MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to force completion of a land swap needed for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.
PolyMet welcomed the move in a statement Monday, saying the transaction “is not moving forward as quickly as it could be” since the U.S. Forest Service approved the land exchange in January. But the Minnesota Democrat’s legislation came under fire from environmental groups, which said the deal undervalues the land and cheats taxpayers while threatening pristine areas.
Under the agreement, PolyMet would get 6,650 acres of federal land it needs in the Superior National Forest in return for about the same amount of private land that would be added to the national forest. PolyMet holds the mineral rights to the federal land where it wants to mine near Babbitt, but can’t proceed without owning the surface rights.
Environmental groups have filed four separate lawsuits to block the land exchange. Two allege the deal undervalues the land at just $550 per acre, while the other two say the deal violates federal laws on land transfers and endangered species. The legislation is aimed at countering those lawsuits.
“You can’t undervalue public land — federal land — to sweeten the deal for a mining company,” said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for one of the groups, WaterLegacy.
Nolan, who represents northeastern Minnesota, has been working to remove obstacles to both PolyMet and the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely, saying the minerals can be mined safely without harming the environment.
Environmental groups have fought both projects because the vast but as-yet untapped reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals under northeastern Minnesota are locked up in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water.
Nolan introduced the bill late last week. It would require completion of the exchange within 90 days of passage. His co-sponsors include fellow Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, and Minnesota Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, as well as some key Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee. PolyMet said the terms of the deal wouldn’t change except that the company would give up a $425,000 payment from the government.
“Rep. Nolan’s bill is a giveaway of public land, plain and simple,” said Kevin Lee, an attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, another group suing to block the deal. “It is a windfall for PolyMet and a swindle of public land users who use public land for hunting, fishing, and recreation.”
Besides waiting on the land exchange, Polymet is in the process of applying for the state and federal permits it needs.
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