U.S. House approves PolyMet land exchange bill

PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry

The U.S. House of representatives this week has approved a bill that would allow PolyMet Mining Corp. (PLM) to exchange land to accommodate its NorthMet project, pending approval by the Senate.

House members also approved legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Emmer.  It addresses the federal government’s reluctance to renew mineral leases sought by Twin Metals Minnesota.

The first bill, called the "Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017," was introduced by Rep. Rick Nolan (DFL). It passed the House on a 309 to 99 vote. It won't authorize the proposed project. Several permits are still subject to the state and federal review.

In January, the U.S. Forest Service authorized the land exchange, which has been opposed and challenged in court by environmentalist. In March, it was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

Nolan's bill directs the secretary of agriculture to move forward with the land exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service, the mining company said in a news release. The bill calls for the exchange to be completed within 90 days of its enactment.

“We are grateful to Rep. Nolan, the bill’s co-sponsors, and House leadership for their efforts to move this legislation forward,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet president and CEO. “While neither the legislative nor the administrative exchange would permit or approve construction of the mine, Congressional approval for the exchange provides certainty of process in developing the project by finalizing the land transfer.”

Terms call for PolyMet to receive approximately 6,650 acres of surface land above and around its NorthMet ore body, where the company hopes to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals. In exchange, the Superior National Forest receives 6,690 acres currently owned or controlled by PolyMet that will become part of the Superior National Forest.

A $425,000 equalization payment owed to PolyMet by the Forest Service as a result of the administrative exchange would be waived by the company in the legislative exchange, the company said.

Emmer's bill, called "Minnesota’s Economic Rights in the Superior National Forest Act,” requires mineral leases to be renewed for 10-year periods providing that the holder has met terms and conditions during the prior lease period.

At issue are 234,000 acres of land that non-ferrous mining opponents want placed off limits to mineral exploration. Leases originally were issued by the federal government in 1966 with a right of unlimited, successive 10-year renewals, according to Twin Metals Minnesota, the lessee. They were renewed by federal agencies without controversy in 1989 and 2004. Twin Metals filed the pending lease renewal application in mid-2013. A dispute arose last December, however, when the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture announced mineral leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would not be renewed. 

Jobs for Minnesotans lauded the passage of both measures. In a prepared statement, the group said "These bills protect fair process for multiple mineral development projects that have the potential to create thousands of jobs, plus approximately two additional jobs created in other industries for each mining job. We applaud this positive momentum in support of our crucial natural resource industry. A way of life for future generations of Minnesotans depends on our country’s commitment to timely, predictable and transparent regulatory processes at all stages of project development. We are thankful for these recent actions to support economic development and national security, and we hope for similarly positive outcomes as these bills move through the U.S. Senate.”