WASHINGTON, D.C.— Enactment of a land exchange that would help clear the way for PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes took a step closer to reality on Tuesday with the …
WASHINGTON, D.C.— Enactment of a land exchange that would help clear the way for PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes took a step closer to reality on Tuesday with the passage of legislation that would enshrine the exchange in federal law and effectively end current court challenges to the deal.
The full U.S. House voted 309 to 99 to approve the measure, known as H.R. 3115, sponsored by Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan. The land exchange would swap about 6,650 acres of federal land at the site of the proposed open pit mine for about 6,690 acres of other lands scattered throughout the Superior National Forest.
Nolan, in a floor presentation to House members, called the exchange a “wonderfully good deal for the taxpayers and the concerns of the environment.”
Environmentalists dispute that contention and have filed suit to block the exchange, arguing that the public is getting shortchanged by offering up valuable surface lands above a sizable mineral deposit acre-for-acre with lower-valued timber lands and swamp.
Nolan argued that the lands the Forest Service is giving up offer no public access and are located in a mining region, while obtaining lands that have better access for the public. “They [the public] get more lakeshore property, more timber land, more wild rice land, and more wetlands,” said Nolan.
The congressman also addressed what he called “terrible misinformation,” that he said some critics have put out, including suggestions that the mine has the potential to impact water quality in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Standing next to a map of the region, Nolan took pains to point out to his colleagues that the PolyMet mine would be located south of the Laurentian Divide, which means water from the site would flow south, rather than north toward the Boundary Waters.
In fact, the direction of water flow from the mine has been a hotly-contested issue. While the environmental review of the project predicts that ground and surface water from the mine will flow south, the Department of Natural Resources has indicated that it cannot rule out the possibility that some groundwater from the mine will eventually empty into the Peter Mitchell pit, located about a mile north of the proposed PolyMet mine. The Peter Mitchell pit is located north of the divide and will eventually flow into the Kawishiwi River watershed following closure of the taconite mining operation there.
But Nolan discounted that risk. “In no way can it in any way harm the Boundary Waters or I wouldn’t be standing here today advocating for its purchase,” he added.
Environmentalists condemned the House action, which would still require Senate approval and a signature from President Trump. A coalition of Duluth-based environmental groups called the measure “a taxpayer rip-off, and a huge windfall for foreign mining corporations PolyMet and Glencore.” Glencore, the Swiss-based global commodities broker, is a significant shareholder in the PolyMet project. “The PolyMet bill sets a terrible example for how highly contentious, unpopular, and environmentally damaging projects are dealt with by our politicians,” read the statement issued by the groups.
Nolan also took heat from Leah Pfifer, of Isanti, who is challenging Nolan for the DFL endorsement in 2018. “From my father to my great-great grandfather, the Iron Range mining industry has employed my family for four generations,” said Pfifer. “It is an industry I care about deeply and one that must flourish. However, I strongly oppose this legislation because it is not the role of our government to circumvent due process in order to facilitate the creation of new mining projects. It is precisely this sort of political opportunism that has fractured the DFL in the Eighth and rendered us the only Democratic district in the nation at risk of flipping from blue to red next year.”
Project continues, questions remain
As Congress debates the merits of enacting the land exchange for PolyMet, state officials continue to move ahead slowly with the permitting process. Assistant DNR Commissioner Barb Naramore said the state officials expect to receive an updated Permit to Mine application from PolyMet within a matter of days, and that the DNR still hopes to issue a draft permit by the end of the year. “However, as we’ve said previously, there’s a lot that must come together in order to meet that schedule,” Naramore added.
Naramore said she expects the new Permit to Mine application to include an updated financial assurance proposal from PolyMet, with changes based on the DNR’s review of its previous application.
While the DNR and other state agencies will need to approve the vast majority of the nearly two dozen permits that PolyMet will need to open the mine, the company is still waiting for a wetlands impact permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been in process for years.
Despite the progress to date, investor interest in the PolyMet project continues to appear lackluster, reflecting a difficult investment climate for new mining projects. The company’s stock price remains mired in the 60-cent range per share, where it has remained since the summer. While copper prices have recovered some lost ground in recent months, nickel prices remain well below the levels that PolyMet had forecasted in its feasibility report. Other copper mining projects in the U.S., with full permitting already in hand, have struggled to find investment capital to begin operations. PolyMet officials have indicated the project is attracting significant investor interest, but the company has yet to announce a financial backer for the initial investment of approximately $600 million to bring the proposed mine into production.