Tag Archives: Betty McCollum

Bernhardt, Biodiversity, and the Boundary Waters

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

The full exchange is cued up here:

A few notes.

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

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

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

Without waiting for a reply, McCollum continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole exchange is here.

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

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

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.

Sonny Perdue “Broke His Word” on the Boundary Waters

Representative Betty McCollum said last week that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had broken his word and betrayed his responsibility to care for public lands.

She made these remarks in response to Perdue’s cancellation of the two-year environmental review of the mining withdrawal of Forest Service lands adjacent to the Boundary Waters.

McCollum called out this exchange with Perdue on May 25, 2017.


(A transcript of the exchange may be found here).

It’s interesting, and in hindsight it’s perhaps telling, that Perdue answers before US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell can. Just about five months earlier, in December of 2016, Tidwell had stated unequivocally that allowing the Twin Metals mine would likely result in acid mine drainage to the Boundary Waters and the surrounding watershed — “an unacceptable risk.” But before Tidwell has a chance to answer — and presumably walk the committee through these findings — his new boss takes it upon himself to respond.

Perdue right away reassures McCollum and other members of the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee that he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had “already met about this,” and they had agreed that “none of us, I’m not smart enough to know what to do without the facts base and the sound science, and we are absolutely allowing [the study] to proceed.” But despite this pledge, his posturing before the committee (“the buck stops here”), and his invocation of the “Hippocratic oath: first of all, do no harm,”

Secretary Perdue broke his word, bending to political pressure from a foreign mining company and abandoning sound science to give a green light to toxic sulfide-ore mining in the watershed that feeds the BWCA. Like the President he serves, Sec. Perdue’s word cannot be trusted.

McCollum’s statement continues:

The Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Rainy River Watershed mining withdrawal study is a politically-motivated and callous betrayal of their responsibility to care for our public lands. It completely disregards the scientific evidence that sulfide-ore mining in the watershed will cause irreparable harm to the pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters. The Trump Administration is eliminating sound science from the equation in order to ram through a destructive giveaway to their friends at a foreign-owned mining corporation.

McCollum understood back in 2017 that Perdue was “receiving pressure from the mining industry.” Along with the Department of the Interior, the Executive Office of the President, and members of the House and Senate, the new Secretary of Agriculture was already being lobbied on the Twin Metals mineral leases. Lobbying reports filed by WilmerHale indicate that an inter-agency, full court press was already underway as early as the first quarter of 2017, even earlier than agency calendars or the timeline I have put together from them indicate.

So it’s hard to credit Perdue’s representations to the House committee in May of 2017 that when he and Zinke met to discuss the Twin Metals mineral leases, they agreed that they were not the smartest guys in the room, and they should wait to have all the facts before rushing headlong into any decisions. It now appears their minds were already being made up for them.

Postscript. 15 September 2018. Some notes on the Zinke-Perdue meeting in this Twitter thread.

 

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: