Judge throws out Twin Metals leases lawsuit

The Kawishiwi River and forests are seen in this aerial photo.
The Kawishiwi River near Ely, Minn. Twin Metals is seeking to revive its proposal to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely, Minn. and close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Much of the mining would take place on the left side of this image in the forested land.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2019

A U.S. District Court Judge in Washington, D.C. has dismissed a lawsuit that Twin Metals Minnesota filed last year to try to revive its stalled attempt to develop a proposed $1.7 billion copper-nickel mine on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed the suit in August. It challenged a series of decisions by the U.S. Department of Interior that cancelled Twin Metals’ mineral leases, rejected applications for prospecting permits, and denied its proposed mining plan.

Several environmental groups and recreational businesses surrounding the Boundary Waters intervened in the case in December, and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

In a 21-page decision released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper agreed, writing “that the Court lacks jurisdiction over two of Twin Metals’ claims and that the remaining two fail to state a claim.”

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“Twin Metals was making a Hail Mary pass in its hope to get around the law and facts. The court saw through this and in its decision to toss out the case, affirmed science, affirmed the law, and protected some of the cleanest water in the country,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Twin Metals is struggling to preserve a path forward for its proposed underground mine along the shores of Birch Lake, outside Ely, Minn.

The Obama administration, in its final weeks, declined to renew two federal mineral leases Twin Metals needs for its proposed mine for copper, nickel and other metals like platinum and cobalt.

The Trump administration reversed that decision and reinstated the leases.

But the Biden administration canceled the leases again, and also imposed a 20 year-mining moratorium — known as a mineral withdrawal — on about 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters, including the area where Twin Metals wants to mine.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources subsequently stopped its environmental review of the proposal. Twin Metals was in the very early stages of seeking state approval for its project.

Next steps

In a statement, Twin Metals Minnesota said it is currently reviewing the judge’s opinion to determine its next steps. “We remain committed to the communities of northeast Minnesota, as we have been for more than a decade.”

When the company announced its lawsuit last year, Director of Operations Dean DeBeltz declined to speculate on the mine’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 at the time.

Environmental groups have fought the proposed Twin Metals mine for years, arguing that a copper-nickel mine poses too great a pollution risk to the popular Boundary Waters wilderness and the recreation-based economy it supports in northeastern Minnesota.

Twin Metals has argued it can mine for the metals needed for the transition to a green economy while also protecting the environment and creating hundreds of high-paying jobs. The company has said it’s invested more than $550 million in developing the project.

In his decision, Judge Cooper said the “real harms” alleged by Twin Metals was that the company spent money on the mining project based on the Trump administration’s approval of its leases, and that as a result of the Biden administration’s changing course, Twin Metals cannot recoup its “investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Knopf, of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, suggested that Twin Metals could appeal for monetary damages to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Meanwhile, legislation has been introduced both at the state and federal levels that would permanently ban new mining projects within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

“Twin Metals tried to force renewal of terminated federal mining leases next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” said Ingrid Lyons, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

“We are one step closer to permanent protection for the Boundary Waters watershed.”