PolyMet, in the midst of a legal battle over a federal land exchange for a proposed copper-nickel mine on the East Range, has a bipartisan group of congressmen ready to push the swap through as law.
Congressman Rick Nolan, D-Minn., introduced a bill Thursday that would finalize the land exchange between the company and the U.S. Forest Service, potentially crippling lawsuits from environmental groups and clearing one of the major issues for the Northmet project near Aurora and Hoyt Lakes.
Nolan said in a phone interview Thursday the bill, if passed, would hasten the process by authorizing the Forest Service record of decision through federal law. The Forest Service issued its decision on Jan. 9 to accept a land swap with the company, which was followed by two separate lawsuits in January and March, claiming the land was wrongfully appraised by federal authorities to PolyMet’s favor.
“They decided it was a good deal,” Nolan said of the Forest Service decision. “This project has gone through multiples of multiples of approvals at the state and federal levels to ensure protection of the environment.”
The bill’s language follows very close to the original Forest Service decision. The biggest deviation is that PolyMet will not get an additional $450,000 from the federal government as part of the land swap.
“We’re comfortable with that,” said Brad Moore, executive vice president of environmental and governmental affairs at PolyMet, in a phone interview Friday.
As part of the exchange, PolyMet will receive access to 6,400 acres, trading about 6,690 acres of undeveloped private land to transfer to the Forest Service.
The swap provides a net increase in wetlands and access to trails, timber resources and wild rice waters for the government in Superior National Forest. Acreage going to PolyMet is surrounded by mining land and processes without public access, and is largely landlocked.
Once the exchange is through, PolyMet can exercise the mineral leases it owns, which will help reduce the uncertainty of the project’s final stretches.
“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 of PolyMet.
Nolan and PolyMet officials expressed confidence in the bill, citing its bipartisan nature.
Co-sponsors are Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis of Minnesota, Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Tom McClintock of California, Bruce Westerman of Arkansas and Paul Gosar of Arizona. The latter two joined Nolan and Emmer on a day-long tour of the Iron Range in mid-June that included its potential copper-nickel sites.
If the bill becomes law, it allots for 90 days for the record of decision to go into effect. Nolan believes the legislation would resolve the conflicts in court, and further believes the law would be difficult to file additional suits over.
“I never want to underestimate the intuition of lawyers,” he added. “Lawyers have a right to sue, but the Constitution gives Congress the right to manage federal lands and resolve disputes surrounding them.”
Without congressional legislation, there could be no end in sight for the land exchange, he added. The land exchange — and other parts of the project — have already been subject to reviews, public comment periods, responses to comments and the record of decision.
“It could go on indefinitely if not resolved through legislation,” Nolan said.
If it progresses, the responsibility falls on the state Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Army Corps of Engineers to finish reviewing permit applications and writing draft permits, some potentially as early as this summer.
PolyMet has submitted for all the necessary permits to date, and expects some draft permits to arrive for comment this year.
“The land exchange should have been the least controversial part of the PolyMet project,” Moore said. “But we see urban opposition groups doing everything they can to slow or stop a routine land exchange.”
Nolan added the bill is not meant to undermine the independent environmental review process, and does not change decades-old law to allow mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or its buffer zone.
“It’s going to help advance this project, jobs and the good things that will follow,” Nolan said. “This land exchange is essential for the project to move forward. When everything is done, it will be protected. If they don’t meet the standards, they won’t go forward. PolyMet has gone through that entire process.”
PolyMet is set to take over the former LTV Mining plant that closed in 2001. The $650 million Northmet project is expected to create 360 jobs and 600 more indirect positions, generating $515 million annually.
The environmental review of the project has carried on for more than a decade, and if approved will be Minnesota’s first-ever non-ferrous mining project. Permits call for the company to mine for 20 years and process about 250 million tons of product.