Environment

How a Chilean Billionaire Could Poison a Minnesota Wilderness

And how a tiny D.C. real estate investment put him in touch with the Trump family.

Photo Credit: DC Report

Trump’s Interior Department is reinstating two 1966 leases, written before today’s federal environmental laws, that could allow a Chilean mining company to build a giant copper-and-nickel mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters wilderness area in northern Minnesota.

The mining company is controlled by Andrónico Luksic, whose family controls a mining, banking and industrial empire that Forbes estimates is valued at $13.1 billion. Luksic also dabbles in Washington, D.C., residential real estate and has a business relationship with the Trump family. He is First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner’s and First Daughter Ivanka Trump’s landlord.

The Boundary Waters is a 1.1 million-acre wilderness beloved by canoeists and hikers in the Superior National Forest along Minnesota’s border with Canada. Mining in the area could result in acid damage that can last for centuries.

“There’s a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness areas in America: It’s an incredible place,” Sally Jewell, then the Interior Department secretary, said in 2016.

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta PLC, sued in federal court over the leases for 4,800 acres on the southwest border of the Boundary Waters even before the Obama administration decided in December 2016 against renewing them.

In December 2016, just after Trump’s election, Luksic paid $5.5 million, pocket change for a billionaire, for a six-bedroom home in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood. The house was never advertised for rent, but just a little more than a month after closing on the property, he leased it to Kushner and Trump for $15,000 a month.  The rent is not out of line for properties in the neighborhoods, but The Wall Street Journal said it represents a low 2.5% annual return on the purchase price.

Just two weeks ago, Daniel Jorjani, a former adviser to various Koch brothers organizations and now the principal deputy solicitor of the Interior Department, wrote a 19-page legal menu arguing that the Obama Interior Department used the wrong legal logic when it opted not to renew the leases.

Under Obama, the Forest Service launched a review lasting up to two years of risk to the Boundary Waters from copper and nickel mining. The federal government was studying whether toban all mining activities in 234,000 acres next to the Boundary Waters for the next two decades.

Jorjani traced the history of the land, beginning with an interest in the land in 1952 from International Nickel Company Inc., and various meetings, phone calls, memos and other documents before concluding that the Obama administration erred and “improperly interpreted the leases.”

A study published in the Journal of Hydrology in 2016 found that polluted water from mining near the Boundary Waters could potentially affect up to 2.3 million acres of American and Canadian public lands.

More than 74,000 people urged the Forest Service in 2016 not to renew the leases. Becky Rom, the head of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, keeps a copy of the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, signed by former President Lyndon Johnson which helped create federally designated wilderness areas.

“Every generation has a responsibility,” said Rom whose father helped fight to create the Boundary Waters. “It’s not something I could walk away from.”

 

 

Sarah Okeson is a journalist at DCReport.org based in Springfield, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @SarahOkeson.

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