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Stauber’s first act: clear path for PolyMet

Pete Stauber

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Barring action in Washington, D.C., before the end of the year, Congressman-elect Pete Stauber plans to take up legislation early in 2019 that would stem a series of legal challenges to copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, he said Monday, Dec. 10, in a news release.

Stauber, R-Hermantown, encouraged the current Congress to pass legislation ratifying a land exchange between PolyMet Mining Co. and the U.S. Forest Service. If not, Stauber said he would take up the mantle from predecessor Rick Nolan and try to press the land swap into law.

“We both strongly agree on the importance of environmentally safe mining in northern Minnesota,” Stauber said in his news release statement. “If this legislation doesn’t become law, one of my first acts in the 116th Congress will be to introduce Nolan’s land exchange bill so we can unleash the economic engine in the 8th District and create good-paying jobs for working families in our region.”

Since Congress has authority over federal lands, approval by federal lawmakers would serve to shield the land transaction by snuffing existing court challenges made by opponents of the land swap.

Nolan said last week he was continuing to try to get the legislation amended onto one bill or another prior to the end of the year.

“We’ve still got to get it through the Senate, and I’m working to see if we can get it through on an omnibus land exchange bill, since there is more than one land exchange (nationally),” Nolan said. “I’d like to get it somewhere in one of these bills that’s going to be passed in the last couple weeks.”

Critics described Stauber and Nolan as “tripping over themselves” in an effort to bypass the courts.

“They’re apparently afraid that this illegal land exchange will get thrown out in court, so they’re trying to change the law,” said Marc Fink, the Duluth-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in four lawsuits challenging the land exchange.

When Leah Phifer challenged an incumbent Nolan for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor 8th District nomination in late 2017, she cited his effort to ratify the land exchange in Congress. She was convinced PolyMet was decidedly a state issue and not to be intervened with by the federal government. Nolan later announced his resignation rather than face a divided party nomination process.

Nolan, DFL-Crosby, first introduced the Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act early in 2017. The actual land exchange was closed on by the parties involved last summer.

“The land exchange closed in June, and titles have changed hands,” said PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson, who also welcomed Stauber’s announcement, adding, “We are using the means that are available to us to ensure the success of the project, including congressional action.”

The deal guarantees PolyMet access to 6,500 acres of mine-site land north of Hoyt Lakes once belonging to the U.S. Forest Service. In exchange, the Superior National Forest got about 6,900 acres of formerly private land within the boundaries of the forest.

Opponents say lawmakers would be bailing out of their credible legal challenges.

The Center for Biological Diversity argues in its lawsuit that the land swap would destroy important habitat for the gray wolf and Canada lynx. Fink called the legislative alternative “an appalling end-run that would ultimately endanger public health as well as destroy thousands of acres of wetlands in the headwaters of Lake Superior.”

In another of four lawsuits, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy challenged the appraisal of the federal land as timber land, saying the Forest Service failed to take into account a mineral component and, in doing so, cost taxpayers and landowners what amounted to a fair exchange.

But a judge’s ruling last March in U.S. District Court created an indefinite stay on the court challenges. The judge based the holding pattern on the potential for congressional action.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said it has waited 17 months to proceed with its lawsuit and that it could have had its case heard by now.

“Our frustration has to do with the fact that it’s a pretty simple case that’s instead been dragged out due to the interminable threat of legislation,” spokesman Aaron Klemz said. “The courts have made it clear that if the suit were heard it could reverse the transaction, and we could claw back the fact that PolyMet (now) owns the land.”

The exchange was already approved with bipartisan support once in the House, but was dropped at the last minute from the National Defense Authorization Act last summer as it went through U.S. Senate-House conference committee.

“As the Congressman-elect of the 8th Congressional District I am encouraging the current Congress to support legislation introduced by Rep. Nolan that would finalize the land exchange in northern Minnesota for PolyMet Mining,” Stauber said — making good on his campaign promise to support mining expansion in all its forms.

Meanwhile, opponents continue to hope to see their day in court. Klemz is tracking the land exchange’s progress from one bill to another, and wondered aloud if it would ever stick.

“They’ve tried before and they’ve failed in a number of attempts to attach this piece of legislation,” Klemz said. “In the end, it should be something the courts should look at.”