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Groups sue feds over mineral leases near the Boundary Waters

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A core sample drilled from underground rock near Ely, Minn.
A core sample drilled from underground rock near Ely, Minn., shows a band of shiny minerals containing copper, nickel and precious metals, center, that Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.
Steve Karnowski | AP 2011

 Updated: 4:02 p.m. | Posted: 11:07 a.m.

A group of nine northeastern Minnesota businesses and an environmental group sued the U.S. Department of the Interior Thursday, seeking to overturn the reinstatement last month of two federal mineral leases to a company seeking to build a copper-nickel mine near the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The plaintiffs, which include a number of canoe outfitters and a resort around the wilderness, argue that the reinstatement of the leases to Twin Metals Minnesota was unlawful, and poses an immediate threat to their businesses, the outdoor recreation economy and the environment.

"The potential pollution and destruction to the Boundary Waters by adjacent mining operations on leased Superior National Forest lands present what we have concluded is a lethal and unacceptable risk to our business and mission," said Jack Lee, Executive Director of Voyageur Outward Bound School and one of the plaintiffs.

The Interior Department reinstated Twin Metals' expired leases early last month. The Obama administration had declined to renew them in late 2016, citing the potential harm to the Boundary Waters. The proposed mine site is upstream from the popular wilderness area.

The official lease reinstatement followed a legal opinion from the Interior department's solicitor last December that concluded that Twin Metals has the right to renew its two leases, which date back to 1966, before federal environmental regulations were in place.

The government said it did not have the discretion to deny Twin Metals its leases for the mining of copper, nickel and precious metals, which expired at the end of 2013.

The plaintiffs in this new lawsuit, including the group Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, argue that Twin Metals does not have the right to a mandatory renewal of its leases.

Twin Metals spokesman Bob McFarlin said the company is reviewing the suit.

"Twin Metals firmly believes there is no basis for a court to disturb the reinstatement of the leases, and will take appropriate steps to defend the government's actions," he said.

Those leases are critical to Twin Metals' ambitions to open an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. Last month, shortly after the leases were reinstated, the company, a subsidiary of Chile-based Antofagasta PLC, released an updated mining plan that called for a processing plant east of Birch Lake.

The company predicts a new mine would create 650 jobs, though a formal Environmental Impact Statement process for the project has not begun.  

Separately, the U.S. Forest Service has also launched a two-year study of the environmental and economic risks and benefits of copper-nickel mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, an area encompassing more than 230,000 acres of the Superior National Forest.

The agency has also proposed what's known as a mineral withdrawal in the area, essentially a 20-year moratorium on mining, a step that would need to be approved by the Interior secretary after the study is completed. A two-year moratorium on mining activity is also in place while that study is conducted. That decision is expected by early 2019.

But at a rally in Duluth Wednesday night, President Trump vowed to put an end to that process and keep open federal land near the Boundary Waters to potential mining.  

"We will soon be taking the first steps to rescind the federal withdrawal in Superior National Forest and restore mineral exploration for our amazing people and miners and workers," Trump said.