The 6,000 acres of Superior National Forest land PolyMet wanted for its proposed copper-nickel mine, it will now get.
The U.S. Forest Service said Monday it agreed to trade about 6,650 acres of land it owns and manages on the southern edge of the forest to PolyMet, in exchange for 6,690 acres PolyMet controlled in the same area.
PolyMet wants the land so it can create this mine – a chance to blast into an underground area near Hoyt Lakes known as the Duluth Complex, which PolyMet calls one of the largest known undeveloped deposits of copper, nickel and other precious metals.
The land the Forest Service gets would all become part of Superior National Forest. PolyMet says it means 40 more acres of forest land, plus more wetlands under federal ownership and added lakes with water access for public or tribal use.
Why they did the deal
The Forest Service, in its order announcing the trade agreement, acknowledged all the opposition.
They got more than 22,500 individual objections during the public comment period, plus objections from the nearby Grand Portage and Fond du Lac Lake Superior Chippewa bands.
But, as the decision order explains, all of the issues the Forest Service needs to consider have been met (see page 13 here). When it comes to the environmental concerns or other impacts, that's up to other agencies to monitor and make sure requirements are being met by PolyMet – the forest supervisor has to assume that'll be upheld.
PolyMet was happy, saying the decision validates earlier decisions from agencies (such as the environmental impact statement getting the thumbs up). The company also called it an "important milestone."
Other groups though, like Friends of the Boundary Waters, were not. One exec there called it "a bad deal for taxpayers and the public," and argued the risks to nearby waters – specifically the St. Louis River, Lake Superior, and downstream communities – are too great.
PolyMet has frequently pitched this as a "safe" mining project, saying it will comply with all state and federal pollution standards and avoid important watersheds. The company has also touted the 360 jobs expected to come with the mine.
The deal still has to be finalized after some oversight requirements.
So is the mine happening now?
No. It's still not even close.
The land swap does nothing to change the permits process PolyMet has to go through before it can start construction – and oh boy is that a long process.
PolyMet has to secure multiple permits from the DNR, plus air and water permits from the Pollution Control Agency, to even start the project.
And built in to the timeline are spots where the public gets weeks of time to offer feedback or attend public meetings. Check out the DNR's timeline (specifically for the permits it issues):
So if the mine does eventually get approved, it's likely months and months away at the earliest.