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Bill backing PolyMet land swap gets first hearing in Congress

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Calling it a "very good land exchange... for the taxpayers and the citizens of our nation," U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands Friday in favor of a bill the 8th District DFLer authored.  

The legislation would authorize a federal land exchange the contentious PolyMet copper-nickel mine proposal needs in order to advance.

Last January the  U.S. Forest Service approved the swap which would trade 6,650 acres of federal land to PolyMet near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Minn., for a similar amount of private land in northeast Minnesota.

But environmental groups have since filed four lawsuits seeking to block the exchange, arguing the proposal harms endangered species and shortchanges taxpayers because it undervalues the federal land to be traded. 

Nolan's bill, if passed, would thwart those lawsuits and allow the land exchange to proceed. 

"This kind of circumventing the courts, circumventing due process, sets a very bad precedent for PolyMet, and also leaves the potential that Minnesota taxpayers and users of public land will be ripped off by this project," said Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and attorney for WaterLegacy, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit. 

But Nolan argued the land exchange is a good deal for taxpayers. 

"There's a net gain of acreage, there's a net gain of wetlands, of wild rice lands, of lakeshore frontage," he testified. 

In return, he said, the government is giving up land in an area near an operating taconite mine where there is little public access. He also said his bill would save taxpayers $425,000 otherwise owed to PolyMet under the current agreement. 

Most importantly, Nolan argued, "it facilitates an important mining project, for our national economy, for our national security, it creates many good paying jobs."

The land exchange is critical for PolyMet to move forward with its proposed mine. Final approval is still a ways off, but the swap would solve a potential Catch-22 for the company.  Polymet has the right to the underground minerals at that location, but, absent an exchange, the Forest Service says it would refuse access to that surface terrain. 

Several environmental groups argue the Forest Service gave PolyMet a sweetheart deal. Kathryn Hoffman with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, said the agency illegally directed the appraiser to undervalue the land with an appraisal based on its timber, not mineral wealth. 

In a statement Hoffman called on Rep. Nolan to withdraw his bill "and let the courts do their job." 

The bill has received bipartisan support from some members of Minnesota's congressional delegation. Sixth District Republican Rep. Tom Emmer is a co-sponsor. 

First District Democratic Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz also supports Nolan's bill. "After over 10 years of environmental review and approval by the Obama Administration, we must honor the process by ensuring it moves forward," he said in a statement. 

The House Subcommittee did not vote on Nolan's proposed bill. 

But even if it advances in Congress, PolyMet still needs to obtain more than 20 state and federal permits before mining could begin at the site. Those draft permits could be released later this year, which will be followed by additional rounds of public comment.