SUPERIOR NATIONAL FOREST— PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbitt took another step forward this week as Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins announced she’d given …
SUPERIOR NATIONAL FOREST— PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbitt took another step forward this week as Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins announced she’d given final approval to a land exchange that gives the company control over surface lands at the mine site for the first time. The exchange calls for the Forest Service to convey 6,650 acres of federal land in exchange for acquisition of 6,690 acres of non-federal lands located elsewhere within the national forest boundaries. The Forest Service will also pay PolyMet $425,000 in cash.
The decision was key to the project, since federal law governing the land in question prohibits surface mining, as PolyMet has proposed. The company remains in the process of obtaining nearly two dozen permits it will need before it can begin construction of the mine. It already controls mineral rights at the site.
Copper-nickel mining supporters lauded the decision, which came less than a month after the Forest Service denied renewal of federal mineral leases that had been controlled by Twin Metals, a proposed copper-nickel mining operation near Ely.
“This is wonderful news for our Iron Range,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. “We are another step closer to making the PolyMet initiative a reality.”
The group Jobs for Minnesotans said the project promises to bring hundreds of jobs “to an area of the state that desperately needs the economic opportunities that this project will provide.” In a statement, the group added: “Following this momentous decision, we are confident that PolyMet will work efficiently with the agencies to complete the permitting process in a timely fashion.”
Investors also reacted positively to the news, with the price of PolyMet rising slightly, to 90 cents a share. Despite progress over the past several months, the company’s stock price remains far below previous peaks when copper prices reached historic levels three or four years ago. The price of copper hovered around $2.50 per pound this week.
In signing the Record of Decision, Cummins said she weighed a “complex mix of environmental concerns, extensive public input, potential economic benefit to local communities, existing rights, and tribal trust responsibilities” and ultimately concluded the proposal was in the public interest.
But others weren’t convinced of that. “The Forest Service has basically knuckled under to PolyMet’s threat of litigation, allowing them to proceed with a project that is not the biologically preferred alternative,” said Paula Maccabee, legal counsel for St. Paul-based Water Legacy.
Paul Danicic, Executive Director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said the land exchange is premature because PolyMet has not shown they can meet state and federal law. “They have received no state or federal permit for their mine proposal,” notes Danicic, and “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not certified that PolyMet’s environmental review is complete. Until PolyMet proves they can meet state and federal law, there is no reason for the Forest Service to transfer thousands of acres of Superior National Forest land to the company.”
Native American tribes weighed in against the transfer as well, arguing that the transfer should only take place once PolyMet has its permits in place.
Maccabee also took issue with the average value of the federal land in question, which the Forest Service appraised based on its value as timber land, or about $550 an acre. She said the undervaluing of federal lands slated for development is a national scandal, one that has drawn criticism from the General Accounting Office. It has also drawn criticism from the courts, and Maccabee said she is currently looking to see whether the exchange, as proposed, is consistent with federal law. “We’re looking at all kinds of things,” she said.
The environmental impacts of the proposed mine were analyzed in an Environmental Impact Statement developed by three co-lead agencies: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Forest Service. The DNR has previously signed off on the EIS, while the Army Corps has yet to weigh in. By signing the Record of Decision, the Forest Service gave its own green light to the project.
The decision comes a little more than a year after the Forest Service published a draft decision authorizing the land exchange. In response, the Forest Service received approximately 22,500 objections.
The Forest Service and PolyMet will now begin the realty transfer process.
A copy of the Final ROD is posted on the Superior National Forest website at: www.fs.usda.gov/superior.