Tag Archives: Water

How did the DFC Handle Human Rights Concerns about Alto Maipo? Part Two

When presented with an opportunity to review human rights risks at a major hydropower plant in Chile, the Development Finance Corporation and affiliated international development banks reacted defensively and responded with boilerplate.

In a July post, I set out some context for records I received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made to the Development Finance Corporation. It’s probably best to review that post before reading this follow up. Briefly, in August 2020, five UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights sent a detailed letter to DFC CEO Adam Boehler, warning of serious human rights risks at Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile. The DFC is a major funder of the project.

A second set of responsive records, which DFC tells me is the final release, arrived yesterday. I’ve put them online here.

These are emails circulating within DFC and with other members of the Alto Maipo Lender Group in August and September, 2020, in response to the rapporteurs’ letter. The Santiago office of Norwegian bank DNB apparently received the letter first, on 18 August 2020, and emailed others in the Lender Group to alert them that it was on its way.

I don’t know what else the Office of Investment Policy (OIP) had heard about the Alto Maipo project before receiving Uauy’s email, or what exactly prompted OIP’s Jean Kim to remark “It Just keeps on coming.” Maybe Alto Maipo was already a source of concern or bureaucratic headaches, or maybe (given the email was sent at 8PM) it was just an especially busy day at the office.

The correspondence that follows Jean Kim’s email is pretty thoroughly redacted, making it difficult to assess the DFC response, but a few things are tolerably clear.

As suggested by Uauy’s email, DFC, DNB, International Finance Corporation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other members of the Lender Group (like Germany’s KfW Development Bank and Brazil’s Banco Itau) will coordinate their response to the UN letter. The Lender Group’s Independent Environmental Consultant, ERM, will lead this effort.

ERM organizes a call to bring everyone up to speed, and after the call, a Social Risk Officer at DFC emails colleagues with a summary of the letter’s contents: “apparently the letter is claiming that the Project did not complete FPIC [Free, Prior and Informed Consent, as established in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], amongst 5 other comments.” The 26 August chain of correspondence also includes a summary of a UN press release on the topic, with this quotation called out in bold:

“The Chilean Government would not be fulfilling its international human rights obligations if it prioritises economic development projects over the human rights to water and health,” said Léo Heller, UN special rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation. He referred specifically to the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, southeast of the capital, Santiago, and the avocado business in Petorca province in the Valparaiso, region north of Santiago.

Heller focuses his remarks on the Chilean government’s obligations to protect human rights. He goes on to suggest that steps taken by the government have been inadequate:

“Not only may this project reduce the main source of drinking water for residents of Santiago de Chile, it could also make air pollution in the capital worse,” Heller said, by damaging the “green corridor” of the Maipo River basin that has helped offset pollution.

During implementation of the project, which is due to come online in December, “although the Government has investigated damages to the environment no effective measure was taken to guarantee the human right to water for people affected by this megaproject”, Heller said.

There is clearly a role — or an opportunity — for the Lender Group to help the Chilean government address these challenges. As funders, the DFC and the Lender Group have a shared, concomitant responsibility to respect human rights in the economic development projects they back; to this end, DFC has its own environmental and human rights policies and compliance procedures in place.

But by September 4, the DFC appears to have assumed a defensive posture. “The letter,” writes Kate Dunbar of the Office of Investment Policy, “has reiterated key issues claimed by the opposition group throughout the Project.” She no doubt has in mind the group — “the opposition” — led by the Center for International Environmental Law, the Chilean NGO Ecosistemas, and Coordinadora No Alto Maipo. These organizations have been monitoring the project and raising concerns over human rights due diligence since its inception.

By September 21st, as the deadline for responding to the letter approaches, this defensive stance has hardened among some members of the Lender Group: the UN letter “contains a series of allegations than contain with [sic] no support whatsoever,” writes one member of the International Development Bank, dismissively. A strategy takes shape:

DNB is on board with the suggestion that the Lender Group keep the response non-confrontational, “high level and pointing to public information and bank’s general procedures.” ERM produces a draft and revisions follow, but all of that is redacted.

It’s hard to say how much these redactions could matter. Overall, the impression is that the Lender Group had decided, by late September, to stonewall. If that impression is mistaken, I welcome corrections. 

How did the DFC Handle Human Rights Concerns about Alto Maipo? A FOIA Request

An aerial view of the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project

Before the Trump years, few Americans had heard of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta plc or the powerful Luksic family who control it. Today, Antofagasta’s controversial plan to mine copper and nickel on the edge of the Boundary Waters and the scandals associated with it are not exactly common knowledge, but at least better known. Congressional hearings, activism, and investigative reporting helped bring the previous administration’s reckless, clumsy, and corrupt handling of Antofagasta’s permits into focus. (Maybe some of the records I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act helped, too.) But despite steps taken by the Biden administration to set right some of what the Trump administration did wrong in this case, the Antofagasta file is far from closed. The lobbying for reversals and permits continues apace* and important aspects of the story are still obscure.

A FOIA request I made on June 3, 2021 promises to shed some light on one aspect of the story, maybe nothing more than a minor detail, involving the Development Finance Corporation. The first set of records arrived last Friday. Nothing much so far, just some innocuous looking office email correspondence, but I’ve posted the records on documentcloud and will continue to put them up as they arrive. Here, I just want to set these records in context.

The story takes us back to 2013, the first year of Obama’s second term. That’s when Twin Metals Minnesota filed its mineral lease renewal application at the center of the current Boundary Waters controversy, and it’s also when the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, made a $250 million investment in the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile. At the time, the Luksic Group, owners of Antofagasta plc, held a 40 percent share in the mega-project.

This looks like nothing more than a coincidence. Antofagasta would not formally acquire Twin Metals until 2015; and the company would decide to get out of Alto Maipo in 2016 (though it took until 2020 to divest fully from the project). At most, the OPIC deal might have helped persuade Antofagasta that the Obama administration would look favorably on its North American plans.

In 2018, the Development Finance Corporation, or DFC, took over the OPIC portfolio of projects, investments that aim to alleviate poverty, combat corruption, and promote sustainable as well as low-carbon and no-carbon development. DFC also shares OPIC’s stated commitment to “respect the environment, human rights, and workers rights.” Its Environmental and Social Policy and Procedures document, produced in July 2020, shows remarkably little sign of the crude transactionalism that dominated foreign affairs, including foreign aid and investment, during the Trump administration.

Just one month later, on August 18, 2020, DFC’s statements of principle would be put to the test. The DFC was informed of serious human rights challenges at Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project. Five UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights sent a five page letter to Adam Boehler, Jared Kushner’s friend and college roommate and the Trump-appointed CEO of the Development Finance Corporation, warning of possible human rights violations at Alto Maipo.

The letter is included as an Annex in written comments for the June 9, 2021 meeting of the DFC.

The UN Rapporteurs express concern that the Alto Maipo project hoards water for mining interests, hurts local communities, and is proceeding without adequate concern for human rights and the environment. The letter says the mega-project would reduce “the availability of water for human consumption and domestic use, in contexts already characterized by climate change and water scarcity.” The shortages could also affect subsistence agriculture, “resulting in violations of the right to food and other rights related to the right to an adequate standard of living.” The project appears to be proceeding without participation of the affected communities and with significant damage to biodiversity and the environment, and “multiple human rights violations” are likely to result.

Unable to find Boehler’s response to these claims, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “all DFC communications regarding the 18 August 2020 letter from UN Special Rapporteurs to DFC CEO Adam Boehler regarding the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in Chile, including any and all communications to or from Mr. Boehler about the topic.” The few records included in the first FOIA production do not include anything from Boehler; they are a small set of emails to and from Catherine Andrade, DFC Corporate Secretary, in preparation for the June 9, 2021 DFC Board Public Hearing.

Alto Maipo was on the agenda for the day, as it was again at this year’s meeting. Groups that have monitored human rights and environmental issues around Alto Maipo were slated to participate: Juan Pablo Orrego, president of the organization Ecosistemas, and Carla Garcia Zendejas from the Center for International Environmental Law were among the presenters. Observers included representatives of BNP Paribas, Oxfam, US Small Business Administration, Accountability Council, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

All indications are that this was a meeting Boehler’s DFC wasn’t especially eager to have. In April 2020, the DFC declared itself exempt from the Sunshine Act, which requires federal agencies to open meetings for public observation.

In response, the Center for Biological Diversity and other plaintiffs sued:

They say the rule change means that [DFC] no longer faces any obligation to provide communities with information that could later impact their environments and livelihoods.

The Center for International Environmental Law, a co-plaintiff on the suit, spent years working with communities affected by the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, which Chilean activists argue would threaten the drinking supply of more than 6 million people in the Santiago Metropolitan Region. The OPIC granted $250 million in funding to the project in 2013.

“For many years, we worked to hold OPIC…accountable,” Carla Garcia Zendejas, the organization’s director of people, land and resources, said in an email, “ensuring that communities affected by the institution were able to secure access to information regarding the institution’s decision-making processes and to utilize the accountability mechanism when adversely affected….

Garcia Zendejas emphasized that the DFC’s new exemption “had very practical implications for communities on the ground who are seeking information about the projects that could upend their lives.”

Bill Snape, Senior Counsel of the Center for Biological Diversity, added that he could see little reason for the agency to try to exempt itself from the Sunshine Act, “unless you have things to hide.” The plaintiffs did not prevail, however, and in February of this year, Judge Christopher Cooper granted DFC’s motion to dismiss, writing that the Sunshine Act does not apply to the DFC. For now, at least, FOIA does.

* I looked at Q2 2022 lobbying for the Twin Metals project here:

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 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.

A New OpEd and an Upcoming Webinar on FOIA and the Fight for the Boundary Waters

In today’s MinnPost, Chris Knopf and I discuss one finding of the documents I obtained through FOIA: Chilean mining company Antofagasta set the terms — the calendar and the scope — of environmental review for the renewal of its mineral leases near the Boundary Waters. The OpEd is here.

On Wednesday, I’ll be presenting some of my research (and talking about the Freedom of Information Act and good government) in a free online webinar hosted by Friends of the Boundary Waters. You can register here.

Update 9 July 2020: here is a recording of the webinar.

Update 18 March 2021. Zoom did not record the desktop during my presentation back in July, so for Sunshine Week I restored the slides. Watch the full presentation with slides here.

Boundary Waters FOIA on Fox 9 “Investigators”

In this July 29th Fox 9 “Investigators” segment about sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, I make a brief appearance at around the 7:30 mark.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

The Boundary Waters Reversal Makes the Front Page of the New York Times

The story about the Boundary Waters reversal in the New York Times appears to be causing a stir. Hours after its online debut on Tuesday, the article had attracted hundreds of comments and was all over social media; yesterday, it appeared above the fold on the front page of the print edition. What struck me first about public reaction was that Times readers — a civic-minded and educated lot, on the whole — seem to have been unfamiliar with the basic elements of this story until now.

Most of the commenters’ heat appears to be focused on the Kalorama rental arrangement, which finds the daughter and son-in-law of the president renting a mansion from billionaire Chilean mining magnate Adronico Luksic Craig. It’s the most lurid part the story, and hints at some darker deal, or explicit quid pro quo: a mansion for a mine. I still think caution on that point is warranted.

Luksic was easily able to dismiss earlier reporting in Newsweek, HuffPo, and elsewhere on the rental, because it was based on the laziest form of reporting: writing up a (typically colorful) tweet by law professor and Bush administration ethics official Richard Painter about Luksic using “the Boundary Waters as his toilet”.

He stuck with this denial after the Times story appeared.

Luksic’s denial almost always turns on the issue whether he has ever “met” or “knows” the Trumps and Kushners. In the Times story, however, Luksic’s purchase of the Kalorama mansion is characterized in another way: as a soft opening bid, bringing Jared and Ivanka into an inappropriate, ethically compromised relationship from the moment they arrive in Washington. They are senior White House officials living under Luksic’s roof:

…several ethics experts said they would have cautioned Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump against renting the home, given the Luksic family’s business before the administration.

“There may be nothing wrong,” said Arthur Andrew Lopez, a federal government ethics official for two decades who is now a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “But it doesn’t look good.”

It doesn’t really make the arrangement look any better to say they “decided to lease the home before knowing the landlord’s identity,”as Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner lawyer Abbe Lowell tells the Times; and it’s worth noting that Mirijanian “did not directly respond to questions about whether they learned of that identity before signing the lease,” which would presumably have given Kushner and Trump an opportunity to review the matter with ethics officials. Besides, Rodrigo Terré, a Luksic agent, “said both sides were aware of each others’ identities before the rental deal was finalized. ‘We disclosed our name and the name of my boss,’ he said in a telephone interview.” That’s pretty unambiguous.

After asking out loud — again — whether there had been any formal ethics review of the leasing arrangement, I received this reply from one of the Times reporters:

There is additional new reporting here about the rental arrangement and other matters.

We learn, for example, that Charles and Seryl Kushner accompanied Jared and Ivanka on their tour of the Kalorama mansion. That family picture raises other questions, mainly about Charles Kushner’s longtime business associate George Gellert — who along with his son Andrew Gellert has extensive business connections in Chile. This angle seems worth exploring, especially since the White House nominated Andrew Gellert to be ambassador to Chile. (The nomination was quietly withdrawn, without explanation, in August of 2018. For more, see this post.)

Times reporting also appears to confirm that Antofagasta did, indeed, meet with the White House in May of 2017. The emails I had obtained through FOIA only hinted at the possibility of a meeting: “this same group [from Antofagasta] may also have a meeting at the White House,” wrote Interior’s Karen Hawbecker on April 28th.

A key meeting occurred in early May, when Antofagasta’s chief executive, along with other executives and lobbyists, discussed the issue with the White House’s top adviser on domestic energy and the environment, Michael Catanzaro. The company said it wanted to reverse the Obama-era decisions, which it said were illegal and inflicted “undue damage.”

That meeting now appears in an update to the Twin Metals at Interior timeline. As I’ve pointed out in another post, Catanzaro is especially close to the current Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt. While at the White House, Catanzaro had a regular weekly call with Bernhardt. The two oil and gas lobbyists often had lunch together as well. This would be yet more evidence, if more were required, that the Chilean mining conglomerate owned by the Luksic family had unbridled access to the highest reaches of the administration, and these public officials were working on the mining company’s behalf.

The message from an early meeting, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that officials should prepare for a change in direction.

Parse that carefully. It’s one of the most intriguing paragraphs of the entire story, and it calls into question the administration’s claim — which it is currently defending in the US District Court for the District of Columbia — that the Boundary Waters reversal was made merely to correct an error in Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Bernhardt, Biodiversity, and the Boundary Waters

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

The full exchange is cued up here:

A few notes.

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

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

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

Without waiting for a reply, McCollum continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole exchange is here.

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

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

What Is Sonny Perdue Hiding?

Why did Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue abruptly cancel the planned two-year mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest? Why has he so far failed, or refused, to turn over findings from the first twenty months of that study, despite repeated requests from congressional leaders? If, as Perdue claims, the study “did not reveal new scientific information,” what’s there to hide?

The administrative record is being deliberately kept from us, it seems. Congress has yet to see the documents and analysis the Secretary of Agriculture is supposed to have consulted before issuing his decision to clear the way for copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The American public has no assurance that Perdue or the Trump administration “acted in good faith,” as the editors of the Star Tribune put it over the weekend, or even, I would add, in compliance with administrative law. As things stand, “disturbing questions remain about whether [an] industry-friendly outcome was driven by science or politics. If there’s nothing to hide, there should be no delays in providing this information to the public.”

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, April 9th, Representative Betty McCollum asked the Secretary of Agriculture to address some of those concerns. (The video is cued to the start of McCollum’s question time.)

Some highlights.

Back in May of 2017, Secretary Perdue had reassured McCollum and an Interior subcommittee that he would “absolutely” allow the planned two-year study to go forward. But his words, McCollum says, have been “completely belied by [his] actions.”

You failed to live up to your words when you announced in September the abrupt cancellation of the mineral withdrawal study. Twenty months into a twenty-four month study review. Twenty months of collecting public input. Twenty months of science-based assessment. And all you released was a one-page press release. And that’s completely inadequate. We still have not seen any of the science behind the science-based decision. I have sent multiple letters, first in November and then again on March 1st, along with the Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, asking your agency to release the relevant documentation from the twenty-month review. Your own press release said the review included …”a mineral resource report, a biological and economic impact assessment, potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.” Secretary Perdue, were all those reports completed as part of the environmental assessment?

Perdue: I can’t answer that question directly, Ma’am.

McCollum: So if you don’t have complete scientific reports to review before making your decision to cancel the withdrawal, one has to ask what your decision was based on. Do you have any idea what your decision was based on, sir?

Perdue says he does have an idea, but in the exchange that follows, he manages only a jumbled statement.

When I learned that Minnesota really has the last vote on this as a state government, and where the governor had determined already that he was not going to allow this to go forward, it made no sense to me to proceed to — certainly, there’s been not one permit issued, there will not be one permit issued until it’s a complete environmental impact statement and study, based on that, and it looked to me it would be duplicative after I realized that, after my statement to you in May of 17 at my first hearing, and therefore the state of Minnesota has the last vote on this, and I would expect them to do what the citizens of Minnesota would decide.

If I may venture a paraphrase: the Secretary of Agriculture cancelled the scientific study of mineral withdrawal, because — try to follow the reasoning here — once Superior National Forest is no longer subject to withdrawal, and the permitting process for new mining can get underway in earnest, there will be environmental impact assessments done. Those assessments will involve science, or “study.” Why finish the two-year study to determine whether any mining should be done at all, when we’re just going to do more scientific study later, in order to issue mining permits? And since the governor and the people of Minnesota seem to be against the whole thing anyway, science is irrelevant.

This is arrant nonsense, and shows an utter disregard for administrative procedure and a lack of preparation that borders on contempt of Congress. Still, it might help settle the question whether Perdue’s decision was driven by “science or politics.” Secretary Perdue seems not even to understand the role scientific study plays in the Forest Service’s disposition of public lands, or he just doesn’t care. Consider his attitude toward scientific study in the press release he issued back in September of 2018. There, Perdue boasted that by cancelling the two-year study he had removed a “major obstacle,” a “roadblock,” to mineral leasing on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Now, “interested companies may seek to lease minerals in the watershed.”

McCollum was not satisfied with any of this — why should she be? — and she reminded Perdue that his actions have already had serious consequences.

Well, sir, I respectfully disagree with your analysis of this. Once the Forest Service didn’t go forward on the study, BLM started moving forward on lease renewal. Once the study wasn’t completed and I asked for all the information on it, taxpayers paid for it, I have not received it. So sir, I feel that the Forest Service did not fulfill its congressional obligation by moving forward with the full two-year study, and the watershed that the Boundary Waters is in, all water’s precious, but it makes no sense to me at all that the Forest Service abandoned its due diligence research… Your stopping the study started a rollercoaster of events that will lead, possibly, to the destruction of these pristine waters.

McCollum has once again raised the alarm. Where are the whistleblowers?

Read more posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

David Bernhardt’s Briefings on the Boundary Waters Reversal

bernhardttwinmetals4oct2017.pngIt appears the FOIA department of the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of Interior has gone quiet on me, and has made it a practice if not a policy no longer to reply to emails or return phone calls about the status of my outstanding FOIA request. I should not like to think that they are giving me the cold shoulder because I published the first two batches of documents they produced, or that they are deliberately withholding or delaying the release of more documents. But with each passing day it’s getting harder to avoid a conclusion along those lines.

While trying to figure out if I’ve constructively exhausted administrative remedies pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i), which would give me grounds for a legal complaint, I thought I would look at the calendar entries recently posted online by the Department of the Interior for David Bernhardt, and see what I could learn about the role he played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

Before his nomination to be Secretary of the Interior (which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just advanced), Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke. Before that, he was the head of the energy, environment and resources division at the lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt, et al; he represented many oil, gas and mining companies, and it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, he has severed ties with former private sector clients.

Bernhardt has balked at the requirement that he keep an official calendar, which would at least allow the American public to see who he’s been meeting with. The closest we have are typed agendas or “daily cards,” which list appointments and calls. The agenda items offer little detail, rarely specifying the subject of a meeting. This looks like more than just laziness or negligence. Bernhardt seems to believe the rules do not or should not apply to him, and he appears to be contemptuous of administrative process, norms, and law.

Much the same can be said for the PDF of Bernhardt’s calendar entries the Department of Interior released. There was no attempt to fill or even call out gaps in the record. Pages and entries are out of chronological order, November mixed with September, 2017 with 2018. Adding to the confusion, the PDF is not searchable; it is simply an image of the daily cards. Fortunately, my friend Michael Miles was able to perform a little software magic, and — voila! — we now have a searchable version of the 439 pages of daily cards that Interior produced. It’s online here.

We knew before this that Bernhardt was scheduled to be briefed on the Twin Metals matter sometime in August of 2017. As the timeline indicates, on Sunday, August 6th, Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker forwarded a briefing paper to her colleague Jack Haugrud “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a briefing with David Bernhardt.” This was probably some version of the one page briefing that Kathleen Benedetto had prepared for Ryan Zinke back in April of 2017, and which had been adapted and forwarded to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile at around the same time, in preparation for meetings with Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada. Bernhardt’s briefing would have reflected the progress that the Solicitor’s office had made since that time on the effort to reverse Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion, following Seth Waxman’s blueprint.

It’s difficult to say whether this August briefing ever took place. Bernhardt’s daily cards show a meeting with Kathleen Benedetto on August 28th, 2017; and Benedetto at the time was carrying the Twin Metals brief. So perhaps that’s it. The daily cards also help us establish a little context for Bernhardt’s August briefing. We can see from his calendar that Bernhardt was in constant and regular contact with Michael J. Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy before leaving in April, 2018. Bernahrdt and Catanzaro have a weekly call; sometimes they have lunch together. No surprise, as the two men come from the same world of lobbying for oil, gas, and mining interests; but what’s interesting about their regular contact is that it establishes a clear line of communication between the White House, or the Executive Office of the President, where Catanzaro served, and the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

The revolving door puts one powerful lobbyist in the White House and another at Interior, and the two of them get together regularly, no doubt to discuss a shared agenda.

About a week before Bernhardt met with Benedetto, on August 22nd, 2017, Catanzaro meets to discuss the “Minnesota Project” with Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Joining them to discuss the reversal is Stephen Vaden, an attorney from USDA. Two days after that, August 24th*, Bernhardt along with other high level Department of Interior officials hosts the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, with the CEOs of 16 mining companies. I’m unable to determine who those 16 CEOs were, but minutes from the annual meeting of the Women’s Mining Coalition on September 1, 2017, tell us that Pershing Gold was among the invitees, and the focus of the roundtable was “how to remove barriers to critical minerals, concerted focus at high level to improve permitting conditions.” Was anyone there to talk about removing barriers to mine the Duluth Complex? The CEO of Twin Metals? Polymet? Antofagasta? Glencore? I’ll do a little more poking around to see if I can find out who the CEO attendees were, and if I can’t come up with anything, I suppose I’ll have to file yet another FOIA request.**

Among the documents already produced by Interior, the earliest reference I’ve found to the Twin Metals matter is a February 2, 2017 Information/Briefing Memorandum [page 4390] prepared by Kristin Ball, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, for Katherine MacGregor, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. (Michael Nedd’s February 7th, 2017 email has been superseded in this regard; and it makes sense that the initiative appears to have come from MacGregor, not from Nedd. The timeline now reflects MacGregor’s role as prime mover.) In her memo, Ball notes that in the Superior National Forest area proposed for withdrawal, there are deposits of “Copper, nickel, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver” and adds, “Deposits contain critical minerals, due to technological applications.” This early memo establishes a theme that will run through Bernhardt’s arrival at Interior and culminate in the December 19, 2017 release of a new list of critical minerals by the United States Geological Service. That comes just three days before the Jorjani M-Opinion is made public. As I noted in an earlier post, emails show political appointee Gary Lawkowski recommending the Office of the Solicitor spin its December 22nd release with talking points about critical minerals.

Bernhardt was next briefed on the Boundary Waters reversal on October 4, 2017.*** His daily cards show the meeting at 11AM on that day. It was timely. Just one day before, Bernhardt spoke with Representative Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who, along with Rick Nolan and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, has been working steadily to open the Duluth Complex to mining. This phone call now appears on the Twin Metals timeline. What Emmer and Bernhardt discussed is not specified. Gareth Rees was in the meeting, but the 10:30AM call with Emmer does not appear on his calendar [page 192], which on that day starts at 1PM. Curious that he should have omitted or forgotten to note this call with a member of Congress and the Deputy Secretary.

In any case, Bernhardt comes off that call with Emmer on Tuesday and into his Wednesday briefing equipped with three background documents: the widely circulated one page briefing and scenarios papers prepared back in April, and a July 24 BLM paper on the withdrawal. Correspondence shows that Bernhardt asks to see the 1966 and 2004 leases, along with the M-Opinion prepared by Solicitor Tompkins. It’s clear from Karen Hawbecker’s response that the focus of the discussion at this juncture are the renewal terms in the 1966 leases. Hawbecker directs him to them: Section 5, page 8.

HawbeckertoBernhardt4Oct17

Why this focus? Section 5 will be critical to a legal argument Jorjani ultimately makes in his memo, which is that according to the 1966 leases, production — actually getting a mining operation up and running — is not a precondition for renewal: “the commencement of production is…not a condition precedent to the right to a renewal.” This is another argument Jorjani borrows from Antofagasta’s lawyer Seth Waxman; and for Waxman, reading a production requirement into the 1966 leases counts as one of the “overarching errors” in Solicitor Tompkin’s M-Opinion. “Section 5 instead creates a production incentive” (cf. Jorjani page 6). As Representative Alan Lowenthal pointed out in a congressional hearing back in March, this argument may be ingenious, but it flies directly in the face of a 1966 BLM press release specifying a production requirement for renewal.

Regardless, by autumn of 2017, David Bernhardt had been briefed on the Waxman-Jorjani legal strategy. He had coordinated with Catanzaro and the White House and with Republican political operatives. He had hosted mining company CEOs behind closed doors to discuss the disposition of America’s public lands. He was fully on board.

*Bernhardt’s daily cards date this roundtable August 23rd, 2017. But Katharine MacGregor’s calendar (page 24) shows the event on the 24th, and a walk through or rehearsal of the event on the 23rd. I am inclined to trust MacGregor’s calendar over Bernhardt’s sloppily compiled cards. It is entered correctly on another Bernhardt calendar for August, 2017. Why the discrepancy?

**UPDATE, September 5, 2019: Though I have not yet received a response to my April FOIA requests regarding the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, another request has turned up a list of attendees. Lydia Dennett’s excellent investigation of the CEO Roundtable for the Project on Government Oversight drew my attention to it. Here is the list of attendees, as of August 18, 2017:
CriticalMineralsRoundtable20190827
***UPDATE, April 21, 2020. Those first items on Bernhardt’s October 4, 2017 calendar — departure for Trump Hotel, remarks at NMA Board of Directors Meeting — are the subject of an October 5, 2017 report in the Washington Post. On the same day he received his scheduled briefing, Bernhardt opened the National Mining Association Board of Directors meeting at Trump International Hotel. After suing under FOIA, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington obtained a copy of Bernhardt’s remarks. He praised the Trump Hotel, promised that he and Zinke would be “relentless in trying to minimize regulatory and permitting uncertainty,” and criticized “proposed withdrawals” by the Obama administration: “nothing short of uninformed, arbitrary, and frankly senseless. They might have made great press, but to do so they had to ignore the facts of their own experts in the record.” According to the Post report, “Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross headlined a general session,” and “in the afternoon, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta spoke with NMA members during a lunch.” CREW notes that Energy Secretary Rick Perry attended as well. A footnote in Andrea Bernstein’s American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power pointed me to the article.

Update, 11 May 2020. Today in response to a FOIA request filed on April 15, 2019, I received a list of the Interior Department attendees at the August 2017 CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable. (The names of corporate attendees had already been released; see the Sept. 5 update to this post.)

2017CEOCriticalMineralsRoundT
Note especially the participation of Murray Hitzman, who would resign in protest along with Larry Meinert after Ryan Zinke pressured them to share sensitive information about energy potential within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska prior to official publication. Hitzman is the distinguished scientist at the Roundtable. His resignation serves as a reminder of just how politicized and how disrespectful of scientific authority Interior has become under the current administration.

Update 18 May 2020. The indefatigable Jimmy Tobias has obtained yet another list of CEO attendees at the Critical Minerals Roundtable. This adds a few new names to the list: Niocorp Developments; Doyon, Ltd; and Rare Earth Resources. Tobias Critical Minerals

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here