WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan asked federal lawmakers Friday to approve a land exchange that would benefit the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.

"It facilitates an important mining project for our national economy, for our national security," Nolan, a DFLer, testified to a panel of lawmakers.

Nolan is pushing a bill he sponsored to give 6,650 acres from the Superior National Forest to PolyMet Mining Corp., in exchange for other land owned by the company.

The hearing Friday before a House subcommittee suggested that Republicans are ready to get behind Nolan's plan, which has drawn criticism from some environmental groups in Minnesota.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who chairs the federal lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, noted that state and federal agencies had reviewed and documented the PolyMet project, producing an environmental-impact statement that ran some 3,500 pages.

"Clearly, this has been analyzed and delayed enough," McClintock said. "It is time to take action and expedite the transfer."

The land deal already has been approved by the U.S. Forest Service, but four lawsuits have challenged the decision over allegations that the measure undervalued federal land and threatened endangered species.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, the panel's ranking member, noted the legal cases at the hearing.

"The proposed copper mine that is the catalyst for the land exchange is a controversial project and we should be wary of tipping the scales. ... Where there is active litigation, the courts need time to consider the allegations before Congress renders them moot," Hanabusa said.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa wrote to the committee in opposition, saying that transferring the targeted piece of land to private ownership would intrude on the tribe's treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather natural resources there.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the plaintiffs, raised questions about several points in Nolan's testimony, including that PolyMet's minerals would further national security.

The center noted that PolyMet is a Canadian company whose largest shareholder is Glencore, a Swiss conglomerate that would own the first five years' worth of minerals produced.

"If minerals produced by PolyMet are essential for U.S. national security, they should not be sold to foreign corporations to be shipped overseas for processing into metals," the center said in a statement.

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433