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Senate amendment would push PolyMet land exchange

WASHINGTON—A proposed amendment to a U.S. Senate bill funding military spending would bypass ongoing court cases and approve the land swap proposed between PolyMet Mining Co. and the U.S. Forest Service.

Senate Amendment 2523 to the National Defense Authorization Act, apparently proposed by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., would mandate the Forest Service move ahead with the trade of 6,650 acres of Superior National Forest land at the spot where PolyMet wants to dig Minnesota's first ever copper-nickel mine.

In exchange, PolyMet would give the Forest Service an equal value of what had been private forest land to add to the Superior National Forest.

Without the land deal PolyMet couldn't move forward with the mine, proposed for just north of Hoyt Lakes, which is currently awaiting state and federal mining and pollution permits.

Nearly identical legislation passed the full U.S. House in November as a stand-alone bill but has not advanced on its own in the Senate until now.

Bruce Richardson, PolyMet spokesman, said the company supports the amendment.

"The land exchange was part of an extensive state and federal environmental review that found that the PolyMet project can meet all applicable state and federal environmental standards,'' Richardson told Forum News Service. "The Forest Service, which was part of that independent review, approved the land exchange in its Record of Decision, determining that land exchange was in the best public interest."

The group Jobs for Minnesotans said they also support the amendment.

The lawsuits by opponents of the mine claim several missteps by the Forest Service when it approved the trade, including not fully considering the potential impact to endangered species and suppressing the true value of the mine site land.

Opponents of the PolyMet project, including the Sierra Club, on Friday, June 8, called the Senate amendment a "backroom deal'' that subverts federal environmental law. A coalition of Minnesota environmental groups want to wait for the results of four separate lawsuits that have been filed in federal courts to block the land deal. Those suits, however, currently are on hold pending any congressional action. Any law passed mandating the trade would trump any court decision.