Weather Forecast


Lake County DFL cries foul over Nolan support of U.S. House mining bill

In a strongly worded resolution, the Lake County DFL has launched a volley of criticism -- against one of its party's own.

In a 9-1 vote last Friday, the county party expressed its opposition to 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan's support of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, or H.R. 761.  

The bill, which passed the U.S. House in September with the support of 231 Republicans and 15 Democrats, Nolan among them, is seen by proponents as a means of streamlining the permitting process for mining projects.

Opponents are concerned that the legislation jeopardizes the environment in favor of mining companies -- in particular, those focused on non-ferrous mining such as the Polymet project proposed for Hoyt Lakes, which would affect waters in Lake County.

The resolution was submitted at a DFL party meeting in Ely by Fall Lake resident Brad Sagen.

"The bill would fast-track mining proposals and remove most of the environmental review and public participation. Sulfide-ore mining has never been done safely in North America," he said. "Northeastern Minnesota is a water-rich environment that would increase substantially the environmental damage found in every other sulfide-ore mine project."

Sagen's strongly worded resolution calls HR 761 "a blatant industry attempt to remove environmental review and environmental protection from proposals to introduce copper nickel mining in Northeastern Minnesota," and notes "the vast majority of House Democrats recognized this industry strategy and voted against the bill. Only Rep. Nolan and a handful of other Democrats voted in favor."

Lake County DFL Chair, Marlys Wisch, said she sent the correspondence to Nolan.

"I emailed and USPS-mailed the letter to Nolan's office in D.C." Wisch said, adding Nolan's vote seems to be a departure from promises he made before the election. "I would hope it (his reply) would be a personal type response and not a canned letter, but we will see."

In an April 12 interview with the Lake County News-Chronicle, just months after his election to the House, Nolan expressed concern about impending legislation.

"We're going to have a bill to do away with national environmental standards. I'm not going to support that," he said then. "(The bill) would allow unfettered access to mining and that's what they're trying to do. Basically that would be like saying to all the multi-national corporations, 'come on in and have your way with us.' We can't do that."

Just after voting in favor of H.R. 761, Nolan defended his decision.

"We need to streamline and standardize a broken mining permitting process that's needlessly blockading thousands of good-paying jobs, and billions of dollars in economic development, across Minnesota's Iron Range," he said in a press release, adding "even though it's not the bill I would have written, and even though it's unlikely to get through the Senate, that's why I crossed party lines and voted YES on H.R.761."

Wisch said the Lake County DFL wants jobs and is not opposed to mining  -- "just to the pollution it will cause, and the damage to our environment." She acknowledged that the promise of employment holds strong appeal in an area that built its economy on mining and related industries, but expressed concern that these jobs may come at a cost.

"The construction jobs at the front end of this project will be temporary, and then we have been told that there will be a more set amount of steady jobs. Well what of the now steady jobs that will be lost in the area when the pollution takes over?" She queried.

While Nolan's vote elicited disapproval from the vast majority of Lake County DFL committee members, one held fast against the resolution. Brad Jones, who also serves as a Lake County commissioner, said that Nolan's decision may have been more strategic than an effort to see the legislation passed.

"He also knew the bill probably didn't have a very good chance at getting through the Senate," Jones reasoned. In his estimation, Nolan's support of the bill was an effort to open up bipartisan conversations about mining regulations between deeply divided Democrats and Republicans in Congress until "a way could be figured out to move forward," Jones said.

For Jones, sulfide mining presents an opportunity for economic growth and security in the region, especially since one of the richest deposits of the sought-after non-ferrous metals is in Lake County. He said that current mining practices and regulatory oversight help ensure a safer extraction processes than has existed in the past.

"I personally feel that the technology exists so (metals) can be collected safely. (The mining companies) will be held to the strictest guidelines in the world," he said. "We can't live in a bomb shelter. We have to live above ground and live for the future."