Twin Metals and the Trump Administration Team up to Take Down Environmental Protections
Why has the Trump administration placed the financial interests of Antofagasta Plc — a Chilean mining conglomerate owned by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s Washington, DC landlord — before the need to protect this unique American wilderness?
For years, allegations of corruption have swirled around the Trump administration’s efforts to reinstate and renew Antofagasta’s mineral leases on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Records I’ve obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provide incomplete answers, but nevertheless paint a troubling picture.
The roughly 7,500 pages released so far by the administration show that restoring Antofagasta’s mineral leases near the Boundary Waters was a top priority for the incoming administration. Officials were at work on the Twin Metals matter as early as February 2, 2017, just two weeks after the inauguration. It ranked right up there with the Keystone XL pipeline and oil leasing matters critical to Trump’s “Energy Dominance” agenda.
As the Department of Interior set about this urgent work, lobbyists for Antofagasta ran a full court press. An analysis by the organization Public Citizen shows that top Interior officials met more frequently with Twin Metals lobbyists from the Washington DC law and lobbying firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP (WilmerHale), than with representatives of BP or Peabody Energy, and only slightly less frequently than with the highly influential American Petroleum Institute. Records show WilmerHale working closely and behind closed doors with political appointees at Interior. Indeed, a critical Department of Interior legal memo published in December of 2017 appears to have been based on one drafted by WilmerHale in the summer of 2016.
Though lobbyists may be a regular feature of Washington’s culture, executives from Antofagasta and Twin Metals have enjoyed what can only be described as an open-door policy these past few years. Emails and calendar entries reveal multiple, previously undisclosed meetings with executives from Antofagasta and its US subsidiary at the Department of Interior, the Trump White House, and the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile. These meetings allowed the mining company to set terms of engagement.
For example, at meetings in March of 2018, mining company executives and WilmerHale lobbyists weighed in on what standards of environmental review should apply to their mineral leases and set the calendar for review. After stating that they would prefer a categorical exclusion — essentially to be exempt from environmental review altogether — they say they will settle for a much less rigorous and more limited Environmental Assessment. That is what they got.
This is a textbook example of regulatory capture, a particularly insidious form of corruption that puts the fox in charge of the henhouse. Industry co-opts government in order to make rules bend to its agenda; special interests supersede the public interest; resource extraction takes precedence over preservation of public wealth and providing for our shared future. When derelict public officials allow an agency to be captured, they betray the public trust. When they actively coordinate and collude with its captors, they are deliberately trying to make government fail.
The political appointees at Trump’s Interior have made this kind of sabotage their mission from day one. They exult in it. When Governor Dayton first called out their corruption in December of 2017, asking “why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota’s priceless Boundary Waters,” Daniel Jorjani, now the top attorney at Interior, and David Bernhardt, now Secretary of the Interior, mocked him in an email exchange.
Meanwhile, meetings with conservation and environmental advocacy groups have been perfunctory and infrequent, and serious concerns about the risks of sulfide mining blithely set aside. Agencies now ignore the Forest Service’s 2016 finding that Twin Metals’ project would pose “an unacceptable risk” to the Boundary Waters.
Further, in September of 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue canceled a two-year scientific study into the effects of sulfide mining in the Rainy River Watershed. The data and preliminary findings from this study have been suppressed and never released to the public. After the Wilderness Society sued under FOIA and obtained a draft, Representative McCollum held up a copy at a congressional hearing this past March. Every single page except the front cover had been redacted – entirely blacked out – in a brazen abuse of deliberative process privilege. It’s infuriating to see nearly two years of taxpayer-funded scientific kept from the public like a government secret. But it’s also instructive. FOIA will be of limited use where government works against the public interest.
It’s up to us to change that.
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