Enviros Challenge Land Swap in Mine Deal

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Environmentalists claim in court that the government inaccurately appraised federal property when it approved a land-exchange deal for the development of an open-pit, copper-nickel mine in the Superior National Forest.

WaterLegacy filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in Minnesota federal court on Monday over its approval of the PolyMet NorthMet Land Exchange, also called PMLE, claiming the agency did not comply with federal law.

According to the nonprofit’s complaint, the PMLE would allow PolyMet Mining Inc. to develop an open-pit, copper-nickel mine in the Superior National Forest.

The PMLE proposes the exchange of 6,650 acres of neighboring federal land in the national forest for 6,690 acres of private land in four tracts, the complaint states. WaterLegacy says the PMLE would be the largest land exchange ever conducted by the Forest Service.

The environmentalist group contends the federal land involved in the deal was valued solely for timber investment at $550 per acre, significantly lower than its true market value for mining.

“In valuing the federal lands at $550 per acre, the appraiser failed to compare recent sales of surface lands by private owners to mining company purchasers in Northeastern Minnesota, although the appraisal listed nine such private sales with prices ranging from $624 per acre to $2,556 per acre, at an average price of $1,645 per acre,” the lawsuit states.

The appraisal was completed by Compass Land Consultants Inc. in April 2015 and approved by the Forest Service three months later.

According to WaterLegacy, the Forest Service did not follow federal regulations and policies outlined in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, when it approved the PMLE.

Because the Forest Service ignored portions of the FLPMA, the group claims, there was a lack of consideration for mineral rights, failure to apply the best use to appraise the federal property, and failure to establish that the exchanged lands are of equal value.

“Forest Service approval of the PMLE was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and exceeded statutory authority and was otherwise not in accordance with applicable law,” the lawsuit states.

The PMLE will allow PolyMet to develop the open-pit, copper-nickel mine in sulfur-bearing rock, according to the complaint. WaterLegacy says it would be Minnesota’s first proposed mine to not involve iron or steel.

“The PolyMet mine would result in the excavation of three mine pits, with variable depths to 696 feet, and three waste rock stockpiles, one of which would be a permanent 526-acre waste rock pile,” the nonprofit claims.

According to the lawsuit, no permits have been issued for the proposed mine, and development would not proceed until PolyMet obtained a number of state and federal permits, including the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit for wetlands dredge and fill activities.

Some of the federal land in the PMLE includes property in the 100 Mile Swamp and the Upper Partridge River Site located in the headwaters to the St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior, the complaint states, in addition to property affecting Native Americans.

“The Superior National Forest federal lands proposed to be exchanged and some of the adjacent lands include lands where members of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe have rights to hunt, fish and gather plants on these lands under the Treaty of 1854,” WaterLegacy claims.

WaterLegacy seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the Forest Service to stop the land exchange before the title is transferred and the deal is finalized, and to prohibit the exchange until the Forest Service complies with the FLPMA.

The Forest Service declined to comment on the lawsuit in an email Monday afternoon. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell and Constance Cummins, forest supervisor of the Superior National Forest, are also named as defendants.

WaterLegacy says it was founded to protect Minnesota’s water resources and habitats, particularly from the threat of copper-nickel mining in sulfide-bearing ore in Northeastern Minnesota. It is represented by Paula Maccabee with Just Change Law Offices in St. Paul, Minn.