State court backs Leech Lake Ojibwe in dispute over proposed mill

A person stands in a forest
Keith Karnes is forestry director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. The band has expressed concern about a proposed mill project in Cohasset and its possible impacts on reservation forests and nearby wetlands.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2022

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Monday in an ongoing dispute over a proposed wood products plant in northeastern Minnesota.

North Carolina-based Huber Engineered Woods has proposed building a $440 million mill in the city of Cohasset to manufacture oriented strand board, a plywood-like product that's used to build houses. 

In 2021, the state approved millions of dollars in incentives for the project, which would create about 150 jobs. Local officials say the facility would help replace the economic impact provided by a coal-fired power plant that’s slated to be shuttered in 2035.

Last year, Cohasset approved a less stringent review for the project known as an environmental assessment worksheet or EAW.

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That was in line with a law passed in 2021 by the Minnesota Legislature that allowed the project to proceed without the completion of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, a more detailed environmental review that’s typically required of projects this size.

But the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose reservation is only about a mile from the proposed plant, sued, arguing that an EIS should still be required because of the project’s impact on wetlands at the site.

In its 40-page decision, the state appeals court agreed, ruling that two significant wetlands that are afforded greater protection under state law would be impacted by the project’s construction.

“We conclude that the city’s conclusory determination that Huber’s facility will not change the character of impacted public waters wetlands is unsupported by substantial evidence,” wrote Judge Lucinda Jesson in the court’s opinion.

The court sent the issue back to the city of Cohasset to issue a new EIS decision.

The court decision “is a major victory for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of respecting the sovereignty and treaty rights of Indigenous nations,” said Faron Jackson Sr., chair of the Leech Lake Band.

Tribal authorities argued that Cohasset and state agencies failed to consult with the tribe until late in the project’s development. The band has expressed concern about the project’s impacts on air pollution, nearby wild rice stands, and the reservation’s forests and treaty-protected resources — the mill would require about 400,000 cords of wood cut per year.

A spokesperson for Huber said the company is “evaluating the impact” of the decision and doesn’t have specific comments to offer at this time.