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Federal land sale just makes sense

Mesabi Daily News
June 28, 2008

PolyMet Mining has exclusive rights to mine the minerals of its 4,300-acre deposit that is surrounded by active and abandoned taconite mines in the mining district near Hoyt Lakes.

In 1935, the former owner, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp., sold the surface rights to the property while maintaining the mineral rights; the U.S. Forest Service acquired the surface lands and designated the acreage as part of the National Forest System. PolyMet has worked cooperatively with U.S. Congressman James Oberstar, D-Minn., to come up with a solution that allows the USFS to purchase strategic lands elsewhere consistent with its goals for the forest while allowing PolyMet to exercise the rights under its mineral lease. This solution requires federal legislation.

What would the legislation allow?

The proposed legislation simply allows the USFS to sell its surface ownership of the 6,700-acre site to PolyMet. The sale price would be at appraised market value (using the same process as the land exchange) and would provide sale proceeds directly to the USFS to acquire other land areas it deems more desirable to bring into the Superior National Forest.

Why is a land sale preferred over a land exchange?

A sale of the surface land to PolyMet would simplify replacement of the surface land for the USFS while providing an immediate pool of cash for the USFS to purchase land, including wetlands, outside of the already establishing mining district and more conducive to the character of the Superior National Forest.

The alternative to a land sale would be a "land exchange" that would require a protracted and expensive process for the USFS that also would increase costs to taxpayers.

Does the land sale ensure adequate environmental oversight?

Yes. PolyMet already is participating in a thorough joint State and Federal Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed project. All potential impacts from the project are being reviewed by state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service. PolyMet is committed to the environmental review process; the company has invested $15 million and more than three years to ensure the project is environmentally sound. The project EIS provides a comprehensive review of all potential impacts from the project, including impacts on lands, and allows for ample public input and comment.

Another separate EIS for the land exchange would be limited in scope – reviewing only the impact to the Superior National Forest of removing the 6,700 acres within the mining district and replacing them with the lands to be exchanged.

Is the land sale in the best interest of the Superior National Forest?

Yes. The 6,700-acre site is in the heart of the mining district, located directly south of a large open pit mine and directly north of mine railroad, mining road, and power line – creating a virtual "island" of Superior National Forest land in the midst of the mining district. Because it's surrounded by mining operations, the land is difficult to access and utilize as a forest. The money generated from the sale of the parcel to PolyMet would allow forest managers to purchase land parcels, including wetlands that are contiguous to and more consistent with the forest plan. The legislation specifically requires the USFS to purchase desirable private holdings within and adjacent to the Superior National Forest and to offset any loss of wetlands from the sale by the acquisition of wetlands within or adjacent to the forest.

Does this proposal exclude public input?

No. The legislation process itself provides public input. And the current project EIS, a comprehensive environmental review that contemplates the full impacts of the entire project, includes several opportunities for public input including public hearings, public meetings and the request for written comments.

Does this create a precedent for giving away forest lands?

No. This will not be precedent-setting; in fact, the same process has been used before on National Forest lands. The legislation clearly requires the sale of the land at the appraised value – the same process that would be used for a land exchange.

Does the land sale create a windfall for a private business?

No. PolyMet will pay the same price for the property whether the transfer is done through a land exchange or through the land sale legislation. The USFS, and ultimately taxpayers, will receive a significant windfall – acquiring more valuable forest lands and avoiding the cost of a second EIS that would be less comprehensive than the existing EIS process. Either the land exchange or legislation will have the same outcome in regards to the aspect of surface value.

In short, the legislation allowing the land sale to move forward makes sense.

It makes sense because it allows the U.S. Forest Service to acquire the resources to choose lands that will enhance the Superior National Forest in exchange for a parcel of land currently surrounded by mining operations and encumbered by mining leases.

It makes sense because the public has significant opportunities to participate in the legislative process, as well as the ongoing environmental review being conducted by state and federal agencies for the PolyMet project.

It makes sense because the environmental impacts of the project – including the impact on lands – are being reviewed thoroughly in the project EIS – a three-year, $15 million study that is more comprehensive than one that would look only at a small portion of the project.

It does not make sense to subject the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. taxpayers to an expensive and time consuming exchange process that in the end results in the same or less desirable outcome.

Letter writer misrepresented my Polymet legislation

Letter to the editor from Congressman Jim Oberstar
The Timberjay Newspapers
June 24, 2008

Bob Tammen's June 13 letter to the Timberjay misrepresents my legislation to authorize the sale of land in the Superior National Forest to Polymet Mining Inc.

To be clear, my legislation does not waive the opportunity for a proper environmental assessment or public input regarding the Polymet mining project. Polymet is in the final stages of an environmental permitting process that it began in 2004. In order to obtain the state and federal permits for the project, Polymet will need to have an approved plan to minimize, mitigate or replace any wetlands impacted by the company's operations.

Another part of the environmental review currently underway is an extensive environmental impact statement (EIS) on this project that is being prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A draft of the EIS is due to be released in August and will be available for public review.

My legislation is designed to expedite the sale of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to Polymet. This land is adjacent to the North Shore taconite mine and the former LTV mining plant. It has been logged extensively over the years and is not considered to be prime property by the (USFS). This land sale is in the public interest because it will generate funds for the USFS to purchase land that will enhance the Superior National Forest's biological diversity.

Finally, our region needs the 400 good-paying, long-term jobs that Polymet will bring to the Iron Range. I will do all I can to advance this project in an expeditious and environmentally-responsible manner.

Study: Duluth Metals has more ore resources

Mesabi Daily News
June 6, 2008

ELY – A new study's finding that Duluth Metals' indicated resources for non-ferrous mining are 30 percent larger and better in quality has one company official feeling very positive.

Rick Sandri, Duluth Metals president and CEO, said Friday the resources indicated are now at 808 million short tons, up from 505 million short tons previously. If projected mining production is carried at the level of 7 million tons annually, the new figures would show a mine life of 105 years, up from an early estimate of only 25 years.

"It's a huge increase,'' he said of the numbers in the study, which was done by Scott Wilson Roscoe Postle Associates Inc. "Our grade has increased overall,'' he added. For the metrically minded, the increase in indicated resources has gone from 455 million metric tons to 733 million metric tons (2,204 lbs. each). A short ton is 2,000 lbs.

Duluth Metals, one of a number of firms considering non-ferrous operations, is drilling for samples for a proposed underground mine 13 miles southeast of Ely (and 15 miles northeast of Babbitt) that would produce copper, nickel and precious metals including palladium, platinum and gold.

Drilling for samples is ongoing with five rigs going daily in the company's Nokomis Deposit leases, Sandri said. A prefeasibility study is expected to be done by early 2009, with a final feasibility study by 2010, he added.

Duluth Metals would expect to use a closed hydrometallurgical circuit process, as they've signed up with the same company that has worked with PolyMet Mining on their process. "We are looking at a prospective processing site'' at the Dunka Pit, a former taconite mining pit, which could be used for their tailings, Sandri said. And since it would be underground, "our surface impact will be very small,'' he said.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Special legislation introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., for a proposed land exchange or sale from Superior National Forest lands to PolyMet Mining for its proposed mine would help expedite its start-up, an Oberstar aide said Friday.

The bill, still early in the process, was advanced "at the request of the Forest Service and PolyMet,'' John Schadl, Oberstar communications director, told the Mesabi Daily News.

The 6,700 acres in question, about six miles east of the former LTV Mining plant PolyMet will be using, includes 4,000 acres PolyMet has had mineral rights to since early into its acquisitions of former mining lands, and which the non-ferrous mining company has been negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service over, explained LaTisha Gietzen, PolyMet Range spokesperson. About 2,700 acres was added to the mix as the Forest Service didn't want to leave an "island'' apart from the main forest, she added.

Another reason for the proposal is in the differing viewpoints over mineral leasing and surface lands.

"We believe we have the right to mine, and their interpretation is we don't,'' Gietzen said, so PolyMet is seeking the purchase for the project.

The company sees three avenues it could pursue: Interpretation of their mineral rights; legislation to directly allow a land purchase; or a land exchange, several of which proposals are advancing, she added.

Opponents of the PolyMet project, who in the past have voiced concerns about possible sulfides into the watershed as a result, "have every opportunity to comment on the proposed project environmental impact statement,'' Gietzen said. The ongoing state-federal EIS now being done covers the entire mining project, she added.

The Forest Service's approach to the land deal would be in several phases, selling the land to PolyMet, and then specifically acquiring parcels from private land owners within Superior Forest with funds from that sale, Superior Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders said Friday from Duluth.

Sales would be at appraisal rates, with purchases on a value basis, and with one objective being getting the forest out of mine development areas, he added.

Land purchases for the forest aren't uncommon, as "private owners come to us every year,'' offering to sell, he said.

There are no budgeted funds for land purchases now, Sanders said. Acquisitions of private land are "totally dependent on the sale to PolyMet,'' he said.