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A government watchdog group is suing the Trump administration for access to e-mails, notes and memos regarding its decision to renew two federal mineral leases for Twin Metals Minnesota, the company working to build a copper-nickel mine just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The goal is to shed light on how Antofagasta, the powerful Chilean mining company that owns Twin Metals, lobbied to get its crucial mining leases renewed after the Obama administration ruled that the mine posed too many environmental risks in Minnesota’s northern wilderness.

Questions about that lobbying effort have churned since 2017, when the Wall Street Journal first reported that a U.S. real estate company owned by Andrónico Luksic, chairman of the company that controls Antofagasta, bought a $5.5 million Washington, D.C., home and quickly rented it to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, a White House adviser. The couple moved in after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The couple reportedly pays rent of $15,000 a month. All parties have claimed the timing was a coincidence and that the transaction was done at arm’s length, according to the Wall Street Journal reports.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit American Oversight accused several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, of failing to respond to its requests for public records. Its requests cover e-mails, memos and other documents since January 2017 related to Antofagasta’s and Twin Metals’ lobbying efforts. The Star Tribune has filed public-records requests for some of the same documents and gotten no response.

Among American Oversight’s request is all correspondence from the Washington law firm Antofagasta hired, WilmerHale, as well as correspondence involving U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who has pushed hard for the Twin Metals project.

The suit is one of more than 100 Freedom of Information Act lawsuits that American Oversight has filed since 2017, according to the organization’s chief executive, Austin Evers. The group has resorted to lawsuits because the Trump administration doesn’t respond to its records requests, he said.

Evers said the public has a right to know what role the lobbying played in the Trump administration’s abrupt reversal on the Twin Metals minerals leases.

“The best case scenario here is that Donald Trump’s swamp was in full swing, in that a private interest was engaging in an aggressive lobbying effort to change a scientifically based policy decision and won,” he said. “The worst case scenario is that the Trump administration did it because of the personal relationship between the owners of this mining company and his tenant, the president’s son and daughter.”

Court negotiations to release such documents typically take three to nine months, Evers said. He said that communications with lobbyists should not be covered by any kind of work-related exemption to open-records law.

‘Smell test’

Tom Landwehr, the former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner who now runs the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said he’s eager to read the documents. Landwehr said something “besides a normal deliberative, thoughtful process” took place when the Trump administration executed an abrupt about-face on the minerals leases, a move that included canceling a two-year Forest Service study of environmental impacts.

“Maybe it’s innocent, but it does not pass the smell test,” Landwehr said. “If there’s nothing shady going on here, well, show us.”

Julie Padilla, chief regulatory officer for Twin Metals in Ely, said she had no comment on American Oversight’s lawsuit. Padilla said there’s been “a multiyear attempt by multiple organizations and news outlets to find a connection between unrelated sets of facts.”

“There is nothing new here,” Padilla said.

Twin Metals has said it will file its official mine plan of operation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources by early next year, starting the permitting process.

Twin Metals is one of two proposed copper-nickel mines that have triggered ferocious debate over the balance between job creation and environmental protection in northeastern Minnesota. The other, proposed by PolyMet Mining Inc., has received all its necessary regulatory permits and is raising money to fund construction. Toronto-based PolyMet, which is part owned by the Swiss mining and commodities conglomerate Glencore, hopes to build an open-pit mine and processing facility near Babbitt.

Twin Metals, which is still in the early stages of Minnesota’s regulatory process, wants to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Birch Lake outside Ely. It has triggered even more opposition by environmentalists because it is so close to the wilderness and would lie within the watershed of the Boundary Waters, meaning that any pollution from mine waste would flow directly into the pristine and federally protected wilderness.

The two copper-nickel mines would be the first major hard-rock mines in Minnesota, which has a long history of mining iron ore and taconite. Conservationists warn that hard-rock mining typically carries significantly greater environmental risks because it produces sulfide-bearing waste rock that can generate acid mine drainage — a risk that’s magnified when the mines are near bodies of water.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683