EPA documents reveal agency, Nolan discussions about PolyMet

By Mike Kaszuba

As controversy swirled around a proposal to begin copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota, records show that Congressman Rick Nolan privately pushed state and federal regulators to move more quickly on the project.

A top spokesman for the Minnesota congressman told government regulators that Nolan’s objective was “not to interfere”, but also noted that Nolan wanted “to move the process along” in regard to PolyMet’s proposed mining operation near Hoyt Lakes.  The exchanges, in which Nolan’s office arranged conference calls with regulators and mining company officials, were part of newly-released documents obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The documents, covering 2013 and 2014, were secured through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Public Record Media, a St. Paul non-profit.

Nolan and PolyMet

Nolan – a DFLer who served in Congress during the 1970s and was elected again in 2012 – has publicly supported the PolyMet project, and represents northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth District where the proposed mining operation would be located.

PolyMet’s proposal is still awaiting regulatory approvals, but received a key endorsement from the state Department of Natural Resources last March in what was described as the agency’s largest-ever environmental review.  The project has been opposed by environmentalists for potentially threatening the St. Louis River, the largest tributary into Lake Superior.

The newly-released documents show that Nolan attempted a delicate balancing act — maintaining that the mining operation would provide needed jobs, but also saying that it could co-exist with the surrounding environment.

“Not public information at this time”

EPA documents also reveal that Nolan’s office tried to keep some discussions with regulators private.

In November of 2014, Nolan’s legislative director Jim Swiderski invited government regulators to participate in a conference call, and added that Nolan believed that the topics to be discussed would “not be public information at this time” and would “not be discussed in public or be used for the press or media.”  Swiderski’s e-mail noted that a representative from the PolyMet mining company would also join the conference call.

According to Swiderski’s e-mail, Nolan wanted to cast the conference call as “a ‘district casework’ type of call”, suggesting that it was something he did for other constituents.  Swiderski’s message noted that Nolan “wants it clearly understood he is in a potential problem solving posture, as he is with other constituents.”  The Congressman’s objective, wrote Swiderski, was “to make sure the system works as it should for his constituent”.

Agency response

The Congressman’s attempts to speak with regulators – and to obtain their assessment of how long the regulatory process would take – appeared to catch their attention.  “Sounds like the Congressman will be on the line,” Eileen Deamer, a federal EPA official, wrote in an e-mail as Nolan’s office organized an earlier conference call in August, 2014.  In her message, she suggested that EPA’s senior staff should be informed that Nolan would himself be taking part in the call.

In the EPA e-mails, Swiderski stated that the Congressman was not being critical of state and federal regulators.  “The objective here is entirely positive,” Nolan’s legislative director wrote in an August 8, 2014 message.  “We are not looking to find fault.”

Swiderski also suggested that Nolan’s involvement was a way of responding to constituent questions.  “Congressman Nolan is back in Minnesota now, during the August District Work Period, and is frequently meeting with constituents who have questions about the progress of this review,” Swiderski explained as he made plans for a one-hour conference call with regulators and PolyMet.

In the EPA e-mails, Nolan and Swiderski emphasized that the Minnesota Congressman was not necessarily taking sides.  “I see my role as being the advocate for the people of the 8th District of Minnesota,” Nolan wrote to regulators on August 14, 2014. “I want to help you get the job done promptly.”  Nolan also added that he wanted “jobs and a healthy environment.”

Follow-up from Nolan’s office

Following the August 2014 conference call, Swiderski prodded regulators to estimate when they might be finished.  “What is your expected completion date?  Do you (foresee) any problems at this point?  Will subsequent permits be able to be processed on a timely basis?” he asked.

In response, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) made no commitments on a deadline for finishing.  “We anticipate that water-related analysis will be our critical path, but until we have identified all of the specific additional analyses that will be required, we cannot predict how long they’ll take,” DNR staff noted on August 19, 2014.

“Is there anything Congressman Nolan can do to assist you in completing” the work? Swiderski asked.  “Congressman Nolan’s continued interest and support is always helpful, but DNR has no specific requests for assistance at this time,” the agency replied.