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Forest Service backs land exchange for PolyMet mine site

The U.S. Forest Service has formally backed a proposed land exchange for property where PolyMet wants to build Minnesota's first copper mine.

Superior National Forest officials on Tuesday published the so-called record of decision on the land exchange, a critical component to the PolyMet mine plan.

PolyMet needs the land at the mine site, which is now under federal ownership, or it wouldn't be able to move forward with its proposed copper-nickel-precious metals operations.

As required, Superior National Forest Supervisor Brenda Hatler said she found that the land exchange is in the best interest of the forest, of natural resources and of people of the U.S.

"While my draft decision is only for the land exchange, I have considered the effects of both the mining project and the land exchange as documented in the FEIS in making this public interest determination," Halter wrote in the decision.

Under the Forest Service draft decision, the agency will exchange 6,650 acres of federal land located in St. Louis County for 6,690 acres of non-federal lands offered by PolyMet in Lake and St. Louis counties. That undeveloped land has been privately owned but is within the larger boundaries of the national forest.

In a new development, some land the Forest Service was to acquire in Cook County near McFarland Lake has been dropped from the deal. Forest Service officials say they will also have to pay PolyMet some cash because the land the government is acquiring is considered more valuable than the mine-area land it is giving up. The Forest Service has decided not to accept land near McFarland Lake as part of the exchange.

The federal lands going to PolyMet have an appraised value of $3,658,000 and the non-federal lands going to the Forest Service have an appraised value of $4,083,000. The government will pay PolyMet $425,000 to make up the difference.

The federal decision on the land exchange follows the Nov. 6 release of the state's final environmental impact statement on the PolyMet project. Final action on both is expected early in 2016.

The Forest Service's decision affirms the findings in the state's environmental review "that the project can meet environmental standards and be protective of the environment while creating jobs and economic benefit," said Bruce Richardson, PolyMet spokesman. "The release of the Forest Service's draft record of decision is another significant step ahead for the project. We look forward to executing the land exchange and moving the project forward."

The exchange has been in the works for years and resolves a disagreement between Polymet and the Forest Service. PolyMet said that it has the right to mine at the site because it owns the mineral rights. But the Forest Service said special federal surface rights supercede mineral rights.

The land exchange avoids what may have been lengthy litigation or a battle in Congress.

"This has been an extremely long and complex project in terms of the technical analyses, the potential environmental effects and the range of interests and agencies involved," Halter said in a statement. "In any land exchange there are clearly things 'gained' by the federal estate and clearly things 'lost' to the federal estate. I believe the analysis provides the information on the potential effects of the land exchange as well as the effects of construction, operation and reclamation of the proposed mine needed to issue a draft decision on the land exchange at this time."

The next step in the Forest Service environmental review process is a 45-day period during which interested parties may file an objection.

Critics of the PolyMet plan said the government is giving up too much and getting too little in return for the mine site land. Several opponents gathered Tuesday in Duluth at a press event sponsored by the Downstream Business Coalition —dozens of Duluth-area businesspeople opposed to copper mining in the area.

"I think it's too much land. It's far larger than the mine pit itself, larger than it needs to be," said Dave Zentner of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.

Zentner and others said such a large footprint will allow PolyMet to pollute the mine area while still staying within state and federal pollution regulations for air and water leaving the site.

"I think the people of the United States are getting ripped off in this land exchange," said Kristin Larson, a Duluth-area opponent of the PolyMet project. Larson noted that because the mine site land was acquired through the Weeks Act, rehabilitation required at the site — restoring the site to pristine condition — would have made mining nearly impossible. "Now it will be out from under those rules."

The Weeks Act of 1911 authorized the federal government to purchase private lands for stream-flow protection and to maintain that newly acquired land as national forests. Its passage made possible the creation of the eastern national forests such as those in Minnesota and Wisconsin that were in large part privately owned land at the time.

Minnesota DNR accepts bids for copper exploration

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources held its 34th non-ferrous metallic minerals lease sale Tuesday.

Four different copper mining companies submitted bids to acquire the rights to explore for minerals on 47 parcels called mining units in Aitkin, Itasca, Koochiching and St. Louis counties.

Of the 88,572 acres offered for lease on Tuesday, 17,737, or about 20 percent, received bids.

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