Tag Archives: arbitrary and capricious

What Is Sonny Perdue Hiding?

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

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

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

Some highlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Demagoguery in Duluth

Earlier this week, in Duluth, Minnesota, Donald Trump stated that the reversal of Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters promised great things “for our amazing people and miners and workers and for the people of Minnesota.”  Bizarrely, the president went so far as to claim that mining the Duluth Complex would “make it from an environmental standpoint better,” though it’s impossible to say what exactly “it” might refer to here.

He framed these remarks as an announcement, but it’s also difficult to say what, exactly, he was so “proudly announcing.” Those like Daniel Dale who track the president’s speeches have noticed that he tends to present as new and exciting events and initiatives that are long past, or which in fact have failed or run into trouble. This is especially true when it comes to the president’s statements about blue collar jobs, factories, and the economy.

The timeline clearly shows that the Department of Interior started taking meetings with lobbyists and representatives of Antofagasta Plc and Twin Metals in April of 2017, worked closely and steadily with them through the summer and fall, and issued a legal memo favorable to the mining companies in December of that year. Secretary Zinke’s latest action — the reinstatement of Antofagasta’s mining leases in Superior National Forest on May 2, 2018 — was over a year in the making. Almost all of this work was done behind the scenes, without meaningful public participation. Announcements would only have drawn unwelcome attention.

In Duluth, the announcement of “first steps” that were in fact already taken might have been made to pre-empt or drown out the real news of this week: the filing of a Complaint in the US District Court for the District of Columbia by a group of ten Minnesota plaintiffs against the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, Secretary Ryan Zinke, and BLM’s Brian Steed.  The Complaint charges that the reinstatement of Antofagasta Plc’s mining leases in Superior National Forest “exceeds their authority under law and is arbitrary and capricious” and asks the Court “to enjoin them from further consideration of applications to renew the two leases.”

Filed yesterday, just hours after Trump’s Duluth rally, this Complaint is actual news. It will not get one tenth of the coverage Trump’s bluster receives.

There’s little if anything that’s new and even less of substance here. I include the video because it’s helpful to consider where Trump is clearly reading from prepared remarks (which might indicate some actual administrative policy step) and where he is simply wandering off on his own into vague promises of some “better” future. He did the latter for most of the minute he spent on the subject of Superior National Forest, veering off, at the end, into incoherence.

Here is my transcript of his remarks on the topic:

Under the previous administration, America’s rich natural resources, of which your state has a lot, were put under lock and key, including thousands of acres in Superior National Forest. You know what that is, right? Tonight I’m proudly announcing that we will soon be taking the first steps to rescind the federal withdrawal in Superior National Forest and restore mineral exploration for our amazing people and miners and workers and for the people of Minnesota, one of the great natural reserves of the world. And we’ll do it carefully, and maybe, if it doesn’t pass muster, we won’t do it at all, but it is going to happen I will tell you that. It’s gonna happen. And it’s happening fast. We’ve already taken it as you know a long way down the road. And it’s gonna make things better. It’s gonna make it from an environmental standpoint better. 

Here, as far as I can tell, is the substance of his prepared remarks.

Under the previous administration, America’s rich natural resources were put under lock and key, including thousands of acres in Superior National Forest. We [have taken] the first steps to rescind the federal withdrawal in Superior National Forest and restore mineral exploration [in] one of the great natural reserves of the world. 

The opening jab at Obama, who locked away riches that are rightfully ours, also makes a mockery of the very idea of conservation and environmental protection. But who’s really paying attention? The audience cheers at the mention of Superior National Forest: “you know what that is, right?” Trump clearly does not, but he tries to milk the cheer anyway; it’s a variation on the tired old comedian’s schtick: who here is from Jersey? Anybody? New Jersey!

Superior National Forest is seen here entirely through the lens of extractive industry: a “natural reserve,” a store of minerals. Just as importantly, the statement makes no mention of the risky mining that this will involve — sulfide mining, a kind of mining the amazing people of the Iron Range have never done before, and which has the potential to destroy the very things people in Minnesota prize about Superior National Forest and the nearby Boundary Waters area.

Marshall Helmberger sums it up in a must read article on the new Complaint in The Timberjay :

Former Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, in December 2016, issued detailed findings of fact concluding it was likely that acid mine drainage from the Twin Metals mine would contaminate the BWCAW and cause adverse effects on the water quality, fish populations, aquatic ecosystems, and animal species. Tidwell further considered the possibility of containment, mitigation and remediation efforts and found that very few would be compatible with maintaining the BWCAW’s wilderness character.

While it appears that the president’s prepared remarks also included some vague gesture toward environmental responsibility, Trump turns that bit into a meaningless jumble, saying at first that the mineral exploration of the Duluth Complex will only go forward if it passes muster, then assuring the audience that “it is going to happen…It’s gonna happen,” and when it does happen, “it” is going to make “it” better. “It” here can mean anything, or nothing at all: he’s not offering the crowd anything beyond the word “better,” which is pretty much all they came out to hear anyway.