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Nolan pushes bill to mandate PolyMet land exchange

A PolyMet Mining official explains in December 2013 how the company will use rod mills, one of which is at right, to crush metal-bearing rock from 1/2-sized pieces to small pieces of gravel as part of the process of extracting copper, nickel and other metals from the planned mine. The mills are part of the old LTV processing plant now owned by PolyMet. (News Tribune file photo)

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan Friday made his case for legislation that would bypass the legal system and authorize a land swap for the proposed PolyMet copper mine north of Hoyt Lakes.

Nolan, D-Crosby, stated his case before the Public Lands Subcommittee of the House, saying the land swap was a good deal for taxpayers and critical for the national economy and national security.

“There's a net gain’’ of wildlife habitat, waterfront land and public access for taxpayers, Nolan told his cohorts on the subcommittee. “And it facilitates an important mining project for our national economy.”

Nolan testified that the project has received extensive state and federal agency review and approval and that the company has spent more than $300 million seeking regulatory approval.

The U.S. Forest Service in January approved the land swap for about 6,500 acres at what would be Minnesota's first-ever copper mine and processing center. In exchange, the Forest Service would get an equal value of undeveloped formerly private forest land within the boundary of the Superior National Forest.

Without the land exchange the PolyMet project could not advance. PolyMet already controls the mineral rights under the property.

Four different lawsuits have been filed in federal court to stop the land exchange, arguing that the Forest Service did not properly value the land for its mining potential and that the agency ignored key elements of the federal Endangered Species Act. Critics also say the project has the potential to spur acidic runoff into the St. Louis River watershed.

Nolan’s bill would render the lawsuits moot and force the land exchange to be final within 90 days.

No action was taken on any of the four bills that were included in Friday’s subcommittee. The land exchange bill, HR 3115, bill must pass the full House and Senate, or be included on a larger bill, and be signed by the president.

Nolan was the only person to testify on his bill Friday. But critics were quick to respond, saying Nolan grossly overstated the impact of the project on the U.S. economy.  PolyMet is a Canadian company whose largest shareholder is Glencore, a Swiss commodities conglomerate. Glencore owns the first five years of minerals produced if PolyMet receives permits.

The bill "would set a dangerous precedent for public lands in Minnesota. Court review of the PolyMet land exchange protects taxpayers and public land users. Public land users and taxpayers deserve equal value when public land is given to a private business,’’ said Kathryn Hoffman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “Rep. Nolan should withdraw HR 3115 and let the courts do their job.”

Even if the land exchange is finalized, however, PolyMet still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands destruction and water use. PolyMet also needs more than 20 state and federal permits before construction could begin. Several of those permits will involve public comments and meetings.

Critical details remain unresolved, such as how much money PolyMet must set aside, guaranteed to the state, to clean up any problems left behind should the company leave without closing the project properly.

The bill is co-authored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and other Republicans. On Thursday Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., also announced his support for the bill. Walz is considered a frontrunner for the DFL nomination for governor in 2018.

The bill also appears to have the support of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn., although no Senate version has been introduced. It's likely the Senate would accept the House version if it passes, supporters say.