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Nolan bill forcing PolyMet land swap clears House

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (News Tribune file photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed legislation that orders the U.S. Forest Service to move forward with a land exchange giving PolyMet Mining access to the site where it hopes to build Minnesota's first-ever copper-nickel mine.

The bill passed 309 to 99 and would, if it becomes law, nullify lawsuits filed by environmental groups to stop the land exchange.

The U.S. Forest Service in January approved the land swap, giving PolyMet about 6,500 acres in the Superior National Forest at the mine site near Babbitt. In exchange, the Forest Service would get an equal value of undeveloped, formerly private forest land within the boundary of the Superior National Forest.

Four different lawsuits have been filed in federal court to stop the land exchange, arguing that the Forest Service drastically undervalued the land for its mining potential and that the agency didn't fully consider implications on endangered or threatened species. Critics also say the project has the potential to spur acidic runoff into the St. Louis River watershed.

The legislation, HR 3115, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, would render the lawsuits moot and force the land exchange to be final within 90 days.

Nolan said the bill and land exchange are critical in securing the promised 300 jobs at the mine and processing center. Nolan said the Forest Service is gaining higher quality forest in the swap.

"This bill is a win for taxpayers, for the environment, and for good paying jobs," Nolan said in a statement after the floor vote. "If the land exchange — which has already been approved by the Obama Administration's Forest Service — becomes law, it would mark an important step toward providing our nation the precious metals it requires to meet growing demands in defense, manufacturing, healthcare, environmental ... technologies and medical research."

Without the land exchange the PolyMet project could not advance. PolyMet already controls the mineral rights under the property.

No Senate version has been introduced but supporters say the Senate could accept the House version and move it on to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

Nolan's effort to bypass the federal court process has angered not only Minnesota environmental groups but has brought dozens of national groups into the fray against the project.

"He's escalated PolyMet into a national issue ... not just because of the bad precedent his bill sets, by subverting the environmental law process, but because this is a native rights and justice issue as well," said Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group Water Legacy, noting several tribal groups also oppose the bill.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, said the legislation "undermines proper judicial review" of whether environmental laws were followed during the land exchange and urged lawmakers to vote against it.

Toronto-based PolyMet is about one-third owned by Glencore, a Swiss commodities conglomerate. Glencore also owns the first five years of minerals produced if PolyMet receives permits to operate.

Even if the land exchange is finalized, however, PolyMet still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands destruction and water use. PolyMet also needs more than 20 state and federal permits before construction could begin.

PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said that, in passing the legislation, the House ratifies the Forest Service’s determination that the land exchange is in the best public interest. It also would, if it becomes law, settle a major hangup that could take months or years to settle in court. “While neither the legislative nor the administrative exchange would permit or approve construction of the mine, Congressional approval for the exchange provides certainty of process in developing the project by finalizing the land transfer,'' Cherry said in a statement.

Co-authors on the bill that was introduced June 29 were Reps. Collin Peterson, DFL-Minn., Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Scott R. Tipton, R-Colo., Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., Jason Lewis, R-Minn., Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., Tom McClintock. R-Calif., and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

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