Judge backs Minnesota's Twin Metals mine in lease dispute

FILE - In this Oct. 4, 2011, file photo, a prospecting drill rig bores into the bedrock near Ely, Minn., in search of copper, nickel and precious metals that Twin Metals Minnesota LLC hopes to mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. A federal judge on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, rejected a challenge by environmental groups against the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, saying the Interior Department had the authority to reverse itself and renew the project's federal mineral rights leases. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski, File)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a challenge by environmental groups against the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, saying the Interior Department had the authority to reverse itself and renew the project's federal mineral rights leases.

The Obama administration tried to kill Twin Metals by rejecting the company's application to renew its leases, citing the risk of acid mine drainage to the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But the Trump administration gave the project a new lease on life when it reinstated those leases last year.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Interior Department has the authority to correct what the agency argued was an error. He wrote that the department's explanation was “thorough, thoughtful and reasonable — a far cry from ‘arbitrary and capricious’" as the project's opponents claimed.

Those opponents, including the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said they would appeal. They said the plain language in the leases meant that Twin Metals was not entitled to an automatic lease renewal.

Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, filed its formal mine plan with state and federal regulators in December, launching what’s expected to be a lengthy environmental review and permitting process.

The company welcomed the judge's ruling. “This is encouraging news for the communities of northeast Minnesota who look forward to the hundreds of jobs and economic development our mine will bring to the region,” the company said in a statement.