A federal judge on Thursday approved a request by the U.S. Justice Department to pause a lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of environmental groups and canoe outfitters that argued federal agencies failed to conduct a thorough environmental review ahead of the renewal of key leases to Twin Metals. The pause until June 21 will allow the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, which are both under new leadership, to review the Trump administration’s decision to renew the leases, the Justice Department said in a court filing.
The review stems from an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office directing federal agencies to review all actions taken during the Trump administration that may conflict with his administration’s goal “to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water” and other criteria.
“A stay of 90 days is appropriate due to the complexity of the decisions challenged and the long history of the leases, going back over 60 years,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean Williams wrote in the motion. “A 90-day stay is also appropriate to allow new decisionmakers at the agencies to balance review of this matter with the ongoing review of other agency actions in accordance with President Biden’s Executive Order.”
Both Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have opposed mining in the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the BWCAW and is where Twin Metals is planning its underground mine, processing plant and dry-stacked tailings storage facility.
Biden’s position, however, remains unclear. As a presidential candidate, he privately told mining companies he wanted to increase domestic production of copper, nickel and other metal for use in electric cars and solar panels, Reuters reported last year.
Twin Metals opponents, who fear pollution from the mine will flow into the BWCAW, are hopeful this new review will lead to a return of restrictions placed in the final days of the Obama administration — when Biden was vice president and Vilsack was in his first stint as agriculture secretary — which effectively killed the project until President Donald Trump’s reversal.
“We are pleased to see the Biden administration is reviewing the unlawful renewal of Twin Metals leases next to the Boundary Waters,” Save the Boundary Waters Executive Director Tom Landwehr said in a statement Friday. “We believe the review will lay bare the politically motivated decision-making of the Trump administration.”
Project supporters maintain the mine will be safe and can support much-needed jobs for the region.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Twin Metals spokesperson Kathy Graul noted it was not uncommon for a new administration to review decisions made by past presidents.
“Twin Metals looks forward to answering any questions the government may have regarding its review of the litigation, and the company will continue to work with federal and state agencies as the project advances through the multi-year scoping, environmental review and permitting processes,” Graul said.
In 2016, under the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, 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.
At the same time, the two agencies moved to exclude 234,000 acres of the Superior National Forest south and west of the BWCAW from any future mining permits, most within the Rainy River Watershed but outside the BWCAW, calling it a “timeout” to see if copper mining would be appropriate in any part of the area. If officials determined it wasn’t appropriate, the mining could have been banned in the area for up to 20 years.
The Trump administration in 2018 reversed both decisions, reinstating Twin Metals’ leases and ending the mineral withdrawal and accompanying environmental study. The administration in 2019 then renewed the leases for 10 more years, giving Twin Metals access to national forest land on which to search for minerals and prepare to develop a mining project.