Federal Land Exchange: Lawsuit

What is the PolyMet land exchange lawsuit?

The purpose of the PolyMet Land Exchange lawsuit is to challenge the transfer of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest lands to PolyMet so the company can construct an open-pit copper-nickel mine. On January 7, 2017, before any PolyMet mine permits were issued, the U.S. Forest Service approved the transfer of these Superior National Forest public lands to PolyMet. The transfer is not contingent on the approval of PolyMet permits or mine construction, so even if permits were overturned or the mine not built, no Superior National Forest lands would return to public ownership.
Proposed PolyMet mine site, Stubble Creek, PolyMet federal land exchange lawsuit Exhibit F-5 photo.

On January 30, 2017, just three weeks after the PolyMet Land Exchange was approved, WaterLegacy filed suit in Minnesota federal court challenging the PolyMet land exchange as a violation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. WaterLegacy asked that the PolyMet Land Exchange be found illegal and asked for a preliminary injunction, so the court would prevent harm to the forests and wetlands on the proposed PolyMet mine site while the case was proceeding. Several other environmental groups filed related lawsuits in the spring of 2017.

WaterLegacy’s lawsuit claimed that the PolyMet Land Exchange was a “sweetheart deal” for PolyMet at the expense of users of public lands and Minnesota and federal taxpayers. An expert appraisal review submitted by WaterLegacy documented that the federal lands to be transferred to PolyMet were undervalued at only $550 per acre, while other lands sold by private northeast Minnesota landowners to mining companies commanded prices as high as $3885 per acre. As summarized in the Pioneer Press:

The 20-page lawsuit filed in Minnesota claims “The Forest Service’s failure to appraise the market value of the federal lands … as a whole property, failure to value the lands according to their most profitable, feasible, probable and intended use for mining related purposes, and failure to value the lands based on the most comparable Northeastern Minnesota transactions by mining companies in the private market reflected a willful blindness of the Forest Service to the intended use of the federal property; [and that the proposed valuation] was neither reasonable nor credible. . .”

What is the current status of the lawsuit?

The PolyMet Land Exchange lawsuits were all “dismissed without prejudice” on September 30, 2019, as a result of PolyMet’s repeated motions to dismiss on the basis of standing. What a dismissal “without prejudice” means is that WaterLegacy and other groups are not precluded from filing their cases again. The court’s order for dismissal focused, in part, on timing issues to find that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to bring their cases.

It is highly likely that WaterLegacy will file a second lawsuit to overturn the PolyMet Land Exchange.

Understanding the Court Process:

Jan. 30, 2017

WaterLegacy files its Complaint in federal court starting the litigation. WaterLegacy argues that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act prohibits an exchange of public lands for a private use unless the values are equal. WaterLegacy also argues that the PolyMet Land Exchange undervalued public lands to the detriment of users of public lands and taxpayers.

Feb. 23, 2017

WaterLegacy files its first motion for preliminary injunction, asking that the actual land transfer not take place until the legal issues are resolved and that the court prevent either PolyMet or the U.S. Forest Service from cutting trees, building roads, or otherwise harming what were still public lands.

March 10, 2017

PolyMet files its first motion to dismiss the case on “standing” grounds, arguing that the transfer of public lands itself causes no harm and the relationship of the transfer of lands to any effects from the PolyMet mine itself are speculative.

Late March, 2017

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, and Save Lake Superior Association file lawsuits opposing the PolyMet Land Exchange. They argue that the exchange violates various federal laws, including the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (unequal exchange), the Weeks Act (misuse of these specific federal lands), the National Environmental Policy Act (inadequate environmental review); and the Endangered Species Act (inadequate evaluation of harm to endangered species).

Aug. 28, 2017

A hearing is held on WaterLegacy’s motion for an injunction and PolyMet’s motion to dismiss. In that hearing and in a letter to the Court on August 24, 2017, the U.S. Forest Service states that, in response to WaterLegacy’s motion, the Forest Service and PolyMet put a “litigation contingency” in the transfer agreement. In other words, the Forest Service can “delay or suspend” the land exchange, even after it is signed, to comply with any court order. The Forest Service claims that, with this litigation contingency, signing the PolyMet Land Exchange “will cause no damage to Plaintiff.”

Aug. 31, 2017

One week after receiving the letter and the agreement language from the U.S. Forest Service, the court issues an order denying WaterLegacy’s motion for preliminary injunction “[i]n light of the litigation contingency.” The PolyMet Land Exchange Agreement is signed the day the court order is issued.

Summer, 2017

Some members of the Minnesota delegation to the U.S. Congress launch a legislative effort to block court review of the PolyMet Federal Land Exchange.

Nov. 28, 2017

A bill to mandate the PolyMet Land Exchange and block court review is adopted in the U.S. House of Representatives – but not in the U.S. Senate.

March 6, 2018

Without any motion by a party or any opportunity for plaintiffs to respond, the court issues an order staying the proceedings and denying PolyMet’s motion to dismiss “without prejudice.” This means that PolyMet can file again if the case resumes. The order is based on the PolyMet Land Exchange bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 28, 2017.

June, 2018

The closing takes place for the PolyMet Land Exchange real estate transaction. PolyMet also tells WaterLegacy and other environmental plaintiffs that they will get a two-week notice if PolyMet is about to start “land-disturbing” activities.

Dec. 24, 2018

After it becomes clear that no bill mandating the PolyMet Land Exchange and preventing court review of its legality will pass the Congress, WaterLegacy asks the court to lift the March 2018 stay and allow the PolyMet Land Exchange lawsuits to continue.

Jan. 31, 2019

In response to motions by WaterLegacy and other plaintiffs, the court lifts the stay on the PolyMet Land Exchange cases. WaterLegacy and other plaintiffs request an injunction to prevent construction and preconstruction activities, since by this time, PolyMet has been granted a permit to mine by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a water pollution permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

April 17, 2019

After PolyMet renews its motion to dismiss, a hearing is held on all parties’ motions.

Sept. 19, 2019

The court issues an order dismissing plaintiffs’ claims without prejudice. This order does not prevent WaterLegacy and other plaintiffs from refiling lawsuits to challenge the PolyMet Land Exchange.