Congressional Bill Would Fast-Track Land Swap for Minnesota’s PolyMet Mine
This blog post draws from information gathered by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. Check out their website for more information on mining in Minnesota.
On Friday, July 14th, the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Federal Lands heard testimony for HR 3115—a bill that fast-tracks a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and PolyMet Mining Inc. in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. This exchange would transfer 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest for the construction of PolyMet’s proposed open-pit copper-nickel mine.
Copper-nickel mines are particularly controversial due to the fact that these elements are often embedded in sulfide rock. When sulfides come into contact with water they produce sulfuric acid runoff, a dangerous and long-lasting pollutant that devastates watersheds. Since the mine would be open-pit, proper waste management is crucial to preventing large-scale toxic release into the surrounding environment. The federal lands in question are in the Lake Superior Basin, upstream of the St. Louis River—the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior—and upstream of the Fond du Lac Reservation and the city of Duluth. One peer-reviewed study found that 76% of mining projects that claimed they would not pollute still did so.
The 1,000 acres of wetlands and 1,700 acres of critical habitat that would be destroyed during the mine’s construction have been designated an “Aquatic Resource of National Importance” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The land includes ecosystems that are described as “imperiled-vulnerable” in Minnesota, and most of the acreage has been rated as an area of “high biodiversity” significance by the Minnesota Biological Survey. The area is home to threatened species such as the Canada lynx, gray wolf, and northern long-eared bat. It is also noteworthy that these federal lands were originally purchased under the authority of the Weeks Act, a 1911 law that permits the U.S. Forest Service to buy private land in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds. The transfer of these lands to a corporation sure to destroy and likely to pollute them defies the spirit of this law.
Several environmental groups have sued in federal court over the land exchange, arguing that the federal government undervalued the acreage at only $550/acre and failed to properly consider potential impacts on endangered species. A market analysis shows the prices other mining companies have paid for similar land in northern Minnesota ranges from $1,645 to $3,885 per acre. If enacted, this legislation would require the land exchange to be completed within 90 days, which would notably render moot all pending litigation against the mine.
There is no urgency compelling Congress to act before the Minnesota federal court settles these disputes. Neither the State of Minnesota nor the Army Corp of Engineers has issued a single permit, and neither authority has even proposed draft permits for public review and comment. Dictated by law, the U.S. Forest Service may only engage in land exchanges if it serves the public interest and is consistent with the forest land and resource management plan. No public interest is served by enacting legislation that bypasses democratic engagement, undervalues public lands, shortchanges taxpayers, and sabotages habitats of endangered species.