Federal Approval: PolyMet Land Exchange

Why would PolyMet need a land exchange?

When PolyMet first proposed its copper-nickel mine, the Minnesota land on which the mine itself would be located was all public land in the Superior National Forest. In order to build a mine on National Forest land, federal public lands law requires that the mining company trade private land of equal value and that this land exchange serve the public interest.

Partridge River downstream of proposed PolyMet mine site.

What public land did PolyMet receive for its mine?

There is a myth that the PolyMet sulfide mine would be located on a “brownfield” (already developed and polluted) site. Although the PolyMet processing plant would reuse a closed taconite mine facility, the mine itself would privatize and degrade more than six thousand acres of Superior National Forest public lands.

In fact, PolyMet has proposed to locate its mine on forest lands that provide habitat for the grey wolf, the Canadian lynx, and other endangered species. The vast majority – 92 percent – of the mine site wetlands that would be destroyed or degraded by the PolyMet mine are high quality wetlands and approximately 89 percent are coniferous bogs, which are legally classified as hard to replace aquatic resources.

What is the current status of the exchange?

On January 9, 2017, the U.S. Forest Service approved the transfer of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest to PolyMet Mining Inc. for its proposed open pit copper-nickel mine. 

On June 28, 2018, the U.S. Forest Service actually transferred Superior National Forest land from public ownership to PolyMet’s private ownership. The PolyMet Land Exchange is not contingent on any PolyMet mine permit approvals, so Superior National Forest land will not revert to public land even if PolyMet mine permits are overturned.

However, if a federal court decides that the PolyMet Land Exchange violated federal law, Superior National Forest lands transferred to PolyMet would return to public ownership.

What is the history of the exchange?

U.S. Forest Service Approval Despite Opposition

On November 17, 2015, the U.S. Forest Service published a Draft Record of Decision supporting the exchange of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest land for private lands for the PolyMet NorthMet sulfide mine could be constructed.

On January 4, 2016, WaterLegacy submitted to the U.S. Forest Service a 133-page document opposing the PolyMet Land Exchange, with expert reports and exhibits on grounds including:

  • The proposed PolyMet land exchange does not meet comply with federal law related to environmental review and protection of public lands.
  • U.S. Forest Service concerns about threatened PolyMet litigation do not provide grounds to reject the “No Action” alternative – namely denying the land exchange.
  • The PolyMet land exchange is not in the public interest and does not use all practicable means to avoid or minimize environmental harm.
  • The PolyMet land exchange and mine project would have significant adverse impacts on water quality, watersheds, fish, and human health.
  • The PolyMet land exchange and mine project would have significant adverse impacts on wetlands, wildlife, and ecosystems.
  • The PolyMet land exchange and mine project conflicts with environmental justice and federal obligations to tribes.

Despite opposition by WaterLegacy, affected Tribes and other allies, the Forest Service approved the PolyMet Land Exchange on January 9, 2017. Even as it did so, the Forest Service admitted, 

For this project the No Action Alternative is the environmentally preferred alternative. Under the No Action Alternative there would be no NorthMet Mining Project Proposed Action or Land Exchange Proposed Action.  

Blocking Federal Legislation

WaterLegacy filed a federal lawsuit on January 30, 2017, seeking to overturn the Forest Service approval of the PolyMet Land Exchange.
By the summer of 2017, federal elected officials began an effort to mandate the PolyMet Land Exchange and circumvent any judicial review that could undo the land swap. A bill by Cong. Rick Nolan (HR 3115) passed the House of Representatives on November 28, 2017. And U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith co-authored a rider that would add the PolyMet Land Exchange to an unrelated defense bill.

Through concerted efforts by local and national Tribes, as well as extensive organizing and education by WaterLegacy and other state and national environmental groups, legislation to compel the PolyMet Land Exchange and undermine due process was successfully blocked, even before the mid-term elections in 2018 changed the House of Representatives majority.

Passage of a PolyMet land exchange amendment would set a terrible precedent across the United States. . . It is rare and highly unusual for the U.S. Congress to intervene in a land exchange while the courts are considering whether that land exchange is legal.
  • The National Congress of American Indians enacted a resolution in October 2017 opposing the PolyMet land exchange and a federal bill to compel the transfer of public lands, saying:
[S]uch congressional action sets a dangerous precedent by bypassing important and long-standing laws that ensure tribal lands, resources, and reserved rights are protected, consistent with the federal government’s Treaty and trust obligations to Indian tribes, and subject to the right to seek judicial review of federal agency decision.
Minnesotans ask U.S. Sen Tina Smith to oppose PolyMet land exchange mandate.
  • Citizens, environmental groups and tribes in Minnesota and across the U.S. signed postcards, made calls, sent letters and met with legislators. 

I think we all can agree our national forests shouldn’t be given to wealthy foreign investors without, at the very least, fair compensation in return. As state Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth asked in a tweet, “Since when does our government work for foreign corporations? 

  • No PolyMet Land Exchange bill or “rider” was adopted by Congress. Litigation to overturn the Land Exchange was not blocked.
WaterLegacy counsel Paula Maccabee with public lands protector U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva.

Learn about the Lawsuit and the status of the case.