MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An environmental group has asked a federal court to throw out a lawsuit by a mining company that’s fighting to hold on to its minerals leases in northeastern Minnesota.
The government has yet to formally respond to the lawsuit filed by Twin Metals Minnesota in September. But court filings this week by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness provide a preview of what could be the government’s legal strategy.
Twin Metals wants to build a huge underground copper-nickel mine southeast of Ely, within a watershed that flows into the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The environmental group is represented by former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, who served under two Republican presidents. He filed one motion asking the court to allow the environmental group to intervene in the lawsuit. But he also asked the court in a separate motion to dismiss the lawsuit altogether, laying out arguments that the federal Bureau of Land Management could make when it responds. The key argument is that the lawsuit is premature.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kimberly Brubeck said her agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. A Twin Metals spokesman declined comment.
Twin Metals’ lawsuit seeks to invalidate an opinion by the solicitor for the Interior Department that the company doesn’t have an automatic right to renew its two leases, which were first issued in 1966 and last renewed in 2004. The lawsuit says the earlier renewals were routinely granted and seeks an order for fresh renewals.
The company has said that the solicitor’s opinion “cast a cloud of uncertainty” that makes it difficult to proceed with the project. The company says it can mine without harming the wilderness while creating hundreds of jobs, and says it should be allowed to go through the environmental review process like any other proposed project.
Northeastern Minnesota has vast untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals, but they are tied up in sulfide-bearing minerals, which can leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals when exposed to air and water. Gov. Mark Dayton denied Twin Metals access to state-owned lands in March. The Interior Department issued its opinion the next day. In June, the U.S. Forest Service weighed in, saying that it was “deeply concerned” about potential acid mine drainage and that it would conduct a scientific review to help it decide whether to consent to the renewals.
Heffelfinger argued that the court shouldn’t intervene in the BLM’s decision-making. His motion argued the lawsuit is premature because the solicitor’s opinion isn’t a final call on lease renewal, so the company may not suffer any harm.
The government’s response is due by Dec. 12, more than a month before President-elect Donald Trump, who may be more favorable to mining interests than the Obama administration, takes office. A hearing on the motions is set for April 28.
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