Twin Metals sues Biden Administration over canceled mineral leases

Aspen trees grown near a small gate.
This area of forest near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake and just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is where Twin Metals plans to build much of its infrastructure for its mining operations.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Twin Metals Minnesota sued the Biden administration Monday in a bid to revive its proposed underground copper-nickel mine outside Ely, just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In the suit filed in federal district court in Washington D.C., the company — a subsidiary of the Chilean mining corporation Antofagasta — argued that the government’s cancelation of two key federal mineral leases in January was arbitrary and capricious, and therefore illegal.

The suit is the latest step in a longstanding back and forth over the controversial proposed mine that’s now spanned three presidential administrations.

The Obama administration first canceled the leases. The Trump administration reinstated them in 2019, before the Biden administration again canceled them earlier this year, while also rejecting additional exploratory lease applications the company had submitted.

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“This coordinated campaign constituted nothing less than an unlawful attempt to rewrite the policy choices that Congress has made about the proper balance between environmental concerns and the availability of mining on public lands,” Twin Metals stated in its lawsuit.

The company announced the lawsuit in a news conference at the Iron Workers Local 52 union hall in Hermantown, where labor and industry groups spoke in favor of the project, which they said would create an estimated 750 direct jobs, and create an economic impact similar to the construction of the U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis.

They also pointed out that the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden last week, requires electric vehicles to be made with minerals produced in the U.S. or in allied nations.

“Federal agencies should not be playing political football with the future long term prosperity of an entire region. In addition, they're putting at risk the administration's own climate change strategy,” said David Chura with the industry and labor-backed group Jobs for Minnesotans.

Twin Metals' Director of Operations Dean DeBeltz said the company deserves a fair and predictable regulatory process. He declined to speculate on the company’s future if the lawsuit failed and the leases were not reinstated.

“The critical piece of the filing of this lawsuit is really to stand up for our legal rights,” DeBeltz said. “These leases have been held in good standing, we have a lot of geologic information on these leases, we perfected these leases. And they are an important part to our our project as a whole.”

Becky Rom with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters called the lawsuit "destined to fail," and said the decision to cancel the leases was “consistent with legal precedent and established public policy.”

Environmental groups fighting the proposed mine say it would degrade the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness.

“This lawsuit is a last-ditch effort” to resuscitate the expired mineral leases, said Chris Knopf, Executive Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

In a related move, the Biden administration has also proposed a 20-year moratorium on new copper-nickel mining proposals within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, in the same area Twin Metals wants to dig.