Government seeks to dismiss Twin Metals mining lease lawsuit

Twin Metals public listening session
People show their support for mining and the Twin Metals project in this July 13, 2016 file photo at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News File

Government attorneys have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a company that's trying to renew its minerals leases so it can build a large underground copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.

In a motion filed late Monday, attorneys for the Interior Department said that the lawsuit by Twin Metals Minnesota is premature because it doesn't challenge a final agency decision, as required by law. They noted that the department's Bureau of Land Management has yet to decide whether to renew the leases, which were first issued in 1966 last renewed in 2004.

Twin Metals is challenging an opinion issued by the solicitor of the Interior Department in March that said the company doesn't have an automatic right of renewal. The company said when it filed the lawsuit in November that the opinion has cast a "cloud of uncertainty" over the leases that makes it difficult to proceed with its proposed $2.8 billion mine near Ely.

The mine has drawn opposition because it would be upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The vast untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeastern Minnesota are tied up in sulfide-bearing minerals, which can leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals when exposed to air and water.

Before the bureau can renew the leases, it needs consent from the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. In June, the service said it was "deeply concerned" about potential acid mine drainage and would conduct a scientific review to help it decide.

Twin Metals says it should be allowed to renew its leases so it can go through the formal environmental review process and prove that it can protect the wilderness while creating hundreds of jobs. The company issued a statement Tuesday saying it "will evaluate the government's response and respond to the court."

One group opposed to the project, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, filed its own motion to dismiss the lawsuit last month. The group, represented by a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Thomas Heffelfinger, made very similar arguments to the government's motion.

"Plaintiffs will have the opportunity to challenge BLM's final decision, whatever it may be, when it is made," the government's motion said. "This Court should not permit them to short-circuit BLM's decision-making process based upon predictions that may or may not prove true."

A hearing on the motions is set for April 28 before U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson.