Tag Archives: regulatory capture

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.

Three Questions for the Michigan DEQ on the Back Forty Project

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced its intention to permit the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold and zinc sulfide ore mine that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, plans to develop near the headwaters of the Menominee River. In response to the MDEQ’s request for public comment by November 3rd, I’ve submitted these three questions. I’m posting them here so that others might consider them in the run up to the public meeting with the MDEQ in Stephenson, Michigan on October 6th.

  1. In determining that the Back Forty Project application meets the requirements for approval under Part 632, did MDEQ take into account the cumulative effects of sulfide mining throughout the Lake Superior watershed? We know that the Back Forty project poses a significant risk to the Menominee River all by itself. With the mine in close proximity to the river, a flood, berm collapse, subsidence or a slide could destroy the Menominee River; to answer these serious concerns by asking the company to add a “synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” as the DEQ has proposed, is to trivialize them. Other development that the mine will inevitably bring, including haul routes, power lines, lights, fueling stations, exhaust and machine noise, will leave a large industrial footprint and disturb the Menominee River and its environs in countless ways. At the same time, this mine will heighten the risk, in the long term, of large-scale environmental destruction posed by the resurgence of sulfide mining not just in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in Minnesota and Canada as well — all around the lake and throughout the Lake Superior watershed. Has the DEQ completed or participated with neighboring state agencies and tribal authorities in a scientific study of the cumulative impacts of sulfide mining around Lake Superior? Has the DEQ issued guidance on how cumulative environmental effects should factor into its decision-making process for permitting new mines in Michigan?
  2. Has MDEQ made any determination about the human rights implications of its decision to allow the Back Forty project to go forward? Human rights are not outside the DEQ’s bailiwick, no matter how hard it may try to exempt itself. Witness Flint. In the present case, the DEQ’s oversight is inextricably bound up with the state’s obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties. Aquila’s Back Forty project is sure to disturb, and likely to desecrate, lands traditionally belonging to the Menominee and still held sacred by them; and making provisions for archaeological recovery and preservation of mounds and other sacred sites does not adequately address the basic human rights issues involved here. The headwaters of the Menominee River are central to the tribe’s creation story, marking the place where the Menominee people originated. Their very name derives from manoomin, or wild rice, which will not survive changes in sulfate levels or degradation of overall water quality. As tribal member Guy Reiter has said, “It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians.” Seen from this perspective, the Back Forty is not only an affront to Menominee history; it also puts the cultural survival of the Menominee people at risk. How will the DEQ factor such human rights considerations into its decision-making process?
  3. What has the DEQ done to restore trust in its authority, and reassure the Menominee and people living downstream from the Back Forty project in Michigan and Wisconsin that it will exercise appropriate care? The Flint water crisis cast a long shadow, and reinforced the perception that “politics and poverty are big factors” in DEQ decision making. “The same attitude of disregard for citizens and the environment has repeated itself in DEQ decisions across our state for well over a decade,” said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley after news of the Flint water crisis broke; controversy over the renewed Groundwater Discharge Permit issued by MDEQ at Eagle Mine and legitimate concerns about lax oversight at Eagle East help make her case. Like all government agencies, the Michigan DEQ should operate in sunlight. Already, however, troubling questions have been raised about the transparency of the Back Forty permitting process. For example, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, asks why the DEQ appears to be in a “rush” to grant the Back Forty permit. So as things now stand, the DEQ enjoys de jure authority in Michigan under Part 632, but it is unclear whether the DEQ still enjoys de facto authority, which could only derive from demonstrations of regulatory competence. How does MDEQ intend to quell public concern that it is compromised or incompetent, and reassure the public that it is a responsible steward?