(CN) — A Washington, D.C., federal judge has dismissed a suit which sought to revive a controversial plan for a copper-nickel mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness, stymying would-be miners' efforts to overturn a Biden administration decision to revoke mineral leases reinstated under former President Trump.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper issued an opinion after hours Wednesday night dismissing claims brought against the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and several department officials. The suit was filed by Ely, Minnesota-based mining company Twin Metals Minnesota and its subsidiary Franconia Minerals.
The pair of mining companies, owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed suit last year after the Interior Department revoked the leases that granted them mineral rights to portions of land in the Superior National Forest starting in 1966. They argued that the lease cancellations and the department’s rejections of the company’s mining plans and related applications were arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Interior Department sought dismissal of the mining company’s claims in December, arguing that they had failed to state a claim and that the D.C. federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over those claims, in part because the lease-cancellation objections were effectively breach-of-contract claims governed by the Tucker Act, which concerns contract claims against the government, rather than the APA.
Cooper, a Barack Obama appointee, largely agreed with the government’s contention, writing that “other than Twin Metals’ claims that the lease cancellation and MPO (mining plan of operations) appeal denial violated its rights under 43 U.S.C. § 3221.4(f) and the APA, it points to no other source of its asserted rights.”
“The only sources of Twin Metals’ asserted rights are the underlying leases,” he concluded. Since the relief the companies sought was also “properly understood as contractual relief,” Tucker Act jurisdiction was applicable to their claims.
The companies also failed to state claims regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s rejection of the mining plan of operations and the companies’ preference right lease applications, Cooper found. Contrary to the companies’ arguments, he wrote, the agencies had discretion to deny the applications, and the right to a lease was not a “valid existing right” that had been denied. They also had not shown that the BLM’s denial of the plan of operations and refusal to consider a later MPO as an amendment were pretextual.
“Twin Metals Minnesota is disappointed by the opinion issued today regarding a lawsuit the company brought in U.S. District Court on Aug. 22, 2022, and we are working to determine next steps," Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul wrote in a statement. "We remain committed to the communities of northeast Minnesota — as we have been for more than a decade — and to supplying the minerals required for the energy transition.”
The Twin Metals project, along with the nearby and similarly embattled NorthMet mining project near Babbitt, Minn., has been the subject of substantial controversy in the state since the company applied for reauthorization of its leases in 2013.
The proposed mine’s proximity to the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and to other major watersheds has raised the ire of environmental groups and placed them in conflict with those who hope to revitalize sections of Minnesota’s flagging iron-ore industry.
One of those groups, Friends of the Boundary Waters, intervened in the Twin Metals case and argued in favor of dismissal.
Pete Marshall, the organization's communications director, said Thursday that while the decision wasn't unexpected, it was still worth saluting.
"From the moment Twin Metals filed this lawsuit, the ground they were standing on was shaky," he said. The group had "lots of reasons to celebrate this year," including victories in court against the NorthMet project — but "the fact remains that there's still copper in the ground, and as long as there's copper in the ground the threat's gonna be there."
"When it comes to environmental matters, all victories are temporary," Marshall added, "but all defeats are permanent."
Mine labor was once a cornerstone of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s power center in the northeastern part of the state, leading to conflicts between parts of that constituency and the party’s environmentalists. Tourism to the Boundary Waters and other wilderness destinations is also an economic driver in northern Minnesota, and concerns about the proposed mines’ potential threat to that industry have helped make mining a hot-button issue within the party. State Republicans, meanwhile, have remained consistently in the corner of the mining companies.
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