Wilderness Society sues administration for long-overdue FOIA documents on industrial mining near Boundary Waters Canoe Area
WASHINGTON, June 20, 2019 ---- Today The Wilderness Society filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington to address the Trump administration’s repeated failures to respond to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding proposed industrial mining near the nation’s most-visited wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.
The organization has been waiting for responses to approximately two dozen outstanding and grossly overdue FOIA requests related to the administration’s efforts to advance sulfide-ore copper mining on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters. This lawsuit covers six of those requests – all related to the administration’s abrupt cancellation of a proposed 20-year ban on mining activity in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Cancellation of the proposed ban and associated environmental study was motivated by the administration’s aim of pushing ahead with renewing existing mining leases and other authorizations. See complaint excerpt below and Wilderness Society May 15 press statement. The announcement followed statements by President Trump and Vice President Pence at summertime rallies in Duluth, Minn. that they would “rescind the withdrawal” and “roll back the ban.”
The FOIA requests – to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management – date back to September 2018 and remain unanswered nine months later. Under FOIA, federal agencies must make a final determination on FOIA requests within 20 business days. Members of Congress have also submitted requests for the same documents and have demanded their production during various oversight hearings – to no avail.
The Wilderness Society is represented by public interest attorneys Maya Kane of Kane Law, LLC, and Matt Kenna of Public Interest Environmental Law.
Statement from Alison Flint, Litigation and Agency Policy Director, The Wilderness Society
“Ever since the abrupt and politically-driven cancellation of the proposed 20-year ban on mining activity in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, the Trump administration has been stonewalling in response to requests from the public and from Congress to release the environmental review documents that it claims supported that decision. We believe that the documents in question will confirm what we all know, which is that the science and public opinion definitively show that copper mining poses an unacceptable risk to this iconic wilderness area. We are fed up and have no choice but to resort to the courts to force release of the requested records.”
Statement from attorney, Maya Kane, Kane Law, LLC
“FOIA is a critical tool for ensuring that government is transparent and accountable and provides clear mandates to agencies to respond in a timely manner. It does not allow for the type of stonewalling that we see here – particularly where public access to the requested records is critical to my client’s ability to achieve its mission of protecting the Boundary Waters from devastating mining pollution. Despite numerous requests for records, the agencies repeatedly failed to comply with FOIA’s statutory mandates, and we were left with no other option but to seek judicial relief.”
Alison Flint, Director, Litigation & Agency Policy, The Wilderness Society, 303-802-1404, [email protected]
Maya Kane, Attorney, Kane Law, LLC, 970-946-5419
Excerpt from Wilderness Society complaint:
Plaintiff monitors compliance with the law regarding Federal activity within the Boundary Waters watershed and educates its members and the public concerning the management of these lands. Plaintiff advocates for policies, practices, and decisions that protect the watershed and the wilderness, including the proposed twenty-year administrative withdrawal of approximately 230,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters from disposition under applicable mineral leasing laws.
The Wilderness Society advocated for the proposed withdrawal, educated its members and the public about it, and developed and submitted detailed technical comments in support of withdrawal in February 2018 and August 2018.
On September 6, 2018, however, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced via a press release that the Forest Service was cancelling its application for the withdrawal and terminating the associated public process and environmental assessment. This announcement occurred 20 months into a 24-month review period during which the lands proposed for withdrawal were temporarily segregated. The USDA press release referenced the Forest Service’s “extensive review of environmental information related to the proposed mineral activities,” including “a mineral resources report, a biological and economic impact assessment, and potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas, and cultural resources.” The press release further stated that “[t]he analysis did not reveal new scientific information.”
In response to the unexpected announcement by Secretary Perdue, The Wilderness Society submitted a series of FOIA requests for the documents referenced in the press release and communications related to the proposed withdrawal and its cancellation. Obtaining and sharing those government records with our members and the public is necessary to fully achieving Plaintiff’s organizational purposes and objectives with respect to protection of the Boundary Waters watershed.
The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. With more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 111 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org.