Lawsuit filed against PolyMet land exchange
Three environmental groups filed suit in federal court Monday to overturn the U.S. Forest Service decision to trade land to PolyMet Mining Inc. for the land where the company wants to dig Minnesota's first-ever copper mine.
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Duluth Chapter of the Izaak Walton League filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
It's the second lawsuit that names unfair appraisal of the land. A third lawsuit, which focuses on the Endangered Species Act, was promised in January and could be filed as early as this week.
Under the land exchange, approved by the Forest Service in early January, PolyMet would get access to the surface property at the mine site — the company already has mineral rights there — in exchange for a nearly equal amount of undeveloped forest land that had been privately owned within the boundaries of the Superior National Forest. PolyMet has purchase agreements for the land which would be transferred to the federal government if the deal survives legal challenge.
The Forest Service also would throw in $425,000 in cash as part of the deal.
The 23-page suit argues that U.S. taxpayers were shortchanged because the 6,650 acres of federal land at the mine site was drastically undervalued. That happened, the suit claims, because the Forest Service instructed its appraiser to ignore the proposed use of the land — highly profitable copper-nickel mining — when calculating its value.
Instead, the land was appraised as forest and was valued at $550 per acre.
The suit claims PolyMet and other mining companies have paid significantly higher prices for similar nearby land owned by private landowners. If the company had paid the fair value of the land, the suit notes, the government would be getting substantially more forest land in return.
"The PolyMet land exchange is a bad deal for taxpayers," said Kathryn Hoffman, executive director of MCEA. The "$550 per acre is a fraction of the value this land has for PolyMet's mine proposal. Taxpayers deserve fair treatment, not this sweetheart deal for PolyMet."
The groups said the land PolyMet wants "contains thousands of acres of high biodiversity wetlands in the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary of Lake Superior."
"Protecting clean water is the top conservation priority for the Izaak Walton League," said Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth-based W.J. McCabe Chapter.
In addition to the most recent suit, the group WaterLegacy in January filed suit also based on the land appraisal issue. It's possible the two suits may be combined. PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said Monday that the company is reviewing the new suit but that it appears very similar to the WaterLegacy suit.
"We have confidence in the Forest Service appraisals, which followed well-established federal guidelines by the U.S. Department of Justice," the company said in a statement. "After years of review and analysis, the Forest Service has determined the land exchange best serves the public's interest."
Meanwhile the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthworks filed a formal notice in January that they would file a federal lawsuit based on alleged violations of the federal Endangered Species Act. They said the open-pit mine would destroy important habitat for the gray wolf and Canada lynx, both listed as "threatened" with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. That suit is expected to be filed this week.
PolyMet supporters say the mine will employ 300 people and pump $550 million into the local economy every year. Critics say the potential for polluted runoff is too great and that the potential environmental harm isn't worth the risk — especially the risk of acidic runoff when sulfur-bearing rock is exposed to air and water, unique to copper mining.
PolyMet now is working to secure more than 20 state and federal permits for the mine, with those expected later this year. PolyMet's Environmental Impact Statement was approved in 2016 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after a nearly 10-year environmental review period that included a do-over after the initial review was deemed inadequate by federal regulators. If permits are issued, construction would take about two years.