An amendment meant to expedite the land exchange between PolyMet Mining Co. and the U.S. Forest Service was dropped Monday from the National Defense Authorization Act.
The amendment would have reaffirmed the land swap deal that closed on June 28, with the company transferring nearly 6,900 acres of private land within the Superior National Forest boundary to the Forest Service in exchange for 6,500 acres at the mine site north of Hoyt Lakes, also nullifying four lawsuits against the deal pending in federal court.
The amendment was removed by members of a U.S. Senate-House conference committee.
Now plaintiffs in the various lawsuits, which argue that the Forest Service undervalued the land for its mining potential and that the agency didn't fully consider implications on endangered or threatened species, are hoping to continue their fight.
Marc Fink, Duluth-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said in a statement Tuesday he was "glad" to see the amendment go.
"That puts the focus back on the court challenge, where it should be," Fink said. "And we're hopeful the court will agree that this land exchange is illegal."
PolyMet maintains that the land exchange is permanent.
In a statement Tuesday, PolyMet officials said the company was "disappointed that the land exchange amendment failed to be included in the final version of the (NDAA)" adding later that "the Congressional stamp of approval would provide legal certainty."
With vocal support from Reps. Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer and Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, the amendment had passed both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
PolyMet hopes to use that existing support for another chance.
"As other opportunities present themselves, we remain optimistic that the Minnesota delegation will continue to push hard and Congress ultimately will get this done," PolyMet's statement said.
That was echoed by Jobs for Minnesotans, a group in support of the PolyMet project.
"We've worked continuously together, and we know how committed they have been to getting it done and that our delegation remains resolved to continue their efforts," the group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, PolyMet is awaiting state and federal permits to build and operate its proposed 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.
Company officials said Tuesday that the decision to drop the land exchange amendment won't affect any of that.
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.