Environmental groups in Minnesota and a Native American group have sued federal agencies over their approval of a land swap with PolyMet.
In 2018, the company swapped 6,900 acres of its land for 6,500 acres of U.S. Forest Service land where it plans to build its open-pit copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, a coalition led by the Center for Biological Diversity argued the Forest Service relied on an erroneous 2016 biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said the land swap would not harm Canada lynx. , which is considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers were named in the complaint.
A similar coalition of groups first filed the lawsuit in 2017, but a federal judge in 2019 dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, leaving the door open for the lawsuit to be refiled.
Marc Fink, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Forum News Service that a provision in the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to resume consultation in the face of new information.
He highlighted the plight of another endangered species, the northern bat, which has since been devastated by white nose syndrome. The Forum News Service in 2019 reported that a cave in the Sudan Tower underground mine had seen a 90% decline in population just six years after the disease was discovered in the cave.
“At the time the biologic advisory was prepared, white nose syndrome had not yet made its way into Minnesota,” Fink said. “The numbers have really dropped since then.”
The Center for Biological Diversity was joined in the lawsuit by Save Lake Superior Association, Save our Sky Blue Waters, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest and Duluth for Clean Water.
Separately, the Lake Superior Chippewa Fond du Lac Band on Monday filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota against the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The band said potential pollution from the project would infringe its “right to hunt, fish and gather everywhere” in the area it ceded to the federal government in 1854.
The group said when the United States acquired the land in 1935, it was under the Weeks Act, which was intended to produce the headwaters of the St. Louis River.
“The Weeks Act only authorizes the Forest Service to exchange Federal lands if the lands to be acquired are ‘predominantly valuable’ for the purpose of ‘regulating the flow of navigable streams or for the production of timber'” , the band wrote.
The band asked the court to declare that the swapped lands violated federal law and to “reverse and rescind Forest Service approvals regarding the land swap and the land swap itself, including regulatory transactions and associated real estate.
PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson said the company is reviewing the complaints and intends to participate in the lawsuits.
PolyMet is planning an open pit mine, tailings pond and processing facility near Hoyt and Babbitt lakes. The mine is said to be the first of its kind in Minnesota, but a number of its permits continue to face legal challenges.
Opponents fear its location in the Lake Superior watershed could lead to widespread pollution from acidic runoff.