Mesabi Daily News: FOREST SERVICE APPROVES POLYMET LAND EXCHANGE
The U.S. Forest Service signed off on a major land exchange for PolyMet and its proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes.
PolyMet will receive access to 6,400 acres in exchange for its purchase of 6,690 acres of undeveloped private land that will now transfer to the Forest Service.
The project still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands and other water-related matters, but the Forest Service Record of Decision marks a critical milestone in the project.
Company officials praised the decision.
“This is an incredibly important milestone for PolyMet as we consolidate the surface land and mineral ownership in and around the NorthMet ore body and Erie Plant site,”said CEO Jon Cherry in a statement.
PolyMet is still awaiting approval of about 20 state and local permits by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Congressman Rick Nolan, D-Minn., who pushed for a final decision from the Forest Service to come early this year, called it a win-win for PolyMet and wetland growth in Superior National Forest.
“This is wonderful news for our Iron Range,” Nolan said in a statement. “We are another step closer to making the Polymet initiative a reality. I will continue to work with the appropriate agencies to ensure that the proposed project moves forward in an efficient manner.”
PolyMet now has about 30 square miles at the open pit mine site where the former Erie Mining Co. plant and waste rock tailings basin sits, which includes the railroad lines between pit and processing plant.
In signing off on the land swap, the Forest Service said a net 40-acre increase in National Forest lands, a 505-acre increase in federal wetlands and a gain of 94 acres of public lakes sealed the deal.
Timing of the land exchange announcement comes at tenuous point in the Iron Range’s relationship with the Forest Service. About a month ago the agency delivered a decision jeopardizing the Twin Metals underground copper-nickel mine project near Ely because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed. PolyMet, just 30 miles to the southwest of Twin Metals, sits in St. Louis River/Lake Superior watershed.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has stood vehemently opposed to Twin Metals, but has supported PolyMet, saying the two are “very different projects.”
A spokesperson for Dayton said Monday a new statement on PolyMet was not expected.
On the East Range, shrinking populations and closed businesses have taken a toll on the economic prospects in Hoyt Lakes and Aurora, where remnants of the Erie Mining Co. and Mesabi Nugget stand as daily reminders of the iron ore heyday.
But PolyMet’s long-awaited arrival is a welcome change of the recent status quo.
It’s expected to employ 300 people, with hundreds more in construction and spin-off jobs, and inject more than $550 million into the East Range economy annually. That’s a game-changer for the region, which has patiently waded through 10 years of review.
“It’s very good news, another step in the right direction,” said Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton. “Hopefully it’s getting closer to realization.”
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group starkly opposed to PolyMet, said the Forest Service decision was premature and “not in the public interest.” Their stance is at odds with Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins, who said she considered environmental and social issues, as well as the economic impact.
“When making this decision I considered many factors –—the complex mix of environmental concerns, extensive public input, potential economic benefit to local communities, existing rights, and tribal trust responsibilities,” Cummins said in a statement. “This decision best serves the public’s interest.
PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement was approved in 2015 by the state DNR. In November, the company filed its Permit to Mine application, the final and largest scale permit left to tackle. A public comment accompanies the Permit to Mine process and is expected to generate a fierce debate.
PolyMet expects draft permits to be issued later this year. If all the permits are ultimately approved, it will take about two years for a total construction of the NorthMet project.
“A lot of hard work done by all the parties involved — these are good folks, along with our regulatory agencies,” Skelton added. “It’s about doing it right and doing it here, and putting people to work while protecting our environment.”
Local and statewide officials commented on the news Monday with an eye looking forward.
The Iron Range Delegation in the Legislature called the land swap a big step forward. “We are pleased to see this project take another important step forward. We can’t think of another project that has been under more scientific review than this one,” said State Reps. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls and Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing. “As always, we will keep a watchful eye to ensure science dictates the path forward for the NorthMet project.”
Jobs for Minnesotans also said the project is in the best interest of the public.
“The NorthMet project has been thoroughly examined by multiple state and federal agencies, and this decision takes us one step closer to bringing hundreds of jobs to an area of the state that desperately needs the economic opportunities that this project will provide,” the group said in a statement through Chair Nancy Norr. “Following this momentous decision, we are confident that PolyMet will work efficiently with the agencies to complete the permitting process in a timely fashion.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., expressed hope the final permits would be approved quickly, saying: “This announcement from the U.S. Forest Service is another important step for the PolyMet project. I am hopeful that the rest of the state and federal permit process will move forward in a timely manner.”