PolyMet Mining hopes to open the state's first large scale copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, creating some 400 jobs. The company holds mineral rights on several thousand acres, but the property belongs to the Superior National Forest.
Forest officials say Polymet can't put an open pit mine on their property because it's incompatible with forest management.
So PolyMet wants to acquire the land, by either trading other property or by purchasing the land outright. A price has yet to be determined.
Either way, federal law requires an Environmental Impact Statement, and that could take years. PolyMet spokeswoman Latisha Gietzen said an EIS for the land sale isn't necessary. It would just duplicate an EIS already underway for the mining project.
"As we started walking through the land exchange EIS, and looking at the parts and pieces that were required, a good majority of them have been done in a far greater detail looking at the impacts of the project," Gietzen said.
We're just saying we need to follow the law. We need to have environmental review. We need to have public participation to determine if a land exchange is in the public interestPaula Maccabee
John Schadl, Communications Director for Minnesota 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, said PolyMet asked Oberstar for help. Oberstar came up with a bill that would bypass the need for a second EIS.
"We were advised and Congressman Oberstar was advised, that legislation would probably be the best way to make sure that the land sale went quickly," Schadl said. "So, that's essentially the reason for the legislation - is to just make sure that the property that PolyMet's already has the mineral rights to, that they have the surface rights to, and they can go ahead and move forward with this project."
Oberstar's bill lets PolyMet purchase 6,700 acres from the Superior National Forest, at fair market value. The Forest would use the money to purchase replacement land they want, like patches of private property now in the public forest.
Under Oberstar's bill, the forest would have to add at least 1,200 acres of wetlands, the same as would be lost to PolyMet.
But the thing that really irritates some critics is that under Oberstar's bill, the sale could happen before PolyMet's mining environmental study is completed, and without any public review or appeal.
"It's a special interest bill, that circumvents law that is currently on the books." says Attorney Paula Maccabee, who represents the group Save Our Sky Blue Waters.
That group is dead-set against the PolyMet mine. Regardless of the land sale issue, they are convinced the mine will create long lasting acidic runoff that will poison the area environment.
But, beyond those fears, Maccabee said Oberstar's bill establishes a dangerous precedent by cutting out public review.
"Minnesota usually sets a very high standard of public participation, accountability, environmental review, and this legislation would propose to undo that very substantial positive history that Minnesota has," Maccabee said.
She says the issue right now isn't whether the land sale should happen, but how it happens.
"We don't have to be united saying it would never be a good idea to exchange the land," Maccabee said. "We're just saying we need to follow the law. We need to have environmental review. We need to have public participation to determine if a land exchange is in the public interest."
Oberstar's spokesman John Schadl said the bill does nothing to exempt the mine itself from environmental rules and permitting.
"The permitting process remains unchanged," Schadl says. "All of the state and federal permits are going to have to be obtained in the normal process. All this does is to make sure that the land sale goes through in an expeditious manner."
Superior National Forest Service Spokeswoman Christine Reichenbach said the Forest Service did not request the special legislation, but it could use the money to purchase property more useful to the forest than the mining property.
Regardless, if the bill falls through, she said the agency is willing to negotiate a conventional land swap with PolyMet.