Representative Pete Stauber is ticked off that a federal judge in Minnesota recently lifted a hold on several lawsuits challenging the proposed PolyMet Mining Corporation’s copper-nickel mine.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen issued her decision Thursday in Minneapolis allowing environmental groups to move forward with lawsuits aimed at blocking PolyMet from exchanging 6,900 acres of private land for 6,500 acres of U.S. Forest Service land. PolyMet needs property in the Superior National Forest to build an open mine pit south of Babbitt.
The judge’s decision comes several weeks after Stauber, who represents Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, introduced his first piece of legislation, H.R. 527, the Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2019, which intends to stop the legal blockades on the land swap.
“My land exchange bill could’ve prevented all of this,” Stauber said during a phone interview Friday.
After nearly 15 years in the works, PolyMet President and CEO John Cherry told CBS 3 Duluth on Thursday that the corporation has been preparing for construction of the $945 million mine despite the pending legal challenges.
“We followed the rules,” Cherry said. “We used the best science that’s available and we went through a very lengthy process with the regulators, whose responsibility it is to make sure we do it right. We got to the finish line on that. So, we’re excited to get started.”
Cherry added: “2019 should be when we break ground and get going.”
It was two years ago when the Forest Service approved the land swap, before in-state non-profit groups, such as the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Center for Biological Diversity, the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and WaterLegacy filed lawsuits arguing that the Forest Service undervalued the land and failed to see the potential harm that mining could have on threatened species and quality of downstream water.
Stauber’s predecessor, former Representative Rick Nolan, along with co-sponsors, including congressman turned Gov. Tim Walz, put forward their own version of the Superior National Land Exchange Act that year. It passed on a 309-99 vote in the U.S. House in November 2017. Ericksen then moved to put the cases on hold last March, while Congress considered the land swap. Then Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith included the measure as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. That passed on a 85-10 vote in the U.S. Senate last June. But by last July, members of the Senate-House conference committee dropped the amendment from the final version of the NDAA, which is a set of federal laws on the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Defense.
This week, Ericksen decided that she would lift the hold on the lawsuits since the Congressional session ended without the bill passing. That means environmental groups have yet another chance to reverse the land swap between PolyMet and the Forest Service.
“With the judge’s order lifting the stay, the courthouse door has swung open to allow due process for citizens,” Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy told a reporter from the Duluth News Tribune on Thursday. “WaterLegacy and other environmental groups who are challenging the PolyMet land exchange as a violation of federal public lands and environmental laws will have a chance to have their cases heard on their merits.”
The new judgement isn’t sitting well with Stauber, who insists the environmental groups are standing in the way of hundreds of mining jobs and economic growth for his constituents on the Iron Range. He argues that PolyMet met every environmental standard required by federal and state agencies and, in so doing, received several permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last November and also from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last December.
“This is the opposition: anti-mining folks, who after losing arguments using science and technology are now pushing forward with activism to stop this project,” Stauber said. “They are using the courts as their last resort.”
Polymet needs only one wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the greenlight to build the first ever copper-nickel mine in Minnesota.
“We are blessed to have these minerals in Minnesota and they’re going to be mined by our miners, our union workers,” Stauber said. “These are good-paying jobs for Minnesotans and they will be here for many years to come.”
But PolyMet, which is based in Minnesota and headquartered in Canada, is still having to navigate legal challenges posed not only by the two-year-old lawsuits but from more recent opposition groups. For example, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are disputing a state DNR approved safety permit in the Minnesota Court of Appeals following the dam burst at a mine in Brazil last week. The incident reportedly contaminated water downstream, while killing at least 115 people and left 248 others missing.