Tag Archives: Boundary Waters Reversal

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.

 

A Second Boundary Waters Reversal, And Its Connection to the First

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would cut short a Forest Service environmental study of the risks posed by sulfide mining in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The study, which was launched only at the very end of 2016, “did not reveal new scientific information,” Perdue asserted. Those familiar with Perdue’s efforts to slash funding for research at USDA will not be surprised that the Secretary appeared, on this occasion, to demonstrate little regard for science and the time it takes to do good science.

Perdue offered vague reassurances that we can “protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.” After all, the statement goes on to say, northern Minnesota “has been mined for decades and is known as the ‘Iron Range’ due to its numerous iron mines.” That’s certainly true, and it will probably play to the pride people on the Iron Range take in their heritage; but Perdue never once mentions the kind of mining that is now under consideration — copper and nickel mining, or sulfide mining — and the enormous risks sulfide mining always presents. In fact, his statement does everything possible to sidestep the issue and conflate iron and non-ferrous mining.

The announcement was misleading, and it was all but lost amid the very loud noise created by the Anonymous Op Ed that had come out in the New York Times the day before. It is, however, consequential. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio rightly characterized Perdue’s announcement as “the Trump administration’s second major reversal of decisions made on mining in the Superior National Forest” — the first being the December 2017 legal memorandum on the renewal of Antofagasta’s mineral leases in Superior National Forest discussed in previous posts.

The two reversals are obviously connected and coordinated. Exactly how might be a little harder to say. We can start to trace their connection as early as 22 August 2017, when Department of Interior Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani holds a meeting with two White House officials. The topic: “Minnesota Project.” Here is the calendar entry for that meeting, which I’ve now added to the Twin Metals timeline:

MinnesotaProject

The apparent purpose of this meeting was to bring the White House, specifically the Office of the General Counsel and the Executive Office of the President, into the loop, or to provide the White House with an update on efforts to reverse this policy of the Obama administration.

The meeting included Michael J. Catanzaro, who was at the time Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy. He is profiled on DeSmog. His lobbying for oil and gas companies and his work with Senator Jim “Snowball” Inhofe and climate change denial campaigns are detailed there. Catanzaro stepped through DC’s revolving door and returned to his lobbying firm (CGCN Group) in April of this year.

The other White House official in that meeting was Stephen Vaden, who in August of 2017 was serving as Principal Deputy General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vaden had also been a member of the Trump “beachhead team” at USDA. These teams were sent in to sabotage regulatory agencies and, as Steve Bannon put it, deconstruct the administrative state.

One month after this meeting, in September of 2017, Vaden would be officially nominated to become General Counsel at USDA. Legal staff at USDA did not exactly greet the nomination with enthusiasm. According to Politico, morale “plummeted.” There were concerns about Vaden’s lack of managerial experience, his hostility to unions, and his previous work for the Judicial Education Project on behalf of discriminatory Voter ID laws — which turned out to be the main focus of his 2017 nomination hearing. Vaden is still awaiting full confirmation in the Senate, but he is busy working at USDA and would no doubt have briefed Secretary Perdue on this matter.

So the meeting where these two Boundary Waters reversals connect comes a little more clearly into focus: Jorjani, with his strong ties to the Koch Institute, Catanzaro, an energy lobbyist hostile to science, and Vaden, with sketchy views on labor unions and voting rights, talking about a Chilean conglomerate’s mining leases in Superior National Forest.

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.

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.