Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lawsuit withdrawn after Minnesota Legislature exempts Iron Range Resources from Environmental Review

Press Release from the Center for Biological Diversity:*

DULUTH, Minn. -- A change in state law exempting Iron Range Resources from Minnesota’s environmental review requirements prompted conservationists today to dismiss their lawsuit against the agency. The lawsuit had been filed to challenge a premature and illegal loan by Iron Range Resources to PolyMet Mining Company, which is pursuing the state’s first open-pit sulfide mine but has not obtained the required environmental approvals. Instead of addressing the problems identified in the lawsuit, the state simply changed the longstanding rules to benefit the mining proposal.

During a Treaty Rights Teaching event held on May 15, 2010, at Eagle Rock before it was fenced off by Rio Tinto / Kennecott, Bob Tammen of Soudan, Minn., points out watersheds impacted by iron mining on the Minnesota iron range. Tammen, who worked 30 years in the Empire and Tilden mines, expressed special concern about PolyMet's proposed open-pit sulfide mine in Northeastern Minnesota, which would impact the Lake Superior watershed. Click on photo for larger version. (Keweenaw Now 2010 file photo)**

"Passing new legislation that weakens environmental requirements in response to a lawsuit is public policy at its worst," said Marc Fink, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The lawsuit was filed in January in response to the Iron Range Resources’ approval of a $4 million loan to PolyMet at its December board meeting. State agencies are prohibited by the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act from authorizing loans to projects that are still going through the environmental review process. The purpose is to ensure that there is no bias in favor of proposals prior to the completion of environmental review. In response, the state legislature passed a new law exempting Iron Range Resources from the definition of "government unit" under the statute.

"The new legislation undermines a critical component of environmental review, which is for the state to withhold permits, loans or approvals until it has been determined that a proposal meets the state’s environmental standards," said Betsy Daub, of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

The exemption of Iron Range Resources from the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act was offered as a floor amendment by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, when a related bill was being considered by the House of Representatives. No hearings were held on the exemption, there was no public notice, and the effect of the provision was not described fully before passage.

"We are extremely disappointed that the legislature exempted Iron Range Resources from environmental review without any public process," said Le Lind of Save Lake Superior Association. "The only reason an agency on the Iron Range is being treated differently is to bolster the highly controversial sulfide mine proposals."

In prior comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated the PolyMet mine proposal as "environmentally unsatisfactory-inadequate" due to unacceptable and long-term water-quality impacts. The tribal cooperating agencies also determined that the proposed mining project would need to treat wastewater for "hundreds or thousands of years" to avoid contamination of nearby surface waters. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently working with federal agencies to prepare a supplemental environmental analysis for the proposed PolyMet mine project after the initial draft received critical reviews from other agencies, tribal scientists and the public.

The proposed mine site is located on the Superior National Forest, but PolyMet owns the mineral rights. PolyMet’s proposed mine is not allowed on Superior National Forest lands, which has triggered a proposed land exchange between the Forest Service and PolyMet. The $4 million loan from the Iron Range Resources Board would be used by PolyMet to purchase lands to be exchanged with the Forest Service for the proposed mine site.

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Save Lake Superior Association, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Indigenous Environmental Network.

*The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of
endangered species and wild places.

** For more about Bob Tammen's presentation at the Eagle Rock Teaching event, see our May 19, 2010, article, "Updated: Treaty Rights Teaching at Eagle Rock attracts visitors."

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