A federal judge is allowing to proceed lawsuits challenging a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and PolyMet after a bill that would curb such legal challenges to the swap failed in Congress’ last session.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen granted motions to lift stays - a legal barrier to any future proceedings - on a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Center for Biological Diversity and the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and a separate lawsuit filed by WaterLegacy.

The lawsuits argue the federal land at the mine site was undervalued.

Paula Maccabee, attorney for WaterLegacy celebrated the judge’s decision and said it allows the group to challenging the deal in court.

“Today, with the judge’s order lifting the stay the courthouse door has swung open to allow due process for citizens. WaterLegacy and other environmental groups who are challenging the PolyMet land exchange as a violation of federal public lands and environmental laws will have a chance to have their cases heard on their merits,” Maccabee said.

Although PolyMet already exchanged 6,900 acres of its land for 6,500 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on June 28, 2018, a bill codifying it by federal lawmakers would drop ongoing lawsuits opposed to the land swap.

The stays were put in place in March, months after the U.S. House of Representatives tried to do just that by passing the Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017. But the Senate’s version was dropped last minute from the National Defense Authorization Act in July.

Since the 115th Congress ended without the bill passing both houses, the stay on the actions could be lifted, Ericksen wrote.

But a new bill to codify the land exchange has been introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown.

PolyMet spokesperson Bruce Richardson said the company didn’t fight the stay being lifted and doesn’t expect the lawsuits to affect the mine’s timeline.

“PolyMet did not oppose the stay being lifted when the new Congress went into session. We plan to renew our motions to dismiss the lawsuits in the near future,” Richardson said. “We expect this to have no effect on our ability to continue detailed engineering, construction financing and site preparation work on the NorthMet Project.”

PolyMet, with its proposed copper-nickel mine site near Hoyt Lakes, earned key permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in late 2018 but the project still needs a wetlands certificate from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Supporters of the project say the mine would bring much needed jobs to the area while opponents argue the project could send tainted runoff into the St. Louis River watershed and Lake Superior.