Mention Rick Nolan, PolyMet and the environment in the same sentence and you’re likely to get a number of different reactions across Northeastern Minnesota. And for good reason;inconsistency creates confusion, and Nolan’s words and actions have not been consistent.
It is extremely difficult to communicate the many inconsistencies,nuances and perspectives in a clear and concise manner. Iron Country hopes this very general overview will help readers understand why Nolan is facing charges of flip-flopping and playing both sides, why he has a Green Party challenger and why many who once supported him can no longer do so.
Nolan says he supports both iron and copper-nickel mining but stresses projects must meet current environmental rules and regulations. Clearly states his belief that the technology exists to allow PolyMet to be done safely.
Nolan agrees that it takes too long for mining projects to be approved and supports streamlining the permitting process by improving coordination between agencies
Critics note that mining is conspicuously absent from the Nolan for Congress website, which discusses a number of issues ranging from jobs to the environment.
Nolan voices strenuous objections HR 4402, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act of 2012, because it deregulates the mining industry and expedites the permitting process by gutting existing environmental rules and regulations. It also incorporates a Cravaack amendment that would apply these new rules to projects already under review – in effect fast-tracking the PolyMet project
Nolan blasts his opponents for supporting the bill and vows never to support it if elected to Congress.
Nolan continually pounds on Cravaack for gutting environmental rules and regulations, which he says is completely unnecessary because mining companies, including PolyMet, don’t have a problem with meeting the current rules and regulations. They just want the permitting process to be more efficient, he says.
‘We don’t have to choose between jobs and the environment, the technology exists for us to do both. We just need to have the political will to do so’, becomes Nolan’s mantra.
Nolan blasts Cravaack for not doing anything that will actually move PolyMet along, claiming that HR4402 has no bipartisan support in the House (it did have one Democrat cosponsor) and no companion in the Senate thus it has no chance of being enacted. Says Cravaack has had two years to get the project permitted and all he has done is talk and support a bill that is not going anywhere.
In March, Nolan promises to author a bill that streamlines the permitting process for mining projects, similar to the bipartisan bill that passed in the Minnesota legislature.
Nolan, however, does no such thing and his failure to keep that promise proves to be a harbinger of things to come.
In June, Nolan issues a press release indicating the permitting process is working just fine for PolyMet.
Nolan also praised progress in the permitting process for PolyMet’s proposed copper, nickel, and precious metal mining operation near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota:
“In meetings with both PolyMet and the EPA, it’s clear that all parties are confident that the process is moving forward in a timely manner, and that PolyMet has been cooperative in agreeing to virtually all that has been asked of them. We have reason to feel confident that the process will produce positive results for the region,” Nolan said.
But Nolan is about to make a 180-degree turn that will stun many in the 8th district.
In September, the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act of 2013 (HR761) is scheduled for vote in House.
The bill contains language identical to HR4402 and, like that abomination, should properly be called the Mining Company Dream Act, for it allows the mining companies to run amok on federal lands at will – without paying one dime of royalties on the minerals they remove – and streamlines the permitting process by gutting NEPA and the Clean Water Act, essentially wiping out decades of hard work by John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar to reign in the mining companies and protect our workers,communities and environment.
And, it retains the language of the Cravaack amendment to apply the new rules to projects already under review, essentially fast-tracking the PolyMet project.
Nolan assures those concerned about the effects of deregulating the mining industry in general, and about relaxing environmental standards for PolyMet in particular, that he will keep his promise to vote against the bill.
But the day before the vote, Nolan tells the Mesabi Daily News that he’s going to vote for HR761 and even more astounding, says he comfortable voting for it!
But Nolan said he believes we can have both expedited permitting and environmental safety.
“I’m pro-mining. But I also very strongly believe we have to do it right. And we can. We have the brains and the technology to do so,” Nolan said.
So, is the congressman going to hold his nose and vote yes on the bill?
“No, I’m comfortable voting for it. It’s not the bill I would write, but they’re not asking me. But it’s a start in streamlining and standardizing the permit process,” Nolan said.
“We’re holding up a whole host of taconite projects alone at Essar, Minntac, KeeTac and Mesabi Nugget.”
Nolan does indeed vote for HR761, which passes the House on a party-line vote, but does not speak to the bill on the floor nor does he make any mention of the vote in social media – an odd omission for a congressman who never misses an opportunity to toot his own horn on everything from getting a haircut in the district to advocating price supports for Big Sugar.
He does, however, send out a press release so rife with doublespeak that it puts George Orwell to shame:
Even though this is not the bill I would have written, I voted YES on H.R. 761 because we need to streamline and standardize a broken mining permitting process that is delaying projects with the potential for thousands of good paying jobs, and billions of dollars in economic development, across Minnesota’s Iron Range. We are long past the time when we need to choose between good jobs and a healthy environment in our great nation. I will continue to do everything within my power to advance good paying mining jobs, and work for strong environmental protections in all the laws and policies that affect the mining industry.
The Duluth News-Tribune asks about the change in his position, but gets an equally murky response.
Nolan’s office said the difference this year is a “deeper appreciation on Congressman Nolan’s part for how the delayed and broken permitting process is holding back projects” on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Those who supported Nolan because of his vow to never vote for that bill and his strongly stated position that PolyMet must meet existing environmental standards in order to be approved are furious.
But they are told “There’s nothing to be upset about.The bill is not going anywhere.”
And that’s true. There is no companion in the Senate and the Obama Administration makes it clear HR761 is unacceptable to the president:
…The legislation also undermines existing law safeguarding the multiple uses of public lands by placing mining interests above all other uses. This change has the potential to threaten hunting, fishing, recreation, and other activities that create jobs and sustain local economies across the country. Furthermore, the Administration opposes the legislation’s severe restrictions on judicial review. Although the legislation purports to limit litigation, its extremely short statute of limitations and vague constraints on the scope of prospective relief that a court may issue are likely to have the opposite effect.
But at the same time Nolan is assuring those opposed to PolyMet that HR761 is indeed the same Bill-To-Nowhere that HR4402 was in 2012, he is proclaiming to PolyMet supporters that the bill will get the ball rolling on the project.
However, Nolan’s general messaging strategy on HR761 diverts attention away from PolyMet and towards iron mining projects he says are being delayed due to permitting problems, citing Essar Steel as one example. But Essar Steel is already permitted and under construction and facing delays only due to difficulty obtaining financing.
His sound bite on HR761 is another read-into-it-what-you-like statement:
I am supporting federal legislation to streamline the permitting process, while working to assure strict, fair and timely environmental review.
And the doubletalk continues…
Nolan tells those who support PolyMet and those who support iron (but not necessarily copper-nickel) mining that he is working hard to get the bill passed.
But in a response to a constituent upset about his support for HR761, Nolan indicates his work on the bill consists of urging John Boehner, Harry Reid and President Obama to work it out amongst themselves.
Yeah, that’s going to happen.
But reality doesn’t dissuade Nolan from using the vote for HR761 to his advantage on the Range, and use it he does, repeatedly citing this vote as evidence he is a champion of mining and working hard to get PolyMet permitted.
But Nolan doean’t keep his promise to introduce his own bill to streamline the permitting process for mining projects, one that could garner the bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate and land on the president’s desk.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are growing more and more dissatisfied with Nolan – or more precisely, with his lack of candor They say Nolan lied to them in 2012 and again just before the vote on HR761- and that he refuses to explain his actions.
They are not happy campers.
Nolan’s attempt to bring them back into the fold takes the form of a climate change forum, sponsored at his request by Twin Cities environmentalists who likely remember Nolan was an original cosponsor of Rep. Don Fraser’s 1978 bill to designate every inch of the BWCA as wilderness. Although held at UMD, environmental groups in Northeastern Minnesota are not a part of the conversation, learning about the forum only via social media shortly before the November event.
The forum is scheduled on the same day and at the same time as a regularly scheduled rally that draws many in the target group. Though attendance is expected to be minimal , the event is designed to be carefully controlled. No questions on mining and pipelines will be allowed and all others must be submitted in advance and screened by staff. This does not sit well with the crowd and Nolan eventually agrees to take questions from the floor.
But Nolan is not about to give straight answers about his flip-flop on HR761.
First, Nolan claims the bill, which made the Democratic hit parade of anti-environment bills, simply streamlines the permitting process and does not harm the environment. Then, after hearing they intend to find a candidate to challenge him if he continues to say one thing and do another, he acknowledges that it does indeed gut environmental regulations and assures the crowd that if it looks as though HR761 could actually be enacted, he will vote against it. Finally (and unbelievably), he claims that has been always his position and always will be.
That the crowd isn’t buying what he is selling doesn’t seem of much concern to Nolan, who points out that “elections are about alternatives” (him or a Republican) and barely breaks his stride as he scurries off to tell the Duluth News-Tribune how he remained “steadfast” despite opposition at the event and a scathing letter from the Lake County DFL criticizing him for his flip-flop on HR761.
Mr. Environment also has this to say about the 500-plus years of water treatment the PolyMet project would require
“Everything has a long-term impact. I mean, (Interstate 35 in Duluth) has a 500-year impact”
Well then, it seems there’s been much ado about nothing.
Meanwhile, Nolan continues to point out to those concerned about the ramifications of HR761 that the bill isn’t going anywhere. He denies working to fast-track PolyMet, insisting the project must follow the current process and meet existing rules and regulations in order to be permitted.
Up on the Range, it’s a different story. Nolan spins the anger over the flip-flop and doubletalk on HR761 as environmentalists being upset over his “strong support” for PolyMet and continues to cite his support of the bill as evidence he is working to speed up the permitting process for the project. And, he says, support of this bill confirms his commitment to help iron mining projects.
And he flatly denies backtracking on support for HR761.
Like his campaign website, mining remains conspicuously absent from Nolan’s official congressional site. And he doesn’t publicly come out hard for PolyMet until March 2014.
Nolan widely publicizes a detailed letter (complete with scientific analysis, assertions, and conclusions) in support of the project sent to Minnesota DNR that reads more like it came from the public relations department at PolyMet than from a concerned member of Congress acting on behalf of all his constituents. Further evidence, he tells Rangers, of how hard he’s working to speed up approval of the project, noting that a staffer testified on behalf of the project at the public hearing in St Paul.
Yet at the same time, Nolan deflects criticism from environmentalists about that testimony by saying the staffer was acting as an individual and points out that his letter in support of PolyMet is basically symbolic and does nothing to short-circuit the review or speed up the permitting process for the project.
But there is trouble brewing for Nolan, as area environmentalists make good on their promise to recruit a challenger and PolyMet supporters become increasingly aware of the game Nolan is playing.
Nolan now focuses his efforts on convincing constituents that he is not playing both sides nor has he flip-flopped on his stated positions on PolyMet or the environment.
Nolan’s congressional website is updated to contain a section on mining that reflects general campaign talking points. The campaign website makes only a passing mention of mining and still does not include mining or PolyMet as an issue.
Nolan continually hammers home this familiar sound bite
“We need to recognize that we are long past the days of having to choose between good mining jobs and a clean environment. We have the brains and the technology to do both”
He embellishes it with tales of rivers catching on fire and noting that the mining companies have no problem meeting current environmental rules and regulations.
It is true that Nolan has said those things all along.
Unfortunately that is where his consistency ends. The same old doubletalk continues even as he protests to the contrary.
And Nolan isn’t talking about his recent endorsement from Environment Minnesota – at least, not in public and certainly not on the Iron Range.