Feds reject Twin Metals lease application, prospecting permits; company to appeal
The move follows last week's initiation of a mineral withdrawal in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.
Twin Metals is appealing the Biden administration's decision to reject the copper-nickel mining company's application for an additional mineral lease and prospecting permits.
In a letter to the company last Thursday — one day after the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments announced they would not allow new federal mineral leases within 225,500 acres of the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, for two years with the possibility of extending it to a 20-year withdrawal, or ban — Interior's Bureau of Land Management said it would be denying an application for a third federal mineral lease and a batch of prospecting permits.
Twin Metals said it will appeal the decision.
"They didn't need to do that. They could have simply paused any action on those while they did the study," Julia Padilla, Twin Metals' chief regulatory officer, said in an interview with the News Tribune on Wednesday. "It puts us in a position where we can see no other outcome but a withdrawal in this area. This is a predetermined study; they're already rejecting applications that they didn't need to so we are going to appeal that decision."
The company still has two existing federal leases that were unaffected by the recent decisions and state and private leases at the site of its proposed underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility on the edge of Birch Lake near Ely. Padilla maintains that's enough to still operate a mine if it receives its permits.
However, opponents have pointed to the Bureau of Land Management for saying the rejected lease would be needed for a successful mine. The now-rejected lease and existing federal, state and private leases would all be needed for the project to "become economically feasible," the Bureau of Land Management said in a 2018 environmental assessment of Twin Metals' existing mineral leases that it still holds.
Padilla said the company wouldn't be surprised if those leases are pulled by the Biden administration, mirroring a decision made in the final days of the Obama administration. All scheduled meetings with federal officials about the mine plane have been canceled.
"They could certainly — based on their kind of Obama administration actions — they could revert back to their legal opinion that we didn't have a right to those leases and pull them again," Padilla said. "And then we're starting litigation over. But we will fight for these leases."
In 2016, under the Obama administration, the Forest Service withheld consent to the renewal of two of Twin Metals' hard-rock mineral leases, allowing the Interior's Bureau of Land Management to reject the lease renewal application. The administration had also initiated a mineral withdrawal like that of the Biden administration last week.
The Trump administration in 2018 reversed both decisions, reinstating Twin Metals’ leases and ending the mineral withdrawal and accompanying environmental study.
Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said she hopes the Biden administration will pull the leases. The coalition of environmental groups has long feared that toxic runoff from the mine would damage the downstream wilderness area by entering Birch Lake, which flows into the Kawishiwi River, which then flows into the BWCAW.
"(Twin Metals) has a right to an administrative appeal — that's part of the process — but because the regulations are so clear that the pending application shall be denied, I think that they have very little chance of success," Rom told the News Tribune.
The Biden administration also rejected the federal prospecting permit applications and extension requests for Encampment Minerals, which has long explored for minerals in Northeastern Minnesota.
The Atlanta-based company did not return a voicemail from the News Tribune on Wednesday.