Biden Administration Cancels Mining Leases Near Wilderness Area

The Biden administration said Wednesday that it had canceled two mining leases that would have allowed a copper mine to be built near an area of ​​pristine wilderness in Minnesota.

The Interior Department said it had determined that the leases, held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, were improperly reinstated by the Trump administration in 2019.

President Obama had previously moved to block the mining project, declining to renew the leases. But beginning in the early weeks of the Trump presidency, the administration worked at high levels to remove roadblocks to the mine, The New York Times reported in 2019.

That move followed discussions between Antofagasta executives and senior administration officials. The billionaire Andrónico Luksic, whose family controls Antofagasta, also rented a $5.5 million house in Washington to Ivanka Trump, the daughter of former president Donald J. Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, early in the Trump administration when the couple was first moving to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of Mr. Luksic at the time called the house rental a simple real estate transaction that happened to involve the incoming president’s family. Both Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner also said they had followed ethics guidance.

Antofagasta did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest decision. In a statement, Twin Metals said it was disappointed by the Biden administration’s decision and would challenge it.

“We are firmly dedicated to bringing much-needed economic growth to our region and the opportunity to responsibly develop the critical minerals needed for our global efforts in combating the climate crisis,” the company said in a statement. Copper is used widely for cabling, wiring and other applications in the renewable energy industry.

The Boundary Waters, a vast landscape of protected lakes and forests along the border with Canada, provide habitat for thousands of species, including the gray wolf and Canada lynx. But mining companies have long expressed interest in the area, because beneath the surface lies an estimated four billion tons of copper and nickel ore. It is thought to be one of the world’s largest undeveloped mineral deposits.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her department “seriously takes our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans.” She added, “We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment.”

She said a new legal opinion from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor had found “significant legal deficiencies” in the circumstances surrounding the 2019 renewal, including a violation of departmental regulations and an inadequate environmental analysis.

The proposed mine had sparked a fierce backlash from local environmentalists, who said that harmful metals and other contamination could leach from the site. “Today is a major win for Boundary Waters protection,” said Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. The leases, she added, “should never have been reinstated in the first place.”