PolyMet Mining Co. cleared a significant hurdle in its hopes to build an openpit copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota on Jan. 9 when the U.S. Forest Service backed a major land trade that will grant PolyMet access to the land where it plans to build the mine.
The Forest Service announced its final “record of decision’’ on the land swap that will see PolyMet receive access to 2,690 ha (6,650 acres) at the mine site between Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt.
In exchange, PolyMet already has purchased the rights to 2,707 ha (6,690 acres) of undeveloped private land within the boundary Superior National Forest that will now transfer to the Forest Service, The Associated Press reported.
PolyMet’s total contiguous surface rights will be approximately 19,000 acres (30 square miles) including the existing Erie Plant, tailings basin, areas to the north, east and west of the tailings basin, the transportation corridor between the mine site and the plant, as well as land above and surrounding the ore body.
“The Forest Service decision further validates both the Final Environmental Impact Statement and the comprehensive process supporting this Final Record of Decision. This is an incredibly important milestone for PolyMet as we consolidate the surface land and mineral ownership in and around the NorthMet ore body and Erie Plant site,” said Jon Cherry, president and CEO.
Access to the federal land at the mine site is critical for the PolyMet project which still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands and other water issues involved with the project.
PolyMet also must secure more than 20 state and federal permits for the mine with those expected later this year.
The Forest Service approval comes just weeks after the agency issued an opinion that could scuttle the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely, just 30 miles northeast of the PolyMet site. Federal agencies under the Obama administration said the Twin Metals project is too close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to allow. That decision could be overruled by the incoming Trump administration. PolyMet is in the St. Louis River/Lake Superior watershed, while Twin Metals is in the BWCAW/Rainy River watershed.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), applauded the Forest Service decision on PolyMet.
“This is wonderful news for our Iron Range,” Nolan said in a statement. “We are another step closer to making the Polymet initiative a reality. I will continue to work with the appropriate agencies to ensure that the proposed project moves forward in an efficient manner.”
PolyMet supporters say the all-new kind of mining will employ 300 people and pump $550 million into the regional economy each year, a welcome diversification in an area hard-hit by the cyclical iron ore industry.
PolyMet’s Environmental Impact Statement was approved in 2015 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after a nearly 10-year environmental review period that included a do-over after the initial review was deemed inadequate by federal regulators. Toronto-based PolyMet, which is one-third owned by Swiss commodities giant Glencore, is a so-called “Canadian junior” mining company, and the Hoyt Lakes mine is the only project it has. The company will need to raise more than half a billion dollars from investors and lenders to actually build out the mine, with financing likely to come after permits are approved.
If permits are issued construction is expected to take about two years.