Judge Rejects Environmental Challenge to Minnesota Copper Mine

(CN) – A federal judge in Minnesota dismissed eight environmental groups’ challenges to the construction of an open-pit copper mine that they argue will destroy protected habitat and imperil several species in the Superior National Forest.

A former iron ore processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., that would become part of a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine was photographed here on Feb. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled Monday that the groups lacked legal standing to pursue their claims in her courtroom in Minneapolis. Ericksen rejected four lawsuits filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The groups had asked the court to halt construction and operations at PolyMet’s 588-acre open-pit copper and nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.

One of the plaintiffs was the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity. It alleged in a March 2017 complaint that the mine would wipe out 4,000 acres of habitat for species protected under the Endangered Species Act, including gray wolves, Canada lynx and northern long-eared bats.

In early 2017, the Trump administration opened up the land as part of an exchange with PolyMet that allowed it to obtain title to almost 6,550 acres of federal land valued at about $4 million. An appraiser valued the privately owned land that PolyMet gave to the U.S. Forest Service at about $3.7 million, according to court records. The government agreed to pay PolyMet $425,000 to finalize the land deal.

Ericksen wrote in her 50-page ruling that the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups did not show how the exchange would impact their enjoyment of the land’s “aesthetic and recreational values.”

“The land exchange itself will not result in negative effects to Canada lynx, gray wolves, or the northern long-eared bat,” Ericksen wrote. “Unless and until Poly Met Mining secures the permits needed to build a mine, nothing in the record indicates it intends any changes to the federal land after the land exchange that would result in negative effects to Canada lynx, gray wolves, or the northern long-eared bat.”

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the court’s ruling.

Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, did not say whether the group would appeal but said it was weighing its options. He noted that state courts had issued temporary injunctions against permits that would allow PolyMet to begin construction of the mine.

“There’s no dispute that the PolyMet mine would destroy more than a thousand acres of critical habitat for lynx and wolves,” Fink wrote in an email. “The only question is at what point can concerned citizens challenge the agency’s decisions about these endangered species.”

Ericksen also found that the other groups including WaterLegacy, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and Sierra Club North Star Chapter lacked legal standing. The judge granted PolyMet’s motion to dismiss all lawsuits.

PolyMet President and CEO Jon Cherry did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. He said in prepared remarks that the ruling confirmed that the open-pit mine had been through “a rigorous and lengthy environmental review and permitting process.”

“We are grateful for the court’s thoughtful and careful consideration of this matter and pleased that a longer process in the district court now will be avoided,” Cherry said.

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