Last week, the organization Earthworks released Polluting The Future, a report focusing on “the staggering amount of our nation’s water supplies that are perpetually polluted by mining” and the “rapidly escalating national dilemma” of perpetual mine management.
Perpetual is the key word here. Forty existing hardrock mines pollute 17-27 billion gallons of water per year, “and will do so in perpetuity,” for hundreds if not thousands of years. Include other mines likely to contribute to the problem, and take into account four new big mining projects currently being proposed, and the number jumps: to 37-47 billion gallons of polluted water every year. Pour that all into 8 oz water bottles and stack them one on top of the other and you can go to the moon and back about 100 times.
When Earthworks adds up the cost of treating this perpetual pollution, the figure is staggering: 62 to 73 billion dollars a year. That’s one very powerful way to talk about the social cost of mining — a cost that the mining companies (many of them foreign-based multinationals) are passing directly to the American public. The EPA “questions the ability of businesses to sustain” treatment and management efforts for the required length of time. That’s putting it mildly. As Earthworks points out, “most corporations have existed for far fewer than 100 years… Mining corporations simply won’t be around to manage water treatment that will continue for thousands of years.” They are passing along the true costs of their operations to all of us, for generations to come.
I was hoping to find some discussion of the proposed mining on Lake Superior. It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before — here and here, for instance — and I’m trying to put together a documentary project on the subject as well. So I was left wondering where the Rio Tinto / Kennecott Eagle Mine and the many other new mining projects around the perimeter of Lake Superior fit in the scheme Earthworks presents here.
It seems largely to be a question of scale. It may be easier for the mind to grasp the horror of open-pit projects with a “high risk for perpetual pollution” due to acid mine drainage, but acid mine drainage is also one risk of the sulfide mining projects about to be staged in and around the watershed of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes — Lake Superior. Again, the report singles out the Pebble Mine in Alaska, another Rio Tinto project, to talk about the threat that mine poses to “the nation’s largest wild salmon fishery”; but the new mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula threatens the natural habitat of the coaster brook trout, the Salmon Trout River in northern Marquette County. So there are a couple of ways to make connections between the mining around Lake Superior and Polluting the Future.
Then there are the policy recommendations in this report — which range from enforcement of the Clean Water Act to other legislative and regulatory changes to hold companies accountable. Those all deserve careful consideration. What’s missing for me is something that came out of another report issued last week, this one by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the end of a ten day mission to assess the state of business and human rights in the United States, the UN delegation “noted the allegations of significant human rights impacts of surface mining, particularly the rights to health and water, and the deep divisions between stakeholders on the most effective ways of assessing and addressing the impacts.” (Significantly, for those who have followed the controversy over the Eagle Mine project, the UN team also looked at “the rights of Native Americans, particularly as regards the lack of free, prior and informed consent for projects affecting them and sites of cultural and religious significance to them.”)
So I would like to talk about the Earthworks report in this human rights context. The discussion might start with the very first sentence of the report, which characterizes water as “a scarce and precious asset.” The word “asset” makes me a little uneasy (but I would have to defer on this to people like Jeremy J. Schmidt, who together with Dan Shrubsole just put out a paper on the ethics and the politics entailed in the words we use about water). Think, for a moment, about how this discussion of perpetual pollution for immediate profit might be reframed as a human rights discussion. Or at least how the two perspectives — the environmental perspective and the human rights perspective — are complementary, and more powerful when taken together. The problem isn’t just that freshwater is a precious asset in increasingly high demand and short supply; it’s that when we permit big mining projects to pollute our water for generations to come, we are also failing to protect the human rights of our children and our children’s children, and so on, in perpetuity.