Rep. Rick Nolan introduced bipartisan legislation last week that would override court challenges and move forward a land exchange between the federal government and PolyMet Mining Inc. - a move the mining company said would “provide certainty” to what has been a contentious and yearslong process.

The bill calls for PolyMet to receive 6,650 acres of federal land at the proposed mine site near Babbitt in exchange for 6,690 acres of undeveloped land that would become part of the neighboring Superior National Forest.  

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The land exchange would be a necessary domino to fall if PolyMet is going to build and begin its copper-nickel mining operation.

It has also become the latest point of contention in the fight between pro-mining interests and environmentalists, who say the mine risks compromising the headwaters of Lake Superior. In March, a fourth lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Forest Service decision to approve the land exchange.

Nolan has been advocating hard for the project in recent months - saying PolyMet has demonstrated its ability to meet environmental standards. While noting in his statement that the legislation would not supercede permitting of PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine by the state and federal agencies, Nolan again pressed the importance of moving forward.  

“The bill text and our intent is clear - after 12 years of scrupulous review, it’s time to get the (land) exchange over and done with so we can fully focus on furthering a new-generation of good-paying mining jobs in northeastern Minnesota,” Nolan, DFL-Crosby, said in a statement to the News Tribune.  

The land exchange was first jointly proposed in 2010 by PolyMet and the Forest Service. The Forest Service then approved the land swap in January.

“In this legislation, Congress would ratify the Forest Service’s determination that the exchange is in the public interest and moves for the exchange to be completed within 90 days of the bill’s enactment,” said PolyMet president and CEO Jon Cherry in a news release on Monday.

In the proposed legislation, PolyMet would waive $425,000 owed it by the federal government that would equalize the transaction.

Co-authors on the bill that was introduced June 29 were Reps. Collin Peterson, DFL-Minn., Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Jason Lewis, R-Minn., Scott R. Tipton, R-Colo., Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., Tom McClintock. R-Calif., and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

Opponents filing lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Minnesota have alternately claimed the federal land was appraised below market value, the exchange threatened habitat for wolves and lynx, and that the Forest Service acted against its interest in protecting forests and grasslands.   

According to Nolan spokeswoman Samantha Bisogno, enactment of the bill “would have the practical effect of overriding the ongoing court contests, which would be consistent with exercising Congress’ Property Clause authority over public lands to finalize a thoroughly vetted administrative decision.”

Meanwhile, detractors, such as the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy based in St. Paul, are deriding the proposed legislation.

“Rep. Nolan’s bill is a giveaway of public land, plain and simple,” said Kevin Lee, staff attorney. “It is a windfall for PolyMet and a swindle of public land users who use public land for hunting, fishing and recreation.”

State Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, tweeted, “The ‘company’ wants the process sped up. Since when does our government work for foreign corporations?”

But Nolan was insistent in his statement, saying that, “Our bipartisan bill in no way interferes with the important role and work the State of Minnesota, U.S. Army Corps, the EPA and other agencies are undertaking to ensure these strategic minerals can be mined safely and in accordance with state and federal regulations to protect the environment.”