Two more lawsuits were filed against the federal government Monday for its recent decision to reinstate expired copper-nickel mining leases next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — bringing the total to three complaints that altogether represent five environmental groups and nine Minnesota businesses.
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness filed its own complaint, and four national environmental groups filed another. Last week nine businesses from Ely, Minn., that rely on recreation and tourism in the BWCA filed suit along with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. All three complaints are pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The leases are held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta PLC, and are located on Superior National Forest lands just outside the BWCA near Ely. Twin Metals said in a statement it “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.”
It has proposed an underground mine and processing facility next to the BWCA and a mine waste confinement basin just outside the watershed. In addition to a PolyMet Mining Co. plan, it is one of two proposed projects that would launch a new copper-nickel mining industry in northeast Minnesota that proponents say will create hundreds of jobs. But the proposals are highly controversial because copper-nickel mining creates far greater risks to water than taconite mining by producing acid drainage that leaches heavy metals and other contaminants out of rock.
Twin Metals relies on exploratory federal mining leases that it or its predecessors have held since the 1960s, and which were consistently renewed by the Interior Department. But when they came up for renewal under the Obama administration, a concerted effort by environmental and outdoor groups helped persuade the federal agency to deny them. The U.S. Forest Service also declined to sign off on them, citing the significant risks to the ecologically sensitive wilderness from polluted mine runoff. But last December, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed the earlier decision, and last month the leases were reinstated.
All three lawsuits claim the federal government does not have the legal authority to reinstate leases, and that the U.S. Forest Service was required to sign off on them, which it didn’t do.
“The federal government is flip-flopping in a way that it does not have power to do,” said Chris Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
The four environmental groups that filed the other lawsuit are the Wilderness Society, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Izaak Walton League.