I leave tomorrow for Lake Superior. On Thursday the 24th, Ken and I are going to show our film at Michigan Tech, where there’s a conference called Writing Across the Peninsula, and then, on Saturday the 26th, at the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette. I’m going up a little early to do some exploring, traveling north along the western shore of the lake to Palisade Head and then inland (west), through Finland and into the area around Ely, Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. That’s where Polymet Mining has proposed a huge open pit sulfide mine. It will be my first visit and maybe one of the few chances I get to see the area before the mining begins. After that, it’s never going to be the same. Or at least not in my lifetime — or in the lifetime of anyone alive today.
Polymet recently disclosed in a Preliminary Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that water runoff from its mine will have to be treated for the next five hundred years — “a minimum of 500 years,” just to meet water quality regulations. The proposal in its current form clearly violates Minnesota Rule 6132.3200, which requires that “the mining area” be “maintenance free” upon closure; but Polymet and its legions of apologists have already found some wiggle room here, arguing that state law allows for “perpetual treatment” as long as enough money is set aside and as long as the company can prove that it’s meeting federal and state water standards. For Polymet, it seems, this is just the start of a negotiation.
The Mining Examiner quotes Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota: “There’s no doubt it can be done, that it’s allowed. The concept is sound; the details have to be worked out by the experts.” I honestly don’t know how anyone can say things like this with a straight face. Five-hundred years: the experts just need to work things out. No doubt about it.
When I first heard about the five-hundred year disclosure, I tried to think of a place where mining was done five-hundred years ago: the best I came up with was Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia, where conquistadores set up silver-mining operations in the sixteenth-century. Potosi is now considered one of the most polluted places on earth. Of course, the Spanish crown did not set out the sorts of guarantees that Polymet is willing to set out; but apparently the mining company shares the crown’s illusion that its empire will last forever. Or at least they would like us to think so: they would like us to set aside our doubts and entertain the fantastic idea that they will provide water-treatment facilities for the maintenance of their copper mine for the next five-hundred years.
Mind you, the country’s only been in existence for 237 years, and Minnesota was only admitted to the union in 1858 — 155 years ago. The EPA only started operations in 1970; its workers only just got back on the job yesterday, after being furloughed during the shutdown. Why are we being asked to believe in the perpetuity or even the resilience of the EPA, the Minnesota DNR, or any government institution or form of government? Who can say what’s going to happen fifty years from now, let alone five hundred? Will there be a Minnesota DNR or an EPA in 2063? Will there be a Polymet? Minnesota? How about 2100? 2413? Insofar as history is about holding people to account, this is nothing more than historical fantasy: there’s no guarantee or even promise of accountability when you are talking about five centuries. As Steve Timmer would have it, nobody is going to be around to keep Polymet’s grave clean.
Time out of mind is the phrase this whole proposal conjures for me. The expression comes from English law. “Time out of mind” or “time immemorial” is a time before anyone can remember: a property or holding, a way of passage or a benefit has been enjoyed so long that those who claim it no longer have to prove ownership or their right to it; nobody can remember a time when it wasn’t so. In this case we are being asked to project that far into the future — way past the horizon of what we ordinarily consider the future, way beyond the time anyone can foresee.
Projecting that far into the future, time out of mind, is also a distorting lens. It’s easy when looking that far ahead to overlook what we know will really happen to the area in the near term, just in the course of constructing and operating an open-pit sulfide mine. Mine pollution that lasts for five-hundred years is a huge and terrifying prospect, no doubt, but that dread prospect might also have the weird effect of eclipsing (or normalizing) the more immediate environmental and social consequences of mining and the industrialization mining brings. Water Legacy estimates that the Polymet project will take 6,600 acres of forests out of public ownership, destroy or impair at least 1,500 acres of wetlands and result in 168,000,000 tons of permanent waste rock heaps and 228,000,000 tons of tailings waste. Add to this the haul roads, the mill operations, air and noise pollution, the effects of clear-cutting and deforestation, shifts in population, economic distortion, and so on.
It’s important to pull back, change the lens, and see clearly what’s going to happen, what’s already happening, to the waters and the wilderness areas, the Lake and all life around it, within our lifetime, and what effect our actions now will have for generations to come.