Tag Archives: corruption

Federal Agencies Need to Deliver Themselves from the Legal and Ethical Morass Trump and his Cronies Left Them In

The 15th supplemental release of Boundary Waters documents in my FOIA case against the Department of Interior arrived yesterday. I’ve added the documents to documentcloud. Were I to characterize these records as disappointing, I might only be admitting that I still expect too much from them. Still, this release looks especially untidy, and there may be something going on behind the scenes — some change in staffing, for example — that I am not aware of.

First, the attorney assigned to my case in US District Court contacted me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that this production would be a few days late. When it came, the response letter, which accompanies every release and describes how many pages were reviewed, how many withheld, what exemptions were used, and so on, was missing. (Someone just forgot to attach it to the email, which begins “Attached is the Solicitor’s 15th Production response letter….”). The documents come from Brianna Collier, a career attorney in the Office of the Solicitor — who has been the main custodian of records in this case. We only catch glimpses of what Trump’s political appointees were doing when Collier is in the loop.

The documents themselves are heavily redacted, with deliberative process (b)(5) claimed throughout. Excerpts from Hein’s Legal Research Guides are the only records not redacted. They would be available publicly anyway. What can only be an earlier draft of the 19 page M-Opinion by then-Solicitor Daniel Jorjani dated December 5, 2017 is completely redacted. We know from the timeline that the memo was nearly finished by then, but instead of taking time to redact just those phrases and paragraphs which were still under deliberation, the FOIA officer applied a very broad brush on all 19 pages.

The FOIA officer took a slightly less aggressive approach to an August 7, 2018 memo written by Ryan Sklar on the Forest Service’s application to segregate 234,328 acres of federal land within Superior National Forest. This is the land withdrawn from mineral leasing and development while the US Forest Service completed “the necessary environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA).” The law is clear. Sklar explains in a footnote:

Just one month later, of course, then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue would cancel the two-year assessment, claiming that “the analysis did not reveal new scientific information.” So far, we have had to take Sonny Perdue’s word for it; the findings of the cancelled withdrawal study still have not been released. The cancellation meant that any “final decision” on the application for mineral withdrawal would be made without a complete case file — without the complete NEPA document. And without a “final” NEPA document, review would likely be guided by political considerations, not scientific evidence.

Except for an intriguing closing sentence, the discussion section here is fully redacted:

There’s not much to go on here, except Sklar’s final note: discussions of “next steps” around the Rainy River Watershed withdrawal were “ongoing” just one month before Sonny Perdue abruptly cancelled the application. There were, at that point, five months to go in the review required by NEPA, and pressure on Sonny Perdue was at its peak, with Trump publicly directing Perdue to look at the withdrawal “very strongly” and reassuring Minnesota mining proponents that they would “do very well.” Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Rick Nolan, and Paul Gosar kept the pressure on Perdue behind the scenes.

It’s unlikely Sklar’s legal memo refers explicitly to that pressure campaign, but it’s also hard to believe that he or anyone working on this issue at Interior was unaware of it.

The agencies now need to deliver themselves from the legal and ethical morass Trump and his cronies left them in. Secretary of the Interior Haaland should ask BLM to request a complete case file from the US Forest Service, with the necessary NEPA analysis, so that BLM can evaluate and review the withdrawal and so that she can make a lawful decision. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release the preliminary findings of the cancelled two-year scientific study, unredacted. He should also ask the USDA Inspector General to review Perdue’s decision to cancel the withdrawal application and NEPA analysis. And though it’s unlikely they will do everything they should to set things right — that’s a tall order, and they’ve inherited a mess —  we can expect some steps in this direction before the end of next month, when the stay in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt expires.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

A BLM Map of Critical Minerals Near the Boundary Waters

The latest release of Boundary Waters documents arrived today, a 14th supplemental production in response to my FOIA lawsuit v. the Department of the Interior. I’ve put them online here.

Two things caught my attention right away: first, an inventory of documents the Solicitor’s office at the Department of the Interior put together, apparently in connection with the Voyageur litigation. A short Twitter thread calls out some items of interest.

Also among the records I received today: a Bureau of Land Management map showing prospecting permits and preference rights leases in Superior National Forest.

There are already a significant number of active leases and many more in the application stage that could eventually come online.

The purple plume of inferred and hypothetical reserves of critical minerals is especially noteworthy here.

We know from other documents I obtained that political appointees in the Solicitor’s office intended to position Antofagasta’s mine as a source of critical minerals; and after the Trump administration published a new list of critical minerals in 2017, Antofagasta itself even flirted briefly (in its 2017 Annual Report) with the notion that Twin Metals had significant cobalt reserves.

The Biden administration is currently reviewing the actions the Trump administration took on Twin Metals and — maybe just as importantly — they are undertaking a review of the critical and strategic minerals supply chain. If it were to be fully developed, that purple plume of hypotheticals and inferences could become a real-world industrial corridor.

Update, 12 May 2021: According to a May 10 Settlement Agreement in Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Mitchell Leverette et al. (a case in the US District Court of the District of Columbia), the Bureau of Land Management will review its May 1, 2020 decision authorizing the extension of 13 of the prospecting permits indicated on this map. The renewals were made without an Environmental Assessment under NEPA or an effects determination under the Endangered Species Act. These thirteen prospecting permits are for all intents and purposes suspended until BLM completes its review; Antofagasta agrees not to engage in any ground disturbing activities. Antofagasta’s two mineral leases are also under review at Interior and USDA, and we can expect some news on that front in the June 22 filing in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt.

Time for A Review

A number of writers — pundits and news commentators, mostly, people with large public followings — have been announcing lately that they are launching substack newsletters. Substack is subsidizing many of these moves with fat advances, but to hear these writers tell it, that’s not what’s motivating them: they are moving from mainstream outlets or starting a newsletter in addition to their regular gig, they say, because they hope the new format will allow them to write more freely, get out from under their editors’ thumbs, break some rules, offend orthodoxies, and tackle a wider range of subjects than they might when writing for mainstream media outlets.

I am pretty skeptical of these claims and read them mainly as marketing ploys, but I can sympathize with the urge, the urgently felt need, to branch out, find a new groove, and explore new topics. That does not mean I plan to switch this blog over to substack. I don’t have many (non-paying) subscribers as is (but I am grateful for those I have); and lacking the big follower counts and public platforms these writers have before they stage their own deplatformings and moves to substack, I doubt I could attract enough paying customers for the move to make much sense, financial or otherwise.

I’m nevertheless longing to do new things with this blog, no matter how many people subscribe to or read it, and make it more than a chronicle of my FOIA adventures, which is essentially what it’s become over the past year or so. My focus on that topic has brought me a few new subscribers, but it’s also slowed me down — I’ve allowed the slow trickle of documents from my FOIA lawsuit to set the pace — and boxed me into a single story.

I am restless and claustrophobic, off the page and on, so I don’t like feeling boxed in, physically or intellectually. Besides, I’ve got other stories to tell and other projects that need my attention. Some of them have grown out of the work on industrial development around Lake Superior that began more than a decade ago with 1913 Massacre; some of them (like this post on tribal consultation) arise from new connections I see between my work on industrial development and my interest in models of power and consent (which I’ve talked about under the rubric of The Asking Project); and some of them, thank goodness, have nothing at all to do with those things.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I am done with the Boundary Waters and the Freedom of Information Act — not just yet. My FOIA case in DC District Court is still open; and this week saw some new developments.

First, to celebrate Sunshine Week, I put up a new version of the FOIA webinar I gave back in July. The version that Friends of the Boundary Waters posted on YouTube did not include the presentation slides, because I failed to notice a Zoom prompt asking me whether I wanted to record my desktop until the webinar was over. I synced the slides with the webinar audio and created this new version. It’s easier to follow.

Second, a motion to stay was filed on Thursday in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt, the main lawsuit challenging the Department of Interior’s renewal of Antofagasta’s leases. It appears that newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is less than enthusiastic about the lawsuit she inherited from her predecessor, David Bernhardt. The motion asks for a stay of 90 days so that Haaland and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, both of whom have publicly opposed sulfide mining near the Rainy River Watershed, can review the matter. The review looks to be pretty comprehensive, and will cover the government’s current position, the reinstatement of Antofagasta’s mineral leases, and the historical lease files.

A review of that scope is likely to bring a lot of suppressed evidence — the findings of the abruptly canceled mineral withdrawal study, the stipulation of a production requirement, and so on — to light. In a Twitter thread about the filing yesterday. I wagered the review would undo Jorjani’s work:

Or we’ll see the scientific study resumed. Whatever route the review takes, the new Secretaries should also ask their Inspectors General to look into the conduct of the Solicitor’s Office at Interior and the Secretary’s Office at USDA over the past four years. There is plenty of evidence of undue influence, regulatory capture, administrative sabotage, and all sorts of corruption and malfeasance, from contempt of Congress to perjury and violations of NEPA. We need accountability in order to set things right.

If any of the records I’ve published along the way can help reviewers get closer to the truth of what happened, or help bring about a reckoning, then maybe it will all have been worth it.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Should Promptly Review the Trump Administration’s Decisions around Mining in Superior National Forest

The 12th supplemental production of Boundary Waters documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit is now up on documentcloud. This Twitter thread calls out some highlights:

What’s most remarkable is just how consistent this release is with previous releases. The story remains the same: the Trump administration’s decisions around mining in Superior National Forest, on the edge of the Boundary Waters, were heavily influenced by a lobbying blitz, interference with regulatory review, and a coordinated, high-pressure campaign to cancel a planned scientific study.

This latest release offers some new details and color around the decision to reinstate Antofagasta’s mineral leases, as attorneys at Interior work on the official reinstatement letter and the news release that will become part of the public record. Most of the editorial decisions they take are heavily redacted; but the decision to opt for an “if-asked” statement over an official press release is exactly the strategy taken with the initial reversal or M-Opinion in December of 2017. Under the subject heading “Twin Metals Acquired vs. Public Domain Lands,” there is more discussion about the map drawn by mining engineer Timothy Howell, and how to reconcile its boundaries with Antofagasta’s Preference Right Lease Applications. And those PRLAs are also the subject of yet another meeting at Interior in March of 2018 with a gang of attorneys from WilmerHale and Twin Metals. Their objective is to press Interior on Antofagasta’s Preference Right Lease Applications and fix the scope and schedule for environmental review, prescribing the “regulatory scheme” officials at Interior should follow. As I noted in my Twitter thread, Chris Knopf and I called out a strikingly similar effort in regard to these PRLAs at another March 2018 meeting.

The story these records (and all the records I’ve received) tell inevitably arrives at then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s decision to cancel the mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest. I’ve written about this critical decision before (here, here, and most recently, here). It was the product of a coordinated pressure campaign by WilmerHale lobbyists, top executives at Antofagasta, the White House, Republican legislators, and the Congressional Western Caucus.

From this release, we learn a little more about that decision.  In the Spring of 2018, for example, attorneys at Interior still assumed that Perdue would allow the mineral withdrawal study to proceed. In fact, in April of 2018, Secretary Ryan Zinke was prepared to reassure Representative Betty McCollum that the scientific study would help satisfy NEPA and protect Minnesota taxpayers from environmental and economic disaster. Perdue’s decision would break that promise in order to satisfy President Trump.

So these records from the Department of Interior appear to shed light on corruption at the USDA. It’s clear that newly confirmed USDA Secretary Vilsack should promptly review Perdue’s decision, publish an unredacted version of scientific findings to date, and open an ethics investigation into cancellation of the proposed mineral withdrawal. It’s time to repair the damage Perdue did, return the agency to science, and restore the integrity of USDA.

A Pressure Campaign: New FOIA Releases And A New Filing in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt

Well past due, but yesterday the 11th supplemental production of Boundary Waters documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit arrived. You can find them here. All the Boundary Waters records I’ve received to date — now approaching about 10,000 pages — are here.

This release includes more records from Briana Collier, an attorney in the Division of Mineral Resources at the Department of Interior. The records show Collier and colleagues in summer of 2018 conferring over litigation around the decision to reinstate Twin Metals’ mineral leases near the Boundary Waters; other email threads show lawyers for Twin Metals at WilmerHale communicating with BLM attorneys about their upcoming motion to intervene and some discussion about whether Minnesota or DC would be the better venue. Pedestrian fare, maybe, but the impression is, once again, of WilmerHale and attorneys at BLM working in tandem to protect and advance the financial interests of Chilean mining giant, Antofagasta, Plc.

Another exchange relating to Twin Metals prospecting permits shows Dean Gettinger, a District Manager at the Northeastern States District of the BLM, trying to “get things moving.” The Forest Service is under pressure to make a determination on the Twin Metals prospecting permits; and this looks like yet another instance where the mining company is driving the calendar of agency review. (That was the subject of an OpEd I published this summer with Chris Knopf.)

The pressure is on: in May, 2018, the mining company even contests whether its Preference Right Lease Applications (PRLAs) fall within the boundaries of the proposed mineral withdrawal area.

These are the same PRLAs that were under discussion at a March 6, 2018 meeting where Twin Metals asked for a Categorical Exclusion — essentially no environmental review at all — but said it would settle for an Environmental Awareness review (which is exactly what it got). We don’t know whether Howell determined that they fell within the proposed mineral withdrawal zone, because his response to this email is almost entirely redacted. He apologizes for his delayed response, then continues: “Technically there” and the rest is redacted under deliberative process privilege. It is unclear why a cut and dry matter like this — the question whether the leases fall within the boundaries of the map Howell drew — merits this kind of protection.

These are not just isolated instances of the mining company raising questions about the status of its applications or expressing impatience because time is money. A loosely coordinated, well-funded, extensive lobbying and pressure campaign was launched the minute the new administration took office. Just this week, in fact, a new filing in Wilderness Society v. Bernhardt gave us new details about how extensive this campaign was, with Representatives Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber, Rick Nolan, and Paul Gosar running interference for the mining company. I put together a Twitter thread about it:

The prime target of this pressure campaign was none other than Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who alone had the power to cancel the proposed mineral withdrawal. Emmer was trying to arrange a meeting between Perdue and the CEO of Antofagasta as early as July of 2017.

We don’t know when they first met, but Perdue and Ivan Arriagada would meet in May of 2018, just around the time those PRLAs and the borders of the mineral withdrawal map were under discussion. One month later, Trump prematurely on purpose blurted out in Duluth that the mineral withdrawal was on track to be cancelled. “‘It’s now up to [Agriculture] Secretary [Sonny] Perdue,'” Trump told local elected officials and mining advocates at a roundtable before his Duluth visit last week. ‘And I know he’s looking at it very strongly, and I think you’ll do very well.'” The quote is from a story by Dylan Brown in E&E News included in the collection of documents I just received.

Here is video of the moment. Andrea Zupancich, mayor of Babbitt, MN, tees it up:

Anyone who has been paying attention to the way Trump speaks understands that this was an instruction. “He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code,” his former attorney Michael Cohen told Congress. The code here is pretty easy to crack: look at it “very strongly” (not intently, not with a careful eye to the most responsible course, but from an attitude of strength) and make sure the people who want this withdrawal undone “do very well.” Shortly after this, Perdue was warned that Gosar and others would be “pissed” if the Forest Service didn’t follow through.

Under pressure, it appears, Sonny Perdue folded.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Documents Delayed and Permits Accelerated: A Critical Minerals Play?

Is the Trump administration preparing to invoke emergency powers in order to accelerate permitting for Antofagasta’s sulfide mining project near the Boundary Waters? Listen to what Pete Stauber and Mike Pence were saying in Hibbing the other day.

It has been over two months — 78 days, in fact — since the Department of Interior has released any documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit, despite a February 7, 2020 court order requiring regular monthly releases of 750 pages. While I consider options to get the process back on track, I am also trying to figure out what the delay might mean.

An October 6, 2020 Joint Status Report set out some reasons for the delay.

It’s hard to know what to make of these representations. Let’s start with the September releases, since the reviews mentioned in the connection with the October releases sound a little more standard (and are for that reason even more opaque).

In a letter dated October 31, 2019, I was told by Department of Interior Counsel that all requests for agency records related to Secretary Zinke “must” go through the Secretary’s office, so the Secretary’s records were not, and would not ever be, included in searches the Office of the Solicitor. How, then, does the Office of the Secretary claim “equities” in documents from the Office of the Solicitor? It looks as if the firewall they tried to erect between the two offices didn’t hold up or was nothing more than a temporary blind. The back and forth we had over Tax Analysts v. Department of Justice, a landmark case regarding “custody” and “control” of responsive records, probably needs revisiting.

That leaves the six pages being sent to the White House for “consultation.” What’s in those six pages, and who is undertaking the review? One guess is that they concern communications between Daniel Jorjani and Michael Catanzaro, who until April 2018 was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy. Catanzaro met regularly with then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, and he appears to have acted as a sort of White House liaison on the Twin Metals matter.

A front page story in the June 26, 2019 New York Times has Catanzaro meeting with Antofagasta executives as early as May of 2017, and the timeline shows him meeting with Daniel Jorjani about the “Minnesota project” in August of that same year. Stephen Vaden, a political appointee at USDA, also attended that meeting and Vaden appears to have stayed in the Minnesota loop to keep Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue apprised of legal developments. (For the next year or so, Perdue would bide his time, lie and equivocate, before abruptly canceling a planned two-year scientific study to determine whether federal lands bordering the Boundary Waters should be withdrawn from mineral development.)

Catanzaro has returned to lobbying for oil, gas, and mining clients, and it seems a little far-fetched to think the hold up might be due to White House sensitivities around Vaden, whose nomination to the United States Court of International Trade is now awaiting a vote in the Senate. Why, then, the consultation at the White House?

Consider that this delay might not less about protecting persons, or political appointees, and more about protecting a position that the White House, the Solicitor’s Office, the Secretary of the Interior, USDA and Antofagasta Plc have jointly developed — seemingly in tandem with their efforts to renew Antofagasta’s leases in northern Minnesota. The position is simply that Twin Metals will be a source of critical minerals.

Only two days after Daniel Jorjani met with Catanzaro and Vaden in August of 2017, the Department of Interior hosted the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable; and though Antofagasta was not among the mining companies represented on that occasion, the company changed the description of its Twin Metals project to include cobalt — on the list of “critical minerals” — for its 2017 Annual Report. (The 2015 and 2016 Annual Reports make no mention of cobalt.) Immediately after Interior published its list of critical minerals, Gary Lawkowski, who is now Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management and was then Daniel Jorjani’s Deputy, recommended a public relations strategy that positioned Twin Metals as a critical minerals play. “One thing you all may want to note — the Forest Service has indicated that they believe there are potentially cobalt and platinum deposits underneath Superior National Forest.” And, as I mentioned in the FOIA webinar I gave in July, Interior has now started to redact Lawkowski’s use of the phrase “critical minerals” in Twin Metals document releases, which indicates some new sensitivity on the point.

This might help explain the legal reviews holding up the October production as well. But the real issue here doesn’t have to do with the documents I’m expecting. It has to do with how the White House, the Department of Interior, and other agencies are developing the critical minerals position on Twin Metals. We can get a sense of where things seem to be heading from the speech Representative Pete Stauber gave to warm up the rally crowd in Hibbing, Minnesota for Vice President Mike Pence just the other day:

Plaid jacket jingoism. But note especially the way Stauber deliberately conflates “copper-nickel mining” with “strategic metals mining,” and organizes the Twin Metals project under emergency powers the president arrogated to himself in the September 30 Executive Order on critical minerals. Pence softened things a bit when he elaborated on the theme, but he told the crowd that the Executive Order “cuts burdensome regulation and eliminates permitting delays.”

The argument Stauber and Pence were starting to make in Hibbing appears to be that the White House can invoke emergency powers in order to accelerate or even sidestep environmental review on behalf of Antofagasta, because Twin Metals is a source of critical minerals and therefore covered by Executive Order.

The Order asks the Secretary of Energy to identify “all such regulations that may warrant revision or reconsideration in order to expand and protect the domestic supply chain for minerals” and to propose changes within 90 days. That puts us at the end of December, and, if current polls hold, right near the end of Trump’s presidency. In the meantime, the order also authorizes the Secretary of the Interior and other agency heads to “use all available authorities to accelerate the issuance of permits and the completion of projects in connection with expanding and protecting the domestic supply chain for minerals.” If Trump loses Tuesday’s election, they’ll have just a couple of months to get this done.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

An Appeal to the State Department

Earlier this morning I appealed the State Department’s denial of my request for expedited processing on two Freedom of Information Act requests made in the fall of 2018.

As I mentioned in last month’s webinar, even though FOIA specifies that “records shall be made promptly available,” many agencies have a backlog of requests and some requests are deliberately slow-walked.

The State Department does not expect to complete these two 2018 requests until 2022. No reasonable definition of “promptly” contemplates a delay of four years, and, as I argue in my appeal, recent Federal government action — the June 30 Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Twin Metals project — compels the release of these records. Why? Because in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Bureau of Land Management plans to take public comment and hold public meetings on Antofagasta’s Minnesota project. The public can’t participate in a meaningful way or make considered judgments when critical facts are withheld.

I posted a copy of my appeal on Twitter.

The appeal’s argument about NEPA, which provides for meaningful public consultation, brings me back to a point I tried to stress in the webinar: what’s at stake here is not only a mining project or economic development in northern Minnesota or the fate of the Boundary Waters, though all of those things are matters of great concern, but also questions of meaningful consultation, citizen participation, and good government.

Both NEPA and the Freedom of Information Act are, or at least could be, conducive to responsible democratic governance. They are designed to make government conform to citizen demand, or at least make government inform, include, and answer to the public.

Charles Tilly puts it neatly: “a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, mutually binding consultation.” If that is the kind of government we want to have, then those are the political relations we need to create, support, and insist upon. The state isn’t going to do that for us, and the current regime appears to be doing everything it can to frustrate and undermine those relations.

Update 28 Sept 2020. The Office of Information Programs and Services denied this appeal on September 24, saying I did not show a compelling need, and rejecting my argument that due to Federal government action my request meets the threshold of 22 C.F.R. 171.11(f)(2).

Selective Evidence and the Office of the Solicitor

As attorneys at the US Department of Interior drafted a Solicitors’ opinion from a memo written by a mining company lobbyist, they sought historical evidence to support the lobbyist’s claims. Since issuing the opinion in December of 2017, they have kept the evidence they found from being fully disclosed; and they have also failed to account for historical evidence that runs against the finding the mining company wanted.

During last month’s webinar, I mentioned that attorneys at the Department of the Interior and lobbyists for Chilean mining giant Antofagasta often seem to be singing from the same song sheet. By way of example, I pointed to the fact that both the mining company and the government started talking about Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project as a source of “critical minerals,” and in particular cobalt, at the same time. To illustrate, I included a document in the webinar slides where Interior’s Gary Lawkowski proposed using critical minerals as the cornerstone of the public relations strategy around the Boundary Waters reversal. That’s a topic I hope to have more to say about in the future, especially if I succeed in getting those talking points Lawkowski drafted released in unredacted form.

In a comment posted to the Zoom chat during the webinar, Steve Timmer suggested an even better example: the very legal opinion that allowed Interior to renew Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters — a document known as an M-Opinion — was derived almost entirely from a 2016 letter to then-Solicitor Hilary Tompkins written by WilmerHale’s Seth P. Waxman on behalf of his client, Antofagasta.

I’ve written about Waxman as the architect of the Boundary Waters reversal before, but it’s still disconcerting to think that attorneys at the Department of Interior were taking their cues from a mining company lobbyist and faithfully following his line of argument. The lobbyist, after all, is hired to advance the financial interests of the mining company, not to act in the public interest — which is what government officials, public servants, are supposed to do.

A November 7, 2017 email shows attorneys at Interior pursuing Waxman’s argument that a mineral lease form issued in 2004 is “ambiguous.” The email is reproduced several times in one set of Boundary Waters documents I obtained through FOIA, but it appears unredacted only once. (Now that I’ve been able to read it, I’ll add it to the Twin Metals Timeline.) It’s an email from Jack Haugrud to Briana Collier, asking for “more evidence” that will help them grapple with a key ambiguity Waxman identified.

It’s unclear why the Solicitor’s office would want to redact both the content of Haugrud’s email and the subject of the email (“Twin-More Evidence”), especially considering the ambiguity Haugrud identifies would turn out to be central to the argument of the December 2017 M-Opinion. “Twin Metals is entitled to a third renewal,” according to the Jorjani opinion. Why? For the same reason Waxman identified: “the renewal terms of the 2004 lease form do not govern. The form is ambiguous, and the intent of the parties to keep operative the terms of the 1966 leases becomes clear once the BLM’s decision files are examined.”

So Haugrud writes to Collier looking for “anything from 1999-2004” that would clear up this ambiguity, and “more conclusively show that BLM intended to incorporate the 1966 lease terms into the 2004 leases.” The goal here was clearly not to air all the historical evidence, but to show that the 1966 leases “govern.” This is an exercise in foregone conclusions — Waxman’s conclusions.

In reply, Collier attaches a set of documents she’s gotten from colleagues in the Milwaukee office of USDA. The first paragraphs of a number of these documents have also been redacted, but it’s pretty clear the redacted paragraphs set out terms of renewal, including stipulations. I posted a couple of these documents on Twitter the other day.

 

For what it’s worth, I’m going to appeal these exemptions, since the agency decisions they report are final, and can’t reasonably be construed as deliberative or privileged. Why were these paragraphs blacked out in the first place? Why redact correspondence between Interior and mineral lease holders from 1987, 1999, or 2003? I could hazard a guess, but that won’t really change the fact that the stipulations and conditions they set out are, for now, hidden from the public. As a result, it’s hard to have confidence in the M-Opinion’s summary:

In sum, we have found no documents or other evidence that indicate in any way that the 2004 renewals were to be on altered terms or conditions from the 1989 leases. Because the 1989 leases renewed the leases under the same terms and conditions as the original 1966 leases, those terms remain operative in the 2004 renewal and, as discussed below, entitle Twin Metals to a third renewal.

In the end, as I’ve noted before, Daniel Jorjani and his team of attorneys simply took Waxman’s cues. So the best way to deal with the ambiguity of the 2004 forms, Jorjani writes, is to consider “extrinsic evidence beyond the ‘four corners’ of the document…to ascertain the intent of the contracting parties.” Here, too, Jorjani will follow Waxman in seizing on the decision files of the Bureau of Land Management to show “that the BLM renewed the leases in 1989 under the same terms as the 1966 leases and did so again in 2004.”

And what were those terms? If you adhere to Waxman and Jorjani’s reading of the evidence, the terms are clear: the mining company, the holder of the leases, is entitled to a “non-discretionary” right to renewal:. because of recognized operational problems in the area, producing minerals in the short term would have been impossible. The leases thus would serve no rational purpose absent a non-discretionary right to renew; no company would undertake the necessary investment for exploration and development knowing that it could be unilaterally deprived of any ability to recoup that investment.” In other words, northern Minnesota is a tough place to operate, so there was never any requirement to bring the leases into production. Solicitor Tompkins was wrong to say there was.

There are a couple of problems with this line of argument. The first has to do with the recourse to extrinsic evidence. Once you go beyond the four corners of the document, where do you stop? Why are BLM decision files from the 1980s the only extrinsic, or historical evidence to consider? To my mind, there are at least three other kinds of extrinsic evidence that need to be taken into account: the redacted paragraphs in the BLM correspondence noticed here; the provisions of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act; and the good faith representations made by the Department of Interior when the agency first issued the 1966 leases.

That last item brings me to the second problem with this Waxman-Jorjani line of argument. As Representative Alan Lowenthal has repeatedly pointed out, there is clear historical evidence that the original 1966 leases did not confer a non-discretionary right to renew. There were conditions and stipulations. One was a production requirement. That is, the 1966 leases would not be renewed if the company failed to bring them into production — to start mining — by the end of the primary term of the leases: 1986. The Bureau of Land Management said so in the press release it issued at the time, and in an earlier post I produced several Minnesota newspaper accounts reporting on the production requirement. Here is another that I found just this morning, an article that ran in the New York Times on June 15, 1966.

It seems likely the Times and other newspapers explicitly mention this detail not just because it was included in the BLM press release, but mainly because it was a critical piece of information for investors. Purchasers of International Nickel Company stock at the time would have wanted to know what plans there were to develop the newly-acquired Minnesota leases and what commitment the company had to make a going venture of them. Fifty-four years later, the American public deserves the same consideration.

Update August 28, 2020: An Amended Complaint filed in Wilderness Society et al. v. Bernhardt et al. might help explain why the first paragraphs of those Milwaukee documents were redacted before being released.

The complaint quotes an email from a legislative assistant for Congressman Pete Stauber to a Forest Service Congressional liaison: “I just wanted to touch base on the Twin Metals situation. The company is getting increasingly concerned about the stipulations put forward by the Forest Service on the up or down vote they require for mineral lease renewals every ten years. Both Reps. [Tom] Emmer and Stauber are increasingly concerned that these stipulations could deter Twin Metals from making further investment in the area and slow down economic development in turn.”

Under pressure from Stauber and Emmer, we learn, the Forest Service waived its statutory right to consent to all future lease renewals. This was a departure — an arbitrary and unlawful one, according to the complaint — from the terms of the 1966 and 2004 leases. The Forest Service established new stipulations, including “(1) a right to perpetual renewal of the Leases if Twin Metals complies with the Leases’ terms and stipulations; and (2) a stipulation that if Twin Metals fails to meet certain milestones for developing and constructing a mine during the 10-year renewal period, the Leases will terminate, but with provisions that can toll the Leases’ term.”

It seems the redacted portions of the Milwaukee documents might have set out stipulations that were not to the mining company’s liking. Further discussion here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

 

 

 

 

Did Interior Abandon NEPA for Antofagasta?

New documents show top officials at the Department of the Interior planned to review Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, before renewing them. That plan appears to have been abandoned after meetings with Chilean mining company executives in spring of 2018.

The latest Boundary Waters documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit come from Daniel Jorjani, who was Deputy Solicitor at the Department of the Interior when these records were created. The release consists of 122 heavily redacted pages, mostly emails and briefings that circulated as the Department of Interior was preparing to announce that it had reinstated Antofagasta’s mineral leases on May 2, 2018.

These records show that the Bureau of Land Management decided against any “proactive” statement (like a press release) on the reinstatement, and opted instead to create an “if-asked” statement for the press. Russell Newell drafted the if-asked statement and Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker reviewed and edited it on Monday, April 30. Deputy Solicitor Jorjani approved Hawbecker’s edits at 5:30PM the same day.

Newell’s draft and Hawbecker’s edits of the if-asked statement are both fully redacted, but we know what the if-asked statement said because Dylan Brown, a journalist writing for E & E News, asked.

Lori Mashburn, White House Liaison at the Department of the Interior, included the official response to Brown’s query in her May 4 Daily Update for Cabinet Affairs. The Update went to Jorjani, David Bernhardt, Doug Domenech and other political appointees as well as Russell Newell. 

At the end of April, 2018, the Department understood that the lease renewals would require “review under the National Environmental Policy Act.” That is also the understanding of the law set forward by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the lease renewals currently before the US District Court for the District of Columbia: 

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) requires that agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of their actions before the actions occur, and that they prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) for “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C); Kleppe v. Sierra Club, 427 U.S. 390, 410 n.21 (1976). Courts have clarified that in the mineral leasing context, an agency must prepare an EIS analyzing the ultimate effect of mineral development when it issues a lease without reserving absolute authority to prevent development on the lease. 

But when it came to renewing Antofagasta’s mineral leases, one year later, the Department of the Interior set NEPA aside. Instead of taking a hard look, as required by NEPA, they issued an EA or Environmental Assessment — which is really only a first step in determining whether a project will have significant environmental impact. 

Why the change of plan? As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the Department of the Interior seems to have abandoned plans for an EIS after meetings with executives from Antofagasta in spring of 2018.

In a March 6 meeting summary included with a previous release of documents, Antofagasta officials explicitly stated that an EIS would interfere with their plans. They wanted a Categorical Exclusion; they would settle for an EA. That is exactly what they got.

So it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that top Interior officials knew renewing the leases would require review under NEPA, but they deliberately set aside US law in order to do the bidding of Chilean mining executives.

The August documents are now online here, and all the Boundary Waters documents I’ve obtained to date are here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

More Evidence Foreign Mining Company’s Interests Were Top Priority at Trump’s Interior

This month’s release of Boundary Waters documents in response to my FOIA lawsuit may only number 19 pages, but it helps highlight an important point, one I have repeatedly made when writing and speaking about this issue: reviving Antofagasta’s expired mineral leases in Superior National Forest was a top priority for the incoming administration.

We don’t know why.

The July release shows officials at BLM revisiting the proposed mineral withdrawal in Superior National Forest much earlier than previously known. On January 25, 2017, Richard Cardinale and other Interior staff meet to discuss a correction to the Federal Register. The original notice of the proposed two-year mineral withdrawal incorrectly stated January 21, 2017 as the end date (which would amount to a two-day, not a two-year segregation period). This seems like straightforward, conscientious work.

Two days later, on January 27, 2017, just one week after the inauguration, political appointee Daniel Jorjani seizes on this briefing and forwards it — at 4:48AM — to Katharine MacGregor and Kathleen Benedetto.

It’s clear that the trio has been discussing Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project in northern Minnesota. Why the routine publication of an errata notice in the Federal Register should have excited them, or how it might have served their ends, remains unclear.

But this Jorjani email appears to have gotten the ball rolling. MacGregor requests a list of all public land withdrawals and segregations made in the last year of Obama’s presidency, which Michael Nedd dutifully prepares and delivers on Monday, January 30.

We know from the timeline that by Thursday of that same week, February 2, Kristin Bail is putting together a briefing for MacGregor on Antofagasta’s leases near the Boundary Waters. I am unable to say whether other segregations and withdrawals on Nedd’s list were dealt with so zealously.

It seems safe to say that the business interests of a Chilean conglomerate took precedence over a whole lot of other matters at the Department of the Interior in the first weeks of the Trump administration.

The new documents are here.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.