Feds seek to dismiss Twin Metals mineral rights lawsuit

The Justice Department has moved to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an Obama administration decision against renewing mineral rights leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, providing another signal that the Trump administration isn't ready to save the project.

In a motion late Monday, the Justice Department says the federal district court in Minnesota lacks jurisdiction to hear the case because it's essentially a contract dispute, so it must be brought in the Federal Court of Claims instead. An environmental group with intervenor status in the case, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, made similar arguments in its own motion to dismiss late Monday.

The Obama administration announced in December that it would not renew mineral rights leases long held by Twin Metals and its predecessors. The administration also announced a two-year "time out" so federal agencies could carefully study and engage the public on whether any copper-nickel mining should be permitted on lands in a watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters. That watershed includes the Twin Metals site near Ely.

Twin Metals sued last year to force renewal of its leases, saying it was entitled to keep them and to eventually go through the formal environmental review process to prove that it can mine there safely while creating hundreds of well-paying jobs. The company had little to add Tuesday.

"Twin Metals is reviewing the motions to dismiss, and we look forward to presenting our responsive arguments to the court," spokesman Bob McFarlin said in a statement.

Twin Metals, along with supporters including U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., had been hoping the Trump administration would reverse the lease decision.

But the Justice Department's filing indicates the Trump administration is staying the course against the project for now. It followed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's testimony before Congress less than two weeks earlier that federal agencies would proceed with the study, which could result in a 20-year ban on prospecting on than 234,000 acres near the wilderness.

Perdue told U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., he had discussed the study with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He said they would let the study run its course and make no decision before it concludes. At the same hearing, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell acknowledged the study could conclude that mining near the Boundary Waters "may be too hazardous."

The Agriculture and Interior departments said in December that they were responding to concerns about potential environmental damage to the pristine wilderness area and the $45 million recreational economy it supports. The vast but as-yet untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeastern Minnesota are locked up in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.

Twin Metals is owned by Chilean-based copper producer Antofagasta PLC.

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition that includes Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, welcomed the Justice Department's move. She said in a statement that the federal government is within its rights to decline to renew leases that could lead to "irrevocable harm" to the country's most-visited federal wilderness area.

A hearing on the motions to dismiss is scheduled for Sept. 8.