Tag Archives: government failure

Public Comment on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal

My written comments ran to five pages, so instead of posting them here, I put them online as a PDF, which you can read here. I also made a three-minute comment in the live session hosted by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service this afternoon. My comments focus mainly on the story I’ve been pursuing for the past few years — a story of corruption. The first couple of paragraphs convey the general idea:

Federal lands in the Rainy River Watershed should be withdrawn from disposition under US mineral and geothermal leasing laws for the proposed initial twenty-year period, if not permanently. This is an overdue decision, grounded in science, economics, law, and environmental ethics.

Why, then, hasn’t it already happened? How did this withdrawal process, which started in 2017, go off track? Agency records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show clearly that a foreign mining company, Antofagasta plc, acted to prevent the withdrawal; and from 2017-2021, members of Congress and the executive branch ran political interference on its behalf. Decisions taken behind closed doors during that period served foreign private interests, not the American public interest. The agencies now have an opportunity to rectify the situation.

I end with three recommendations:

The announcement on October 20, 2021, that the Biden administration will complete the “science-based environmental analysis” was encouraging. Given all the political interference, the two-year study really ought to have been started all over again, from scratch, in the interest of scientific integrity. At the very least, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should release – unredacted — the preliminary findings of the canceled two-year scientific study, so that they can be compared with the new and complete analysis.

As agencies work toward a science-based decision on the twenty-year withdrawal, they also need to take additional steps to restore public confidence and guard against undue influence. As a first step, the USDA Inspector General could review Secretary Perdue’s decision to cancel the 2017 withdrawal process and report on scientific independence, ethical conduct, and political interference at the agency.

Finally, the agencies can help raise standards. Industry repeatedly assures us that non-ferrous mining in the Rainy River Watershed and elsewhere can be done “responsibly,” and there are a growing number of calls, from Congress and from within the Biden administration, for “responsible mining” for the transition to renewables. How should government respond? Rigorous and practical guidance for agencies on the law and ethics as well as the technical and scientific aspects of “responsible mining” would be a good start.

Here is a recording of my three-minute live comment, which tracks all this pretty closely. Video is cued to the mark.

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.

*Postscript: The very next day, June 21, 2018, Sonny Perdue’s calendar shows a “Twin Metals Brief” just before the Secretary heads over to the White House for a cabinet meeting. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to guess the content of that briefing.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.