McCollum Questions Zinke on the Boundary Waters Reversal

This morning, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appeared before the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing on the FY 2019 Budget.  The video below marks the moment when Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum questioned Secretary Zinke on the Boundary Waters reversal.

It begins with an exchange on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, in the course of which Zinke says reporting in the New York Times based on U.S. Department of Interior memos is not “credible.” Fake news.

McCollum then moves the discussion to the Boundary Waters reversal. Her main question, which she asks in a few different ways, is whether Deputy Solicitor Jorjani met with any stakeholders other than lobbyists for Twin Metals Minnesota before issuing his reversal memo.

Zinke’s response that this is all part of the public record is at best disingenuous, given that nearly all the information we have to date about the reversal is the result of FOIA requests; and it’s also Trumpian in its post-truthiness, since Zinke just declared a few moments earlier that reporting based on Department of Interior records is not to be trusted.

At any rate, here is the full exchange:

What Scott Pruitt’s Troubles Tell Us About Corruption in Kalorama

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the situation at 2449 Tracy Place NW, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent a mansion owned by Chilean mining billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, and Scott Pruitt’s sweetheart deal to rent a bedroom in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of powerful lobbyist Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, for fifty dollars a night. But that will not get us very far, and it’s best not to conflate the two cases.

To begin with, Jared and Ivanka are reportedly paying market rate for their place: $15,000 / month. While no one, to my knowledge, has seen records of those monthly payments in the form of cancelled checks or electronic transfer receipts, it seems pretty safe to assume that rent is actually being collected. Doesn’t it? The corporation that owns the property, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., was formed by Luksic’s lawyers at Duane Morris LLP in Boston, and the deal was put together by one of the Washington DC’s “top-producing” real estate agents: Cynthia Howar, who is herself a member of the bar. The lawyers, one would like to think, took care of the details.

Not so in Scott Pruitt’s case. Despite the friendly terms, Pruitt fell behind on his rental payments, according to Politico, “forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.” Pruitt’s landlord, Vicki Hart, did not have the appropriate business license to rent out a room in her Washington, DC condo, and now faces fines of up to $2000.

In Kalorama, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. had obtained the business license for a one family rental from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the District of Columbia by March of 2017. That license is good for two years, until February 28, 2019. Who can say where the first family tenants will be by then?

Of course, there is one important parallel to draw between the Pruitt case and the situation at Tracy Place. It doesn’t have to do with licenses or rental agreements or payments. It has to do with ethics — or an apparent lack of concern with ethics.

Scott Pruitt rushed an ethics review of his bedroom rental only after news stories about the deal started to appear. The review was botched, or its conclusions were forced; it’s unclear which. The EPA’s top ethics official now says he needs to revisit the matter, because he was not in full possession of the facts when he retroactively approved the arrangement. This only serves to highlight that the right time for Scott Pruitt to ask whether the rental was permissible or appropriate was before entering into it.

Much the same could be said of Jared and Ivanka’s rental of the Kalorama mansion: the lawyers may have left nothing undone, but there is still the question whether this rental agreement ought to have been struck in the first place, given the fact that the mansion’s owner — or the mining conglomerate his family controls — was suing the U.S. government over the renewal of mining leases.

Twin Metals Minnesota had already sued the United States government back in September of 2016 over lack of action on the Superior National Forest leases. When the Obama administration did act in December of 2016, denying renewal of the leases, and launching a study of a 20-year ban on sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, it was clear Twin Metals would sue again.

This second suit was filed by Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals, on February 21, 2017, just about a week before Tracy DC Real Estate obtained its license to rent the Kalorama mansion as a one family unit. A review of the rental agreement should obviously have been undertaken by the Office of the White House Counsel, with these and other facts in view, if only to preempt scandal-mongering and dispel any appearance of impropriety.

One of the earliest reports of the rental agreement in the Wall Street Journal quotes Rob Walker, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in election law and government ethics, to the effect that “there might not be an ethics problem” as long as the mansion is being rented at fair market value. Maybe not. But I’ve been unable to find any indication that a formal ethics review of the Kalorama rental agreement was ever requested or conducted.

Twin Metals At Interior – A Timeline

March 8, 2016 Department of Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins issues an ‘M Opinion’ providing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management discretion to grant or deny Twin Metals Minnesota lease renewal application.
July 1, 2016 Seth P. Waxman of Wilmer Hale writes to Solicitor Tompkins on behalf of Twin Metals, arguing that her Opinion was arrived at erroneously and should be withdrawn.
December 15, 2016 After the Forest Service notifies the Bureau of Land Management that it does not consent to the renewal of Twin Metals mineral leases in Superior National Forest, the Obama administration releases Memo M-37036, denying renewal of Twin Metals leases. Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. formed in DC by Luksic’s lawyers.
December 22, 2016 Tracy DC Real Estate Inc. purchases the Kalorama Triangle mansion at 2449 Tracy Pl NW. [For this part of the story, see this post.]
January 3, 2017 First news reports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are moving into the Kalorama mansion.
January 4, 2017 Official sale date entered for the Kalorama mansion.
February 7, 2017 Michael Nedd of the Bureau of Land Management forwards a briefing paper “previously used to brief the DOI leadership” to staff; cc: Karen Hawbecker and Aaron G. Moody in the office of the Solicitor; “as discussed, we would appreciate you all working together to come up with an updated BP with respect to Withdrawal options.”
February 9, 2017 email, Karen Hawbecker to Jack Haugrud, includes a “briefing paper to introduce the topic of the Twin Metals litigation to the SOL transition team.”
A paper prepared by Elena Fink of the Bureau of Land Management “options for addressing the withdrawal in Superior National Forest” begins to circulate: forwarded by Karen Mouritsen to Karen Hawbecker. Another email from Aaron G. Moody to Jack Haugrud recommends that Interior “work off of” the BLM paper.
February 21, 2017 Antofagasta subsidiaries Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals sue the United States Department of Interior over the withdrawal.
February 22, 2017 A “fire drill”: the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management has asked the Bureau of Land Management “for a brief ‘nutshell’ on the Twin Metals/Superior National Forest matter that can be given to the soon-to-be-confirmed Secretary [Ryan Zinke].” The paper will be included in Zinke’s briefing book.
February 28, 2017 Tracy DC Real Estate obtains business license for the rental at 2449 Tracy Pl. NW. The license expires in 2019.
March 7, 2017 Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior Jim Cason meets with Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Kristin Bail “and one of the issues they will discuss is the Superior NF withdrawal,” according to a March 6, 2017 email from BLM’s Bev Winston to DOI’s Karen Hawbecker. Winston asks specifically whether Hawbecker’s staff has “prepared anything on BLM’s options with regard to stopping the withdrawal process?”
April 6, 2017 Kathleen Benedetto: Ext. Meeting Boundary Waters [with?].
April 18, 2017 Benedetto: Ext. Mtg. Twin Metals [with? Cf. Friday 16 June].
April 19, 2017 Benedetto: Twin Metals. On the calendar of Karen Hawbecker, Associate Solicitor, Dept. of Interior.
April 21, 2017 email from Karen Hawbecker to Jack Haugrud: Twin Metals “options” paper requesting feedback, “to make sure you’re ok with the approach we’ve taken.”
April 24, 2017 On the calendar of Katharine MacGregor, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. Meeting with Timothy G. Martin of Wilmer Hale, on behalf of Twin Metals Minnesota. MacGregor has a call with Jorjani scheduled immediately after this meeting.
April 26, 2017 On the calendar of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: meeting with Landon Zinda, legislative council for Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN, 6th District) and Will Mitchell, Legislative Director for Representative Rick Nolan (DFL-MN, 6th District). A briefing by Kathy Benedetto and Kate MacGregor of the Department of Interior on the Twin Metals Leases.
April 28, 2017 Benedetto Meeting with Rob Lehman, WilmerHale re: Twin Metals Minnesota. On the calendar of Gareth Rees, Executive Assistant at US Department of the Interior. There is also an entry for the same 11AM meeting with Lehman on the Deputy Secretary Conference Room calendar. Created by Deputy Secretary Catherine Gulac.
April 28 2017 Benedetto: Twin Metals briefing. On the calendar of Briana Collier. U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor. An email from Karen Hawbecker to Jack Haugrud on April 27 specifies the purpose of this meeting: “to get some feedback from [Benedetto] on the options we’ve identified for reversing action on the Twin Metals decision.”
May 2, 2017 On the calendar of Gareth Rees: Meeting with Antofagasta plc re: Twin Metals Minnesota Project. Included in this meeting: Gareth Rees, James Cason, Katharine MacGregor, Michael Anderson, Kathleen Benedetto, [Linda Thurn], Richard Cardinale, Tracie Lassiter, Kevin Haugrud, Mariagrazia Caminiti, Karen Hawbecker. According to internal email correspondence on April 28, 2017, the Antofagasta delegation includes: Ivan Arriagada, CEO, Antofagasta plc; Daniel Altikes, Executive Director, Antofagasta plc; Rob Lehman, Chair of the WilmerHale Public Policy Practice; Andy Spielman, Chair of the WilmerHale Energy and Natural Resources Practice. An April 28th email from Karen Hawbecker to Lisa Russell at the Environmental Resources Division of DOJ indicates “this same group [from Antofagasta] may also have a meeting at the White House.”
May 3, 2017 Benedetto: Meet and Greet with Representatives of Save the Boundary Waters.
May 4, 2017 On the calendar of Ryan Zinke: In-person meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Perdue will refer to this meeting in his 25 May appearance before the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee..
May 10, 2017 On the calendar of Sonny Perdue: phone call with Senator Al Franken to “fill him in on a mineral leasing issue in the Boundary Waters.”
May 25, 2017 Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appears before the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee.
May 26, 2017 Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani call with Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale, regarding a “DC Bar Event.”
June 1, 2017 email, Karen Hawbecker to Jack Haugrud: The White House “has expressed interest in the Twin Metals matter and Doug Domenich [sic] wants to talk to the WH today.” Kathleen Benedetto drafts a memo for Domenech on the Twin Metals Project.
June 9, 2017 Benedetto: Chat w/Timothy Martin from WilmerHale, re: Twin Metals – Minnesota. On the calendar of Katharine MacGregor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management.
June 14, 2017 Daniel Jorjani meets with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale.
June 15, 2017 On the calendar of Gareth Rees: meeting with Jobs for Minnesotans.
June 16, 2017 Benedetto Ext. Mtg. Twin Metals – Bob McFarlin [at that time, Vice President of Public and Government Affairs, Twin Metals Minnesota].
June 19, 2017 Meeting w/ USDA and DOI on Twin Metals Superior National Forest. On the calendar of Katharine MacGregor.
July 11, 2017 Call between Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Also attending: Jennie Maes, Assistant Chief of Staff to Governor Dayton. Topic: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and nearby copper-nickel mining.
July 25, 2017 All Hands on Deck for meeting with Antofagasta Plc re: Twin Metals Minnesota Project. On the calendar of Gareth Rees. Included: Kevin Haugrud, Katharine MacGregor, Michael Anderson, Karen Hawbecker, Kathleen Benedetto, James Cason, Gareth Rees, Linda Thurn, Richard Cardinale, Tracie Lassiter, Mariagrazia Caminiti, Edward Passarelli, Michael Nedd, Daniel Jorjani.
August 6, 2017 Karen Hawbecker forwards a briefing paper “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a meeting” with Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
August 9, 2017 Katharine MacGregor: meeting with Chad Horrell, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters.
August 22, 2017 Daniel Jorjani meeting on “Minnesota Project” with Michael J. Catanzaro, (White House, Executive Office of the President), Stephen Vaden (White House, Office of the General Counsel).
September 7, 2017 Internal meeting at Department of Interior on Twin Metals: Daniel Jorjani with Jack Haugrud.
September 21, 2017 Phone call: Twin Metals. On the calendar of James Cason, Associate Deputy Secretary of the Interior. James Cason with Associate Solicitor John Hay; Associate Solicitor, Division of Indian Affairs Eric Shepard; Deputy Secretary Catherine Gulac; Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker.
October 4, 2017 Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt briefed on Twin Metals.
December 22, 2017 Principal Deputy Solicitor Jordan releases Memo M-37049, allowing Twin Metals to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands.
3:17PM email from Jack Haugrud to Solicitor’s office: “Just got a call from Raya [B. Treiser] at Wilmer[Hale]. Twin Metals is moving today to dismiss their case against us.”

How this timeline came about:

Back in March of 2018, reporting by Jimmy Tobias gave us a little more insight into the Boundary Waters reversal. (My posts on the topic are collected here.) Through a records request, Tobias obtained the calendar of Kathleen Benedetto, Special Assistant to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Described as “a fixer for the mining companies,” Benedetto now helps oversee the Bureau of Land Management. She has publicly taken the position that conservation of public lands is a barrier to “progress.”

The Benedetto calendar gave us a much fuller chronology and more detail than we previously had. Tobias identified at least six meetings or communications with mining interests on Benedetto’s calendar regarding the Twin Metals project in Superior National Forest, including the July 25th all-hands-on-deck meeting between high-ranking Interior officials and representatives of Antofagasta Plc. I subsequently learned that the group had met with Antofagasta earlier, on May 2nd, less than a month after Benedetto started meeting with mining company representatives.

When I put Benedetto’s calendar together with the Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, this timeline started to come into focus. Since then, I have been able to consult other calendars and received some materials in response to two FOIA requests. It is now clear that Interior was holding internal meetings about Twin Metals and the withdrawal of Superior National Forest lands in the first weeks of the new administration, and as early as February of 2017.

So there were many meetings about the Twin Metals project before Benedetto hosted a “meet and greet” with a Boundary Waters conservation group on May 3rd, 2017; and it looks as if the reversal was a done deal by the time Katharine MacGregor met with Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters’ Chad Horrell on August 9th.

At the very least, this timeline indicates that restoring Twin Metals “right of renewal” for their mineral leases in Superior National Forest was a priority at Interior from the moment the Trump administration took office.

The lobbying effort was a full court press, led by Raya Treiser, Rob Lehman, and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale. Litigation counsel for Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta plc — Daniel Volchok, Michael Hazel, and Paul Wolfson — are also from WilmerHale.

Note: I’ll continue to make updates to this timeline as DOI releases more materials in response to FOIA requests.

From Caval to Kalorama

Kalorama

The Washington, D.C. mansion rented by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

We know this much. In December of 2016, just after the election, Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig bought the Kalorama Triangle mansion that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump now rent in Washington, D.C.. Just about six months later*, records show, the Department of Interior began drafting the December 22nd, 2017 memo that would reverse Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters and renew the lease of lands in Superior National Forest held by Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Antofagasta Plc, the mining conglomerate controlled by the Luksic family. Headlines have hinted at corrupt dealings, as I’ve noted in previous posts, but no hard evidence has come to light.

Maybe it’s all just a happy coincidence of the kind that frequently befalls the world of billionaires, mansions, and yachts. In any case, Andronico Luksic Craig, Jared and Ivanka’s landlord, is clearly a master of such coincidences. Journalist Horacio Brum dubs him “el gran titiritero de Chile,” the great puppetmaster of Chile. He is “a man who does not need to do politics,” writes Brum, “because he makes politicians.” The role Andronico Luksic Craig played in the scandal known in Chile as “el Caso Caval” — The Caval Affair — is illustrative.

The Caval Affair involved a $10 million loan for a shady real estate scheme undertaken in late 2013 by Natalia Compagnon, the daughter-in-law of Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, and 50 percent owner of a company called Sociedad Exportadora y de Gestión Caval Limitada. El Caso Caval was a drawn out and complicated affair, and charges of corruption and influence peddling would dog Compagnon and the Bachelet family for years. Just one feature of the scandal needs to concern us at the moment, and that’s the timing of the loan itself.

In the months immediately preceding Bachelet’s election, Compagnon had been trying to secure a line of credit for her company to purchase three plots of land in Machalí, in the O’Higgins Region in central Chile. Compagnon and her husband, Sebastian Davalos Michelet, met with the Vice President of Banco de Chile to discuss the project on November 6th, 2013. This was about ten days before the elections, which were scheduled for November 17th. The loan was approved on December 16th, 2013, just a month after Michelle Bachelet was elected to the presidency. The Vice President of the Banco de Chile who made these timely financial arrangements for the daughter-in-law of the new president elect was none other than Andronico Luksic Craig.

This time-lapse illustration produced for the news organization 24 Horas lays out the whole scandal in less than three minutes. Even if your Spanish is rusty, you can follow the story. Luksic first appears around 1:26.

The pattern looks familiar. When questioned about the loan, Luksic Craig at first denied meeting the young couple more than once. (This is classic Luksic, who claims never to have met his first family tenants, and only to have said hello to Trump himself once, at a Patriots’ football game in 2012.) Only later did he admit to various meetings and contacts between him and Compagnon, including one the day after Bachelet won the election. As the scandal grew, Andronico Luksic Craig managed to retreat back into the shadows and to keep himself and the Luksic family out of the headlines.

So far, the almost daily revelations of Jared Kushner’s far-flung attempts to bail out his family’s foundering real estate empire have not turned up anything that connects Kushner’s business troubles to Chile’s Grupo Luksic or the Luksic family. But it would not be terribly surprising to learn that there is more to the Kushner story and that Kalorama mansion than Luksic Craig claims. The president’s son-in-law is a quo looking for a quid, and when it comes to making that sort of delicate arrangement, Andronico Luksic Craig appears to be a real pro.

*Since writing this post, I have reviewed documents obtained through FOIA request that show the Department of the Interior working on the reversal of Obama administration protections for the Boundary Waters as early as February, 2017, just weeks after the inauguration.

A Quick Update on MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit (With Several Additional Updates)

EagleTrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Eagle Mine.

I’ve been doing my best to keep track of developments in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, the litigation over County Road 595 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. CR 595 was conceived and planned as a haul route from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill. From the outset, the project was a cause of public contention. As plans to cut through wilderness and destroy wetlands to build the road met with objections from the permitting authorities, the companies operating Eagle Mine — first Rio Tinto, then Lundin Mining — stayed on the sidelines, or worked quietly behind the scenes, leaving the people of Marquette County to slug it out with the federal government, and with each other.

The latest entry in the CR 595 legal saga looks like a win for the EPA, or at least a point in its favor. Last week, on Thursday, March 1, Ellen Durkee, the DOJ attorney representing the EPA, submitted a one paragraph letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit about a Ninth Circuit case called Southern California Alliance of Publicly Owned Treatment Works v. EPA. This is another piece of litigation over Section 402 of the Clean Water Act.

The plaintiff in this case was making an argument similar to that made by Mark Miller, the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney representing the Marquette County Road Commission before the Sixth Circuit: that EPA objections were tantamount to a permit denial (or what Miller insisted on calling a “veto”). If we follow Miller’s argument, the Marquette County Road Commission would have had no recourse after the EPA weighed in on its plans. In administrative legal parlance, the EPA’s objections to the Road Commission’s permit application would constitute “final agency action,” and could therefore come up for review by the court.

But in Southern California Alliance, writes Durkee, “the Ninth Circuit explained that under the statutory scheme, EPA objections are not functionally similar to a permit denial and that a challenge to EPA objections is premature.” That decision, made back in April of 2017, would seem to lend more support to the federal government’s position, that EPA objections merely constitute an “interlocutory step.” There is nothing final about them at all. So when it came to the permit application for CR 595, the Michigan DEQ still had three options: grant, deny, or do nothing. This was a point Judge White highlighted when she questioned Miller about the word “veto” during oral argument before the Sixth Circuit.

There was a new development in the Ninth Circuit case just last month, which is what prompted Durkee’s letter to the Sixth Circuit. On February 20th, the Supreme Court declined a petition to review the Ninth Circuit decision in Southern California Alliance. This means the Ninth Circuit’s ruling stands, and it might help bolster the EPA’s argument in the Sixth Circuit. It also suggests that the Supreme Court would probably not be favorably disposed toward a new petition for review on a point of administrative law it has just left up to a lower court. Miller, who has vowed publicly to take this case to the Supreme Court if the Road Commission does not prevail at the Sixth Circuit, might have to check his ambition.

Update: A Decision. On March 20th, 2018, the Sixth Circuit agreed with and affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Road Commission’s complaint. Miller’s argument that EPA objections were tantamount to a “veto” and constituted final agency action failed to win over the three judge panel. “Though the Road Commission characterizes EPA’s objections as a ‘veto,’ the facts show that EPA’s objections did not end the Road Commission’s pursuit of a Section 404 permit. To the contrary, when EPA lodged objections, the permit review process continued precisely as directed by statute.” Given what I say here about Southern California Alliance, this looks like the end of the road.

Another Update. 9 April 2018. A story by Cecilia Brown in the Mining Journal suggests this case may take yet another turn. Dissatisfied with the March 20th decision by the three judge panel, the Road Commission is now asking for an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit. And if that doesn’t work out, they have “authorized” the Pacific Legal Foundation to seek review at the Supreme Court. For reasons I suggest above, I think it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will grant certiorari (or review the case). So far as I can tell from the docket, the Road Commission had not yet filed a petition with the Sixth Circuit requesting en banc review.

Yet Another Update. On May 2nd, Michael J. Patwell of Clark Hill , PLC and Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition for an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit. This would bring the Road Commission’s case against the EPA before all the judges in the Circuit, and ask them to revisit the March 20th decision by the three judge panel.

The petition acknowledges that “this Court rarely rehears a case en banc” but then tries to argue that this case involves “an exceptionally important question of federal jurisdiction.” Oddly enough, the petition does not back down from the argument that EPA objections to the Road Commission’s permit “crystalize into what amounts to a veto” — an argument the Sixth Circuit panel met with skepticism at the hearing, then explicitly rejected in its opinion. So an en banc hearing at the Sixth Circuit would seem unlikely.

Petition for En Banc Hearing Denied, 29 May 2018. Today, Beverly L. Harris, the En Banc Coordinator for the Sixth Circuit, notified Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation that his petition for an en banc hearing has been denied. This comes as no surprise. The original three-judge panel found no fault with their decision, observing that “the issues raised in the petition were fully considered upon the original submission and decision of the case. The petition then was circulated to the full court. No judge has requested a vote on the suggestion for rehearing en banc.” As I noted back on April 9th, there are reports that the Marquette County Road Commission has authorized Miller to pursue this matter to the Supreme Court. After not a single judge took Miller up on the en banc review, it seems unlikely that the nation’s highest court would find anything irregular or meriting review here.

Mandate issued. On Thursday, 7 June 2018, the Sixth Circuit issued a mandate in MCRC v. EPA. This suggests, among other things, that Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Miller did not seek a stay of mandate — which he might have done were he ready to petition the Supreme Court.

A Comment on the Aquila Back Forty Wetland Permit

AquilaWetlandMap

An Aquila Resources map outlines the wetlands that will be impaired by its open pit sulfide mine on the Menominee River.

Earlier this morning, I sent this comment on the Aquila Resources Back Forty Wetland Permit to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Public comments may be submitted here until February 2nd.

To the MDEQ:

You have probably already received a number of comments on the Back Forty Mine wetland permit application from people who live out of state, as I do. Some of those opposed to sulfide mining on the Menominee River live on the Wisconsin side, just across or downstream from the proposed mine site. Others, across the country and around the world, are deeply concerned about the cumulative effects the current leasing, exploration, and sulfide mining boom around Lake Superior will have, and are alarmed to see federal and state regulatory agencies abdicating their responsibilities to the American public in order to do the bidding of foreign mining companies.

Denying the wetland permit is the only prudent and responsible course for MDEQ to take.

As the organization American Rivers noted when it placed the Menominee River on its list of “most endangered” rivers in 2017, the Aquila Resources Back Forty project poses a “significant threat” of acid mine drainage to the river, and to the “cultural and natural resources of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes Region.” Allowing Aquila to destroy or compromise area wetlands to construct its mine will only heighten the risk of large scale environmental catastrophe.

The risk is compounded by both regulatory and scientific uncertainty. As you are well aware, the Menominee Tribe maintains that the MDEQ lacks authority to issue this permit, because under provisions of the Clean Water Act the Menominee River and its wetlands are federal waters. This question remains unsettled. In the meantime, a third party, independent review of Aquila’s wetland permit application found errors and inconsistencies regarding the company’s findings on groundwater drawdown and the mine’s feasibility analysis. The wetland permit application you are considering is either flawed, because the people who filed it are incompetent, or misleading, because they have something to hide.

Deceit might be Aquila’s best strategy at this point. The Back Forty project has no claim to social license — none. The Menominee and other Wisconsin tribes have been adamant in their opposition. Local residents are overwhelmingly opposed as well. Of the 90 people who had the opportunity to speak at the January 23rd public hearing in Stephenson, only 4 could muster an argument for the mine, mainly because they put stock in the vague promise of “jobs” made by mining proponents. The rest — 86 out of 90, or 95 percent — stood in opposition to the mine.

Even if Aquila is not deliberately misleading the MDEQ and the public, the Canadian company has demonstrated time and again that it is not a responsible steward of Michigan or Menominee lands. In archaeological surveys of the region, for instance, Aquila claims to have uncovered nothing of “historical significance.” That is telling. These surveys have found nothing because they fail, or refuse to see, the significant Menominee history and culture that is right in front of their eyes. As tribal members have made repeatedly clear, Menominee history, ancestry, and culture begin and end in the river, the land, and the forest. What is historically significant or meaningful is not merely a collection of artifacts; it is a way of life and a deep connection to place. The Back Forty Mine threatens to destroy that connection.

In sum, the wetland permit application is flawed, the company has no social license to operate, and allowing the Back Forty to go forward would violate the public trust.

Postscript: On Monday, 4 June, Michigan DEQ Director Heidi Grether granted this wetlands permit, despite the DEQ’s own findings that the Aquila Resources project will likely cause “an unacceptable disruption to the aquatic resources of the State…and that the activities associated with the project are not consistent with the permitting criteria for an acceptable impact to the resources regulated under Parts 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, and Part 303, Wetlands Protection.” The permit DEQ issued — over its own objections — includes 28 pages of special conditions. It’s unclear why the DEQ did not simply deny the permit, as its findings warranted and in keeping with EPA objections to the Aquila application. More here.

Another Note on the Boundary Waters Reversal

Jorjani Calendar

A 25 July 2017 entry from Daniel Jorjani’s calendar shows a meeting with Antofagasta Plc on the Twin Metals project.

One point I hoped to get across in Monday’s post about the Boundary Waters reversal has to do with journalism, or, more broadly, with storytelling. Just to highlight: scandal-mongering that generates clicks doesn’t necessarily get at the more prosaic and more complex truth of the story, and may end up doing a disservice. In the case of the Boundary Waters reversal, it is tempting to focus on the story of Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig and his Washington, D.C. tenants, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Was Luksic Craig’s purchase of the mansion where Jared and Ivanka now live an opening bid? Was the reversal connected to the rental?

This story of the rich and famous still merits investigating, but it carries with it a whole set of ideas — exaggerated and somewhat cartoonish ideas — of what corruption looks like: foreign billionaires, mansions, nepotism, winks and nods (remember what Luksic Craig said about meeting Trump at the Patriots’ game: “lo saludé.” “I said ‘hi’”).  All of those elements are certainly in play here, and they are part of what makes this administration appear so unabashedly corrupt and downright villainous.

At the same time, the story of Luksic Craig and his D.C. tenants could turn out to be a red herring, or what nowadays people call a nothingburger or fake news. Besides, there’s another, more immediately credible story that’s just there for the telling. What it lacks in tabloid glamour it makes up for with evidence. It unfolds among the banalities of meeting rooms, conference calls, memos, and after work events. This is the story Jimmy Tobias pursues in an excellent piece in the Pacific Standard, which I had not read before writing my post (and which, after reading, I linked to in a postscript).

Tobias beat me to the punch on the FOIA request, and obtained Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani’s calendar from May through December of 2017. He identifies two meetings about the Twin Metals project. The first is on June 14, 2017, with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale, the law and lobbying firm, on behalf of Antofagasta Plc.

Spielman is the Chair of WilmerHale’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Practice, and his name appears on the calendar heading, so we know that this is a high priority matter for the lobbying firm and presumably for the Department of Interior. And Treiser comes directly from the Department of the Interior, where she served under President Obama. She helped to “streamline” permitting on large infrastructure projects, and worked on the reform of offshore drilling regulations and energy development in Alaska. Now, as her biography on the WilmerHale site informs us, she has “successfully leveraged her substantive knowledge and insight into government processes.”

The second meeting is directly with Antofagasta Plc: the Chilean mining company comes to the Department of Interior to discuss its Minnesota claim, and it appears the Department rolls out the red carpet. WilmerHale had done its work. In addition to Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, thirteen administration officials are in attendance, representing the highest reaches of the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. As Tobias notes, no conservation groups were invited to discuss the reversal with the Department of Interior. This was a conversation for insiders only.

At the center of this story is not a mansion, but a revolving door (and if you are not familiar with Bill Moyers’ short video essay on the subject, you should be). This feature of the story becomes even more apparent when we look at a couple of other meetings on Deputy Solicitor Jorjani’s calendar that Tobias didn’t flag but are connected with the Boundary Waters reversal. One is a Friday, May 26 call with Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale, regarding a “DC Bar Event”; this call or this event might well have provided an opportunity to tee up the Twin Metals issue. It is the first contact WilmerHale makes with Principal Deputy Solicitor Jorjani— and who should they choose for that task but Jacobson, who held Jorjani’s job of Principal Deputy Solicitor under the Obama administration.

Then on Thursday, September 7th, when work on the reversal memo is presumably well underway, there is an internal meeting on Twin Metals: Jorjani with Jack Haugrud, who was Acting Secretary of the Interior until Zinke’s appointment, and Joshua Campbell, an Advisor to the Office of the Solicitor. Campbell is profiled here, on Western Values Project “Department of Influence” site, documenting the revolving door between special interests and the Department of Interior.

In these meetings, the public interest does not even come into play.

Postscript: Today, as I was writing this post, the Washington Post reported that the Forest Service will cancel a planned environmental impact study and instead conduct an abbreviated review of the Obama-era proposal to withdraw the Superior National Forest lands near the Boundary Waters from minerals exploration for up to 20 years. The story also appears in the Star Tribune. Things are moving fast now, and pressure is mounting.

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

MCRC v. EPA at the Sixth Circuit

mcrc_map1s

“Well, if you took all these papers,” said EPA counsel Ellen J. Durkee, referring to the various proposals put forward for CR 595, “what you’d have is their proposal in June, their proposal in July, their proposal in October, their proposal in November, their proposal in, you know, different — twice in December…. really what’s needed is they have to say…what is the proposal that they consider their application at this point.” A good review of the various proposals for the Eagle Mine haul route can be found here.

In remarks before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Mark Miller of the Pacific Legal Foundation waved the flag of “cooperative federalism,” complained that the Environmental Protection Agency has “gone way beyond the powers that Congress gave them,” and even, at one point, raised the familiar spectre of an anti-mining conspiracy at the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

They did not want a permit here from before. In the pre-application process, there was a meeting, among the parties — not among Marquette County Road Commission, they were not invited — but the government said we are not going to approve this road project. This was a well-known proposed road project from a mine to a mill, and the EPA and the Corps wanted none of it. So that’s why it was futile factually.

Miller has elaborated on these arguments in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. As I have suggested in previous posts on Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, grandstanding arguments like these are intended to raise the profile of this dispute and make it about much more than a haul road. They have been used, repeatedly, to connect the Road Commission’s case with a larger, coordinated effort — a right-wing, dark-money political project — to sideline federal regulators in Michigan and weaken enforcement of the Clean Water Act; stifle local environmental watchdogs; and arrogate the authority and power to direct economic development in the Upper Peninsula to a set of undisclosed actors.

But on Tuesday, those arguments didn’t count for much in Miller’s presentation before the Sixth Circuit panel. At the center of the dispute is still the question whether EPA’s objections to CR 595 constitute “final agency action,” as the Road Commission claims, or if they are an “interlocutory step” (in which case, the Road Commission can still take the EPA’s objections under advisement and go back to the Corps with a proposal).

Miller claimed right off the bat, in the very first sentence of his argument, that EPA’s objections were tantamount to a “veto.” I’ve written about this argument before. On Tuesday, the judges wanted to know what exactly Miller meant by that word. “You keep saying the EPA vetoed the application for the permit,” asked one of the judges just four minutes into the proceedings. “What do you mean by that?” Ten minutes later, another Judge indicated she was still not satisfied on this point:

JUDGE: What makes it — you keep using the word veto.
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: But it was really objections, right?
MILLER: Your honor I think that’s a distinction without a difference because effectively here the EPA has twice said, “no, DEQ, this permit you’re ready to issue is not good enough for us.” And the reasons the EPA was giving were not within its powers to give. Then the EPA knew it was taking advantage of the statute to say well now it’s going to bounce to the Corps.

That there is no “difference” between objections and vetoes is critical to Miller’s argument for futility, which claims it would be a “farce” for the Road Commission to go back to the Corps.

When it came to her turn, Ellen Durkee, arguing for the EPA and the Army Corps, pursued the point:

I’d like to speak to this issue of this continued use of the word “veto,” because I think that that is, seems to be the critical characterization for the plaintiff’s argument here. A veto means that you cannot get a permit. In [Section] 404 [of the Clean Water Act] itself, there’s a distinction between what happens in 404j with EPA objections and a true veto, and you know they — in this case, the EPA objection gives the state opportunity to take action. And then when the state, as it did here — there’s an impasse, because they didn’t take action within the statutory time, it simply shifts the permitting authority. That is not a veto. The Corps may look at this and say we think it’s satisfactory. EPA, you know, they may come up with the provisions that they need to satisfy that, the objections, in which case they could still get a permit. What [the Road Commission] simply did was stop the process and decide not to continue.

And the word “veto” was still begging questions at the end of the proceeding, when Judge Helene N. White went back to Miller.

JUDGE; Let me just ask you this question. Once the EPA made its objections, the DEQ still had three options, correct?
MILLER: Yes your honor.
JUDGE: And they were grant, deny, or do nothing.
MILLER: In this case the DEQ threw its hands up because they could never — if they granted the permit, the landowner would have nowhere to go because the EPA made it clear it was not going to sign off on it. So they deny it and then transfer– they threw their hands up because the reasons the EPA gave were improper under the statute.
[Crosstalk.]
MILLER: Yes, your honor.
JUDGE: Ok. Did they have three options? Grant, deny, or do nothing?
MILLER: Your honor, they had the options, but ultimately once the EPA gives arbitrary and capricious objections they really had no choice.
JUDGE: But they could have said, they could have denied the permit, right? They could have said we are honoring the objections and we deny the permit.
MILLER: Right and they didn’t, your honor, respectfully they didn’t.

You can listen to the whole proceeding here, or read my (imperfect) transcript of the proceeding.