Court rules in favor of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe on proposed Huber Mill project
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in a case opposing the construction of the Huber Engineered Woods facility near the tribe’s borders.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that an engineered wood factory that was proposed to be built near the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's borders must undergo additional environmental study.
This decision requires Huber Engineered Woods’ proposal to be sent back to the city of Cohasset for further review, reversing the city’s earlier decision when it didn't support the band's request for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement.
The court has ordered Cohasset to further study the proposal’s effects on wetlands and issue a new decision on whether an EIS is needed. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy represented the Leech Lake Band in this case.
In a first for Minnesota, the Court of Appeals also recognized that tribal governments have expertise that must be considered when a project’s proposal threatens treaty rights.
“Based on the Leech Lake Band’s sovereign status and environmental expertise, we accord significant weight to its comments (in environmental review) and arguments in this appeal,” the documents announcing the decision said.
This decision by the Court of Appeals was greatly welcomed by the LLBO.
“The court decision issued today is a major victory for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of respecting the sovereignty and treaty rights of Indigenous nations,” said Faron Jackson Sr., chairman of the Leech Lake Band. “The proposed OSB Mill project posed a clear threat to our sacred resources, including wild rice and wildlife, while bypassing an important step in the environmental review process.”
Huber is seeking to build a 750,000-square-foot facility one mile from the boundary of Leech Lake Nation. The site is home to a highly sensitive wetland near Blackwater Lake which contains more than 300 acres of wild rice. The plant would also emit significant amounts of air pollution, producing an estimated 517,370 tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
“We will continue to work toward protecting our resources, our environment and preserving our way of life for future generations,” Jackson added.
Opposition to the project
Despite its proximity, neither the state of Minnesota nor the city of Cohasset consulted Leech Lake about the proposal. The band only learned of it when a press release announcing the project was issued, which also included the state’s intent to excuse the proposal from laws that typically require projects of its magnitude to undergo and EIS due to their significant potential to disrupt the environment.
Rather than an EIS, the release indicated Huber would only need to conduct a cursory environmental review, called an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, that would be reviewed and approved by Cohasset. Opponents worried that Cohasset would not be able to be impartial due to its vested interest in the project.
Besides opposition from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the project also faced notable resistance from local environmental and Indigenous-led organizations, including Honor the Earth, which held several events around northern Minnesota to raise awareness about the proposal.
Leech Lake filed extensive comments during the project's EAW process, alerting the city that the facility would have significant impacts on its treaty resources and should be subjected to an EIS. Cohasset denied that request and the band appealed, leading to the court’s decision.
In the opinion, the court specifically found that the city failed to consider the impacts of the project on wetlands at the site and nearby. The project site has two public waters wetlands that could be eliminated by the project. The court also recognized that wetlands downstream from the site, including the Blackwater wild rice bed, could be significantly affected by the project.
“We look forward to working with Cohasset as they reconsider the environmental review on these important issues,” said Ben Benoit, the interim executive director for Leech Lake. “The Leech Lake Tribal Council is excited to discuss regional economic policy, creation of jobs and bringing projects to our region, but not at the expense of our homeland.”