foreign policy questions might be worth pursuing. With the State Department telling me that I should not expect any response to my FOIA request until April 2022, we may have to resort to reading the tea leaves of whatever Boundary Waters report the State Department releases in response to Congresswoman McCollum’s request.

We head into the new year with a lot of issues in this case still unresolved, and it’s not clear that resolving them — finding out the truth, or discovering exactly how this particular deal went down — will necessarily have much bearing on how things actually turn out. The destructive forces set in motion are not likely to be stopped or even slowed by some new fact or revelation — though there’s always the chance they might. Power may not now be “immune to truth-tellers”, as Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote, but the people currently in power are certainly impervious to truth, contemptuous of knowledge, and dismissive of evidence. The answer to their epistemological nihilism is not despair, or the fond hope that one day history will vindicate the truth-tellers (and on this point I depart from Lithwick). The answer, instead, is to reclaim and reconstruct power. That is the essential work of the next decade.

On the Boundary Waters, Top Interior Department Lawyer Gets the Historical Record Wrong

Newspaper accounts and congressional testimony from 1966 suggest that Solicitor of the Interior Daniel Jorjani overlooked — or deliberately suppressed — critical evidence when he ruled, in 2017, that Antofagasta Plc had a right to renew its mineral leases near the Boundary Waters.

About a month ago, and just two days after his Senate confirmation as Solicitor of the Department of the Interior, Daniel Jorjani appeared before the House Natural Resources Committee to testify about his agency’s failure to cooperate with congressional oversight requests.  A highlight of that hearing came when Representative Alan Lowenthal pressed Jorjani about the renewal of mining leases near the Boundary Waters.  Jorjani was politically motivated, Lowenthal contended, and acted without regard for “history, law, and common sense.”

To help drive home the point, Lowenthal produced a 1966 Department of the Interior press release that directly contradicts one of the key legal arguments Jorjani made: that the terms of the original 1966 International Nickel Company leases “govern” the two leases currently held by Antofagasta, Plc, and — this is critical to his argument — that renewal of the leases was not conditioned on bringing the mine into production: “the historical record of the 1966 lease implementations,” Jorjani wrote, “show that production was not made a condition of renewal.”

In making this argument, which involves a tortured reading of renewal terms in Section 5 of the 1966 leases, Jorjani followed the lead of Antofagasta’s own legal counsel, Seth Waxman. Here, Waxman appears to have led Solicitor Jorjani astray. As Lowenthal points out, Jorjani is unable to account for the Department of the Interior’s own press release, issued the very day the leases were signed in 1966, which states unambiguously that the leases will be renewed “if the property is brought into production within the initial 20 year term.” What are we to make of this discrepancy? This is a question Lowenthal has been asking for two-and-a-half years.

In the exchange that follows, Jorjani says legal opinions about contracts are “not driven by press releases” and offers some evasive, time-wasting thank yous for the question, but he fails to put the matter to rest. Here’s video cued to the start of Lowenthal’s time.

News reports about the lease signing only serve to strengthen Lowenthal’s point. A June 15, 1966 Associated Press story by George Moses reproduces the language of the Department of the Interior press release. Here, for example, is a detail from the story as it ran in the Fergus Falls, MN Daily Journal:

The twenty year condition appears to have been an uncontroversial part of the agreement, unlike royalty rates, which took until November of 1966 to approve. On November 14, 1966, the Star Tribune could still say “the situation in regard to copper and nickel taxation is cloudy,” and an article in the Star Tribune on December 22, 1966 makes it clear the subject is still being debated into the winter; but there is no indication of controversy over the lease renewal terms.

In the June 15th Associated Press story, Henry Wingate, Chairman of International Nickel Company, “said he expects the property to be producing within a few years.” He and others at International Nickel were confident — too confident, as it turns out. In a July 13, 1966 story in the Minneapolis Star, published just about a month after the lease signing, Wingate’s second in command, John Page, predicted they’d be in production “in three years, if everything goes right.”

Wingate and other executives at International Nickel were confident they could bring the Minnesota leases into production within the space of a few years because they had successfully brought a much larger mining operation into production in just four and a half years. In that case, they also had to build a town to house 4,000 workers and their families. (That is how the boomtown of Thompson, in Manitoba, Canada, came to be built.) Twenty years would have seemed like a cakewalk. Others felt assured. When John G. Harlan Jr. of the General Services Administration testified before the Senate in 1967, his understanding was that International Nickel “plan to get into the production” in Minnesota by the early 70s.

Wingate, Page, and Harlan were about to be disappointed and see their confidence deflated. Right around the time International Nickel signed its Minnesota leases, the company’s fortunes took an unexpected turn. Competition stiffened, as other producers began bringing less expensive nickel oxides and ferroalloys into production. Nickel miners struck at International Nickel’s Sudbury mine. In 1966, the strikes were violent; in 1969, they were disruptive. The early 1970s brought recession. International Nickel’s stock tumbled, and Wingate’s successor,  L. Edward Grubb, made it his policy to curtail new development. Wingate would die in 1977 without seeing the Minnesota leases he’d signed a decade earlier come into production.

For Jorjani’s reading of the 1966 leases to prevail, we have to ignore all this history — the issuing of the press release and contemporary news reports, the company’s false projections of confidence, the bottom-line effects of work stoppages and labor strife, the economic stagnation of the early 1970s, and the decision at International Nickel to cut back on new development. Surely this is all part of the rich historical record, and even this cursory review shows exactly the opposite of what Solicitor Jorjani claims.

Postscript, November 22, 2019. Nicholas Lemann devotes a few paragraphs to International Nickel’s 1974 acquisition of Electric Storage Battery (ESB) in Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream. It was the first “hostile” takeover (F.J. Port, ESB’s president, called it a “hostile tender offer made by a foreign company for all of ESB’s shares”).

The deal set a precedent, and helped set the pattern for a broader economic transition from industrial to financial capitalism. It also helps illustrate how far International Nickel had traveled in the short space of the eight years since it had acquired its Minnesota mineral leases in 1966.

By 1974, International Nickel Company was looking for steady and reliable sources of revenue to offset cyclical downturns in nickel, and ESB’s battery business seemed to offer that. After a hard fought battle, International Nickel won a Pyrrhic victory, purchasing ESB at an inflated price. The battery maker was losing money by 1981. Inco eventually broke it up and sold its parts.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here

 

Interior Still Hiding the Role of Political Appointees — Update on the Boundary Waters FOIA Case

Interior’s latest responses to my FOIA complaint show that the Office of the Solicitor continues to protect political appointees from public scrutiny. 

Back in July, I filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of the Interior in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, saying Interior had violated the Freedom of Information Act and was wrongfully withholding responsive documents. After providing me with about 5,000 pages of documents in response to a FOIA request I’d made on January 19th, 2018, and promising a “rolling release” of more documents, Interior abruptly cut me off, failing to answer numerous emails and phone calls, and leaving me with no recourse but to ask the court to compel them to comply with the law.

After asking for an extension, which I granted, lawyers for Interior filed an answer to my complaint on Wednesday, October 15th. The following day, Judge Boasberg issued a minute order asking the parties to confer and submit a joint proposed briefing schedule by the end of this month. It seems the case is now ready to go forward, with Interior maintaining that my complaint is groundless.

In a bid to settle the whole matter once and for all, just a few days earlier, on October 10th, Interior released a new set of responsive documents. The decision letter that accompanied this release copies the DOJ attorney for the defendants and characterizes this as the “third and final” decision for this particular FOIA request.

So, the position of the Department of the Interior appears to be: we have given you everything you are going to get, and you should stop complaining. The main trouble I have with this position is that they haven’t even begun to give me the very documents I ask for in my FOIA request: namely, and this is the very first item in the request, “any communication sent and received by the Office of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, including but not limited to any emails or letters sent and received directly by the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or on behalf of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, regarding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Antofagasta Plc, Twin Metals Minnesota,” and so on.  I’ve gotten nothing — zero, zip — to or from Ryan Zinke. Are we to believe that the Secretary of the Interior never communicated about a major reversal by his department of the previous administration? Nor have I gotten anything to or from Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, who signed the reversal, and whose communications I also asked for.

It’s pretty clear that Interior is protecting political appointees like Zinke and Jorjani from having to show their work — which is exactly what Jorjani has been trying to accomplish with his expansion of the FOIA awareness review policy at Interior. That is the thrust of reporting (like this and this) by Jake Holzman at Roll Call, and the reason why organizations like American Oversight, Earthjustice, and the Western Values Project have asked Interior’s Inspector General to launch an investigation of the awareness review process. It’s also an issue on which Jorjani may have misled the Senate during his confirmation hearing, prompting Senator Ron Wyden to ask that Jorjani’s confirmation be held up until it could be established whether he had perjured himself. (Despite Wyden’s effort, Jorjani was confirmed as Solicitor on September 24, 2019.)

What I’ve gotten, instead, is the work product of civil servants, career attorneys, not political appointees. Even that material has been revealing. With the documents provided so far, I’ve managed to put together a timeline of the work done at interior to reverse the Obama administration. The documents allow us to reconstruct an intensive lobbying effort led by WilmerHale that included visits by executives from Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta Plc and its subsidiary Twin Metals to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, the Department of the Interior, and the White House. It appears Antofagasta’s attorneys at WilmerHale even provided the blueprint for the M-Opinion, the reversal, that Daniel Jorjani eventually signed. Since I first put them online, these documents have also made their way into Congressional hearings and on to the front page of the New York Times.

The latest release of responsive records is yet another partial disclosure that keeps the work of political appointees out of view. The records come from Division of Mineral Resources attorney Brianna Collier. It’s the second batch of documents from Collier, and though they give us a little more detail into the reversal process, they are a dodge. I’ve added them to the online collection of Boundary Waters FOIA documents here.

All of the work product is heavily redacted, most of it totally redacted. Collier’s emails are more lightly redacted, and they show her at work on the draft of the Boundary Waters reversal as early as May of 2017, when she first prepares an outline of the new M-Opinion. She starts writing a draft in earnest after a meeting between Interior officials and Twin Metals executives on October 12th, 2017. She’s tasked with getting the thing done in the space of about a month, but others, like Jack Haugrud, appear to be calling the shots (as Collier makes clear on November 17th, when she writes to tell Haugrud she is “working away on editing the Twin Metals opinion according to your directions”).

Something notable happens that very evening, the new correspondence reveals. Haugrud becomes aware that Gary Lawkowski — a political appointee who at that time is serving as Counsel to Daniel Jorjani, and who worked with Jorjani at the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce — has been working on his own draft:

So it appears that there were, at one point, two drafts of the M-Opinion in circulation, one that Collier had been working on since first making an outline in May, and then another by political appointee Gary Lawkowski. Haugrud saw it as his job to reconcile them before forwarding the opinion to Daniel Jorjani for review. It’s not clear Lawkowski’s “ideas” made it into the final draft of the M-Opinion, or what those ideas were. When we next come across Lawkowski in the records we have so far, it’s December, and he’s circulating talking points about the reversal that put the focus on strategic and critical minerals. Does that tell us something about his ideas one month previous? If so, those political arguments never made it into the final M-Opinion.

Until we see more documents, and learn more about why this matter was a priority for the Trump administration, it will also remain unclear what role political appointees like Lawkowski, Jorjani, and Zinke played in the Boundary Waters reversal. This appears to be something they are trying to keep from the public. Why?

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here