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PolyMet land swap with Forest Service to close June 28

PolyMet officials said Thursday that the land swap between their company and the Forest Service for land at the proposed copper mine site will close June 28. News Tribune file photo

PolyMet Mining Co. this morning said it has received notice from the U.S. Forest Service that the land exchange for the company's proposed mine north of Hoyt Lakes will officially close June 28, giving PolyMet title to the mine site.

The company is trading nearly 6,900 acres of private forest within the Superior National Forest boundary to the Forest Service in exchange for 6,500 acres of land at the mine site.

The controversial land deal is critical for the company's proposed copper-nickel mine, the first ever in Minnesota. PolyMet already controls the mineral rights at the site, but not the surface land.

The Forest Service originally signed-off on the land swap in January 2017. But environmental groups filed four lawsuits in federal court to stop the land exchange, arguing that the Forest Service dramatically undervalued the land for its mining potential and that the agency didn't fully consider implications on endangered or threatened species. The suits have not yet been resolved, but are on hold, or stayed.

Marc Fink, Duluth-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said the Forest Service and PolyMet previously notified the court that the land exchange agreement would include a litigation contingency, allowing the land agreement to be suspended depending on the outcome of the litigation.

“We assume that contingency will still be included in the agreement,” Fink said. “The PolyMet land exchange and copper mine represent the single greatest threat to the Lake Superior watershed, and we will continue to fight to stop this terrible proposal at every opportunity.”

The U.S. House in November passed legislation that would push the land deal forward and nullify the lawsuits. Similar legislation has advanced, but not yet passed, in the Senate.

“This administrative exchange gives us exclusive control of the land over our ore body and provides a secure foundation on which we can complete project financing and permitting, build the project, create hundreds of sustainable jobs and bring these essential metals to market,” Jon Cherry, PolyMet CEO, said in a statement.

Title to the federal land will give PolyMet about 19,000 acres around the mine and processing plant — more than 30 square miles.

Meanwhile, PolyMet is awaiting state and federal permits to build and operate the mine and processing center at the site of the former LTV Steel Mining taconite plant.

The company also must secure nearly $1 billion to build the project.

Critics say the project is likely to send tainted runoff into local waterways, potentially polluting the St. Louis River system. Supporters say the 300 jobs at the mine will help diversify the regional economy.

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