Minnesota members of Congress push PolyMet land exchange

Processing plant PolyMet proposes to use.
Processing plant PolyMet proposes to use. (Photo by Joel Dinda, via Flickr)

Public land is getting in the way of the first proposed copper-nickel mine in Minnesota, and new legislation seeks to secure the transfer of about 10 square miles to the company with its eyes on the precious metals.

PolyMet Mining is currently seeking numerous permits for its Northmet Project on the Superior National Forest near Hoyt Lakes. The proposal’s Environmental Impact Statement was finalized last year.

Because the open-pit mine would destroy about 6,650 acres of public land to extract privately-owned minerals under the ground, the company is trying to exchange other lands with the Forest Service to acquire the mine site.

In a plan released in January, the mine site land was valued at $550 per acre. PolyMet would give the Superior National Forest four parcels of land totaling 6,690 acres and the Forest Service would also pay the company $425,000 to equalize the values.

Conservation groups sued to halt the trade in March, claiming the property had been under-valued and PolyMet was getting an unfair price. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) reports that PolyMet had paid private landowners five times as much for similar lands nearby.

Before the court could rule, Rep. Rick Nolan (MN-08) introduced legislation in Congress last week (H.R. 3115, “The Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017”) that would nullify the lawsuit and let the land exchange proceed. It would also eliminate the $425,000 public payment and require the land exchange to be completed within 90 days of being signed into law.

Minnesota Reps. Collin Peterson, Tom Emmer, and Jason Lewis are also sponsors, along with six other Republican legislators from around the country. Nolan hosted a trip to the Iron Range for Emmer and others shortly before introducing the legislation.

PolyMet praised the legislation in a press release.

“We are committed to moving the project forward in a thoughtful and expeditious manner and are pleased Congressman Nolan is taking this step to bring closure to the land exchange process,” said Jon Cherry, president and CEO. “In this legislation, Congress would ratify the Forest Service’s determination that the exchange is in the best public interest and moves for the exchange to be completed within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.”

Environmental groups decried the special treatment.

“Rep. Nolan’s bill is a giveaway of public land, plain and simple,” said Kevin Lee, staff attorney at MCEA. “It is a windfall for PolyMet and a swindle of public land users who use public land for hunting, fishing, and recreation.”

The prospect of mining sulfide ore in northern Minnesota has caused concern about the potential of acid mine drainage polluting lakes and rivers. When the type of rock PolyMet would be extracting is exposed to air and water, it can produce sulfuric acid, mercury and other harmful pollutants.

“PolyMet has yet to secure a single permit, and its proposed mine would destroy irreplaceable wetlands and contaminate surface and groundwater for centuries, if not forever,” a petition from WaterLegacy reads. “WaterLegacy and other environmental groups have filed cases in federal court saying that the PolyMet land exchange is illegal. This project does not deserve a public subsidy to avoid paying a fair price for land!”

According to the Timberjay, Sen. Amy Klobuchar supports the legislation, issuing a statement that said, “Congressman Nolan’s bipartisan bill will help the region move forward while ensuring that the project continues to be held to the high standards of an independent environmental review process. Mining has always supported good jobs across the Range, and getting this done right is important.”

No companion bill has yet been introduced in the Senate. The legislation was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. As of today, bill text had not yet been received by the Library of Congress.

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