Trump administration renews mining leases near Minnesota wilderness area
The Trump administration moved Friday to renew leases for a copper and nickel mining operation on the border of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, reversing a decision made in the final weeks of Barack Obama's tenure in office.
The decision, made public Friday in an Interior Department legal decision, marks a win for the Chilean mining firm belonging to the family of billionaire Andronico Luksic, who rents a home to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, in Washington.
In December of last year, the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service decided not to renew the leases while federal officials launched a formal review of the operation's environmental impact. Reversing that decision has been the subject of intense lobbying since President Donald Trump took office. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with proponents of Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta PLC, shortly after taking office.
The two expired leases, which span 4,800 acres and date to 1966, lie on the southwest border of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness area. The federal government had been studying whether all mining activities in 234,000 acres abutting the wilderness should be barred for the next 20 years.
The 19-page decision issued Friday by Interior Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani said the previous administration's order "improperly interpreted the leases and is withdrawn." Twin Metals Minnesota, he wrote, has a "non-discretionary right to a third renewal."
Rather than announcing the decision in a release, aides from Interior's solicitor office notified Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican, who made the news public. "It's refreshing to have an administration that understands the importance of mining to Minnesota - and the entire United States," Daudt said in a statement.
The mining operation is backed by many state Republicans and at least one Democrat, Rep. Rick Nolan, but is opposed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the state's two U.S. senators.
As recently as Thursday, Zinke had told Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., that he was committed to protecting the area. Late Friday, McCollum accused Zinke of deliberately misleading her in their latest call.
"He reiterated to me directly just how precious the waters of the BWCA are and the need for ongoing environmental study," McCollum said in a statement. "Twenty-four hours later, he broke his word and issued mining leases footsteps from the BWCA to a foreign-owned mining company. Clearly, the numerous assurances I received from Secretary Zinke about protecting the BWCA were worthless and deceitful."
Doug Niemela, national campaign manager for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said in a statement that the move ran contrary to the will of Minnesota residents. During last year's public comment period, more than 74,000 people urged the Forest Service to deny the leases' renewal.
"The Interior Department's decision is a big fat Christmas gift for a giant foreign mining corporation willing to do anything to exploit the watershed of Minnesota's crown jewel wilderness," Niemela said. "It runs contrary to fact, contrary to the law, and contrary to the views of Minnesota voters who love the Boundary Waters and rely on it for thousands of jobs, world-class hunting and fishing, and some of the cleanest water on Earth. We plan to challenge this illegal decision in court."
Luksic - who has tweeted that there is no connection between Antofagasta's business and his real estate relationship with Ivanka Trump and Kushner - rents the couple a six-bedroom home he owns in the affluent Kalorama neighborhood. The two serve as advisers to the president.
A White House official said in an email Saturday that the couple were "not aware of the situation, had nothing to do with it and have never met their landlord."
Author information: Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself.