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Nolan is taking big political risks with his sulfide-mining support

Courtesy of the author
Should Nolan be worried that I pulled his bumper sticker off my car?

A few days ago I walked out to our driveway and pulled my RANGERS FOR NOLAN bumper sticker off my old Subaru. Take THAT, Nolan!

Our Minnesota Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan, on most issues a principled Democrat, has morphed into a Trumpian dissembler and climber-into-bed-with-the-devil over the issue of sulfide-ore mining in the pristine watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

It is painful to hear and read the things coming out of Nolan’s mouth. It is also scary to think he may be putting himself in a precarious position to be re-elected in 2018 because of this stance. Five cases in point:

1. Nolan is making egregious and dubious claims about the economic promises versus the environmental risks of sulfide-ore (also known as copper-nickel) mining. He — or someone on his staff — needs to spend a couple of hours reading “A Short Course Handbook on the Environmental Geochemistry of Sulfide Mine-Wastes” (a 1994 publication of the Mineralogical Association of Canada edited by D.W. Blowes and J. L. Jambor and available as an e-book). As this document makes clear, what poses the real and lasting threat of sulfide-ore mining is the long-term (think centuries) storage of the toxic tailings long after a copper-nickel mine has shuttered and the owners of the multinational mining conglomerates are long dead and have passed on their treasures to their heirs. The vast capital of mining never stays in the communities where the mines are situated. Another informative book Nolan et al. should read is “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story about Copper, the Metal that Ruins the World,” by Bill Carter.

2. At the same time, Nolan chooses to ignore the economic benefits derived from the varied and sustainable businesses that thrive on eco-tourism and outdoor recreation in and surrounding the BWCA while putting in jeopardy the water quality and safety of one of the most unspoiled watersheds in North America.

3. To confuse things even more and make it look as though water and landscape conservationists are anti-mining and anti-mine worker, Nolan misleadingly tries to conflate sulfide-ore mining with iron-ore mining, which has been the backbone of the mining industry on the Iron Range for more than a century, when the two mining processes are not comparable and have different time horizons and environmental impacts. While I cannot speak for every last one of us, those who of us oppose sulfide-ore mining in the BWCA watershed are taking no issue with iron-ore mining. And there is broad support among us for labor unions and mine workers.

Suzanne Winckler

4. He echoes those who claim the Boundary Waters Canoe Area “belongs” to Iron Rangers when in fact the BWCA, like all national parks and wilderness areas, belongs to all the citizens of the United States. He gets away with this parochial blather because the thousands of people across America who advocate for protecting the BWCA from sulfide-ore mining do not vote in Minnesota’s Eighth District. The definition of what is an “Iron Ranger” is also troubling and personally annoying. My husband and I were not born on the Iron Range but have chosen to retire here — in large part because of the tranquility and beautiful landscapes. We own property on which we have paid taxes since 1989. We vote here. We shop locally. We volunteer in our communities. We are hard working and pro-union and respectful of all other hard-working people, including sleeping car porters, steelworkers, and mine workers. So we think of ourselves as Iron Rangers who respectively think sulfide-ore mining is not in the best interests of the Iron Range and Iron Rangers.

5. Nolan touts as “bipartisanship” his recent alliance with Minnesota’s Sixth District Republican Rep. Tom Emmer to eliminate funding for an already begun U.S. Forest Service study of mineral leases in the Boundary Waters watershed, which they tacked on as an amendment to a huge omnibus spending bill. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has recommended that this study proceed and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen from Minnesota’s Third District opposed the Nolan-Emmer amendment.

About the passage of this stealth amendment, Nolan provided this gobbledygook in his online newsletter to constituents: “My Minnesota Republican colleague Tom Emmer and I also teamed up to pass an amendment to ensure the integrity of the environmental review process for any future mining projects that might take place in designated areas of Superior National Forest.” Say what!? That sentence is classic Trump-speak. Rep. Nolan’s  amendment does exactly the opposite of ensuring integrity of the environmental review process.

Nolan is trying to get re-elected in 2018 in a district that in the last decade has started to abandon its Democratic-Farm Labor roots and has grown evermore conservative. He barely won in the last two cycles — by a 2 percent margin in 2014 (winning by 4,000 votes), which narrowed to a 1 percent margin in 2016 (winning by 2,000 votes). The sprawling Eighth District encompasses 18 largely rural counties and stretches from the Canadian border to the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Nolan carried only six of those counties in 2016 and only one (St. Louis County, which includes the city of Duluth) by a wide margin. Hillary Clinton, while carrying Minnesota, fared worse than Nolan in his district. Of the 18 counties, she won only four, three by very narrow margins. Her widest margin was in St. Louis County, thanks to the urban Duluth vote. As of September 2017 — 14 months from the election — the National Republican Congressional Committee has already started rolling out ads targeting Rick Nolan. 

I am not a political animal, but I think Nolan is taking some big risks with his headlong rush to embrace sulfide-ore mining and its proponents. I assume his calculus is that he can get away with insulting and alienating people like me — constituent-voters who support 90 percent of his agenda but oppose sulfide-ore mining in the BWCA watershed.

To win in 2018, Nolan can’t afford to lose any of the 180,000 people who voted for him in 2016. Does anyone know what percentage of those 180,000 voters is opposed to his pro-sulfide-ore-mining stance? And of that percentage, how many voters on Nov. 6, 2018, would decline to vote for Nolan on principle?

Let’s say, very conservatively, that 1 percent of Nolan’s 2016 voters defect in 2018 because of the sulfide-ore mining issue. That’s 1,800 voters, just shy of his margin of victory in 2016. To say the least, Nolan is unlikely to pick up 1,800 votes from the Republican camp!

Those defecting voters, whether they sit out the election or vote for a third-party green candidate (if there is one), will in essence be handing their votes to the Republican candidate — and ensuring one less Democrat in Congress. For that very reason, Nolan is betting those voters when push comes to shove will not abandon him, but if he keeps up his current rhetoric on sulfide-ore mining he may be doing so at his own peril.

Should Nolan be worried that I pulled his bumper sticker off my car?

Suzanne Winckler is a journalist who lives in Pike Township on the Iron Range. She has written for a number of publications, including Texas Monthly and The New York Times. She posts on the blog


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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by William Hansen on 10/20/2017 - 09:09 am.

    “Two terms and then encourage a bright, young Democrat…”

    I worked hard to help Rick Nolan win the DFL nomination in 2012. He told me several times that he would serve two terms and then find a bright, young Democrat to represent the 8th into the future.

    That bright, young Democrat, in my opinion, is Leah Phifer, who recently announced her intention to seek and abide by the DFL endorsement. Unlike Nolan, Phifer respects due process. She is a friend to mining, but wants to use real science to inform mining decisions.

    In my corner of the 8th District, Nolan has lost a large majority of the DFL. He is likely to lose the DFL endorsement and cannot win the general election. It’s time for him to honor the promise he made in 2012.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/20/2017 - 04:54 pm.

      She seems to be avoiding taking a position

      I appreciate the reference to Nolan’s challenger. I browsed both her exploratory website and her new campaign website for her positions on some of the hot-button issues in the 8th and found her very non-committal, an advocate for process rather than a specific outcome. While I can appreciate that not everyone has the time and energy necessary to understand the data on copper-nickel mining in the Arrowhead, I am surprised to find a candidate who hasn’t. Straddling this particular fence isn’t going to get her elected, IMO.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/23/2017 - 12:56 pm.


        “Process” is the new cop-out for politicians. No matter how much process there has been, you can always demand more.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/20/2017 - 10:52 am.

    I’m sympathetic

    I don’t live in Nolan’s district, so my view won’t count in any meaningful way in November, 2018, but were I a resident of the district, my inclinations are pretty similar to Ms. Winckler’s. I’m not usually a one-issue voter, but water quality in the Arrowhead is an exception. I’ve spent just enough time there recreationally—I don’t boat or fish, but I do like to hike and photograph, and have done so on various trails on the North Shore and elsewhere in the region—to understand the interconnectedness of the several watersheds and many lakes and rivers of the area. As a result, I couldn’t support Nolan, or any other candidate, who was in favor of the sulfide mining proposal.

    I came to Minnesota from Colorado, which has its own mining history, more for precious metals than iron or copper. Nonetheless, the environmental disaster associated with the Gold King Mine is fresh in everyone’s mind there. Ms. Winckler is quite correct in pointing out that the environmental caretaking required for hard-rock mining of virtually any ore, and certainly copper, spans **centuries,** not just a few years, and the risks of polluting dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the Arrowhead’s lakes and rivers is genuine and quite real. Once done, that pollution will also span **centuries,** not just a few years, and and in the process potentially wreck the recreational economy of the area for that same amount of time. The costs of any cleanup could be catastrophic.

    She’s also correct in pointing out that the money to be made from sulfide mining will mostly be going to mining company shareholders. In relative terms, the amount by which the area will benefit economically from the jobs associated with the proposed mining will be small. Most of the benefit (i.e., money) will be leaving not only the region, but the state, and even the country, since the mining company is controlled by foreign interests.

  3. Submitted by Josh Lease on 10/20/2017 - 11:40 am.

    lord save us…

    from single issue voters.

    Seriously. do you want CD8 to be represented by someone that you consider a “good Democrat” or not? At a time when Democrats are desperately trying to overcome massive partisan gerrymandering in order to win enough seats to take back the House and make a real firewall against the depredations of the Trump regime and GOP control of government, you’re choosing now as the time to take a swing at Rick Nolan?

    And let’s not pretend this is something new from Congressman Nolan: Rick’s always been clear that he’s of the belief that we can have mining and environmental protection. you may think he’s wrong and that there needs to be a permanent moratorium on it near the BWCA, but this is not news.

    If Nolan loses, will you pat yourself on the back for electing more Republicans to the House? Will you stand tall after the election when the GOP runs rampant over not just the BWCA but lakes and rivers all over the country and tell people “I helped make that happen!”

    Purity tests like this only serve to enable the kind of radicalism that has ruined the GOP. It makes for a congress that can’t accomplish anything, can’t pass legislation that will help people in this country, all because of the belief that if it’s not perfect, I must then denounce it.

    Oh, and by the way? You’re never going to find that perfect Rep, either. Eventually you’ll disagree on something. Will you immediately call for a primary challenge then too?

    Rick Nolan isn’t perfect. But he’s been a good Representative for his district, working hard to take care of one of the largest geographic congressional districts in the country. He’s stood up for Democratic values, been a progressive voice, been there for working families and it hasn’t always been easy in the 8th. He’s faced nearly unlimited republican money and a contender who has nakedly tried to buy the seat for the national GOP…and he’s won.

    but no, no: please toss aside this fine congressman in your quest for purity. The republican party thanks you for your short-sightedness.

  4. Submitted by Marc Post on 10/20/2017 - 11:54 am.

    Hold your nose

    You really have to hold your nose if you vote for Nolan. I gave up on him when, in an act of un-American cowardice, he voted to block Syrian refugees back in 2015.

    The only reason he’s in office is his opponent in the last two elections (frat boy Mills) was weak. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either of them and left the boxes blank.

  5. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/20/2017 - 12:44 pm.

    I told you so

    Well, this is me telling now you so I can say “I told you so” later:

    Everyone here is going to be pining for Rick Nolan when the Republicans win this district. Their representative will make Nolan look downright progressive on mining. Be careful about replacing him or sitting out the election.

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/20/2017 - 03:47 pm.

    You make Nolan sound reasonable…

    With more fringe articles like this – Rick Nolan is sure to be re-elected!

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/20/2017 - 04:58 pm.

    OK, so we all know copper-nickel mining carries risks.

    Yet Ms. Winckler makes no attempt to tell us precisely what areas may be affected and why proposed methods of mitigating environmental impacts will not work or to what extent. Her piece comes down to “Sulfate mining bad. Environment good. Nolan evil.” I expect more from MinnPost.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/21/2017 - 08:38 pm.

      There have been plenty of posts at this site ….

      which answer the question you bring up by plenty of different people at this very site. Minnpost has done a fairly good job over the years getting that data to the public. A little back checking at this site will get you answers if that is the real reason you are asking the question. Having said that to characterize the writer as you do borders on red herring baiting. It is pretty clear as the state enters into this arrangement it will be on a wing and a prayer. Any effort to protect the land here in MN has been met with furious resistance. I am afraid many have been drawn into choosing a side where a choice does not exist. Either we protect the water etc or we don’t. It is down to that. There is no gain for the worker or for the state coffers. It is clearly a take without a give. Nolan is not protecting anyone but outside interests. It would be cheaper and easier to pick 350 miners and pay them for life then provide the means to protect the watershed an infinitum. There is no trickle up or down. In this case the trickle would be poisonous.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/21/2017 - 09:16 am.

    Difficult District

    If we can’t convince the majority of our friends and neighbors that we are right on important issues, how on earth do we expect them to vote for candidates who agree with US but not those friends and neighbors?

    Just as is the case with Collin Peterson in the 7th District, there are issues which cut against the grain of DFL politics upon which Rick Nolan must take an uncomfortable position if he is to be reelected. Our choice as voters is whether to support candidates who profess to disagree with us on some issues, or to support the nomination of candidates who will agree with us on EVERYTHING but who will never be elected.

    There are many other ways of preventing things we oppose than insisting that our elected representatives agree with us on EVERY issue. Indeed, the Minnesota legislature is currently controlled by Republicans because we in the DFL have too often done so.

    Rep. Nolan has many other things to recommend him for reelection. We may deeply love and admire other, purer candidates, but they will do us precious little good sitting on the sidelines after we give the 2nd District House seat to a Republican who has successfully carried off the typical well-funded snow job such Republican candidates now routinely do, but whose attitudes and actions will run counter to ours on every single issue we hold dear.

    Let us never forget that Gov. Dayton has been our governor ONLY because he took on the candidate nominated to satisfy the State DFL Convention. That nominee though preferred by the convention would not have been elected.

    Perhaps a bit of pragmatism to balance our sometimes-extreme DFL idealism is in order for 2018.

  9. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/21/2017 - 01:11 pm.

    Why proposed methods of mitgation won’t work

    Umm, because they never have, anywhere its been attempted? Their claim is literally that “hey! We finally figured it out this time, trust us”. You really want to experiment on the BWCA watershed? Sorry, but this isn’t a purity test, if mining happens, destruction WILL occur, better to have the people responsible, conservatives and mining allies take the blame. At this point mining is probably inevitable as there isn’t any means to counteract the poor decisionmaking that the desperation of Rangers is producing. Let them sleep in the bed they make, and pay the price when they do. No need to give them a convienent scapegoat to pass the blame to.

  10. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 10/23/2017 - 02:01 pm.


    If a large portion of the state population wasn’t opposed to sulfide mining–because of its notorious track record– of which PolyMet would be not only the lst sulfide mine in the state, but according to its claims, the lst mine ever that would not pollute the environment– there wouldn’t be this political controversy.
    Northeast Minnesota is a wet environment. Consider that PolyMet is planning to dig its open pits in the 100 Mile Swamp–a wetland area bisected by the Partridge River–which is now part of Superior National Forest. A wet environment is about the worst possible place to open a sulfide mine, since sulfur combines with oxygen and hydrogen (think H20) to form sulfuric acid (H2S04). However, the mining company would have access to lots of our water–billions worth of gallons–for its processing, turning clean water into polluted water, which even if treated will never be the same. And of course the company claims that it will treat every last drop of water, with none escaping from its plant site or tailings pond boundaries, or into the ground water. And the politicians repeat this as the truth.
    Superior National Forest belongs to every citizen of this nation. We all have a stake in this. Yet Nolan and the Democrats are not listening. They only listen to the unions who will get out the vote.
    The issue of sulfide mining is huge in this entire state. Minnesota has already polluted the majority of its waters from large scale farming and factory farms. Our political system is not willing to acknowledge or address these major kinds of issues–which ultimately affect our health–through our food, our water, and the air we breathe. The system is also locked into election cycle votes rather than looking to what is best for the future. If the system remains incapable of changing, while captured by corporate dollars and control, then that system is doomed to failure.
    It doesn’t matter whether the party in charge is Democrat or Republican.
    If some courageous individuals with a lot of integrity don’t step forward soon within our political system then we are all going down together.l

  11. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 10/23/2017 - 06:15 pm.

    The PolyMet lie you do not have to be a scientist to recognize

    The following link would be of interest to readers concerned about the impacts of sulfide mining on Minnesota, and about legislators who are promoting their own agenda:

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/26/2017 - 11:24 pm.

    Well the Governor ….

    Is exhausted. The mining in the NE will have an affect on the entire state when it goes bad.

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