A Mining Renaissance?

On the Almanac program I discussed in yesterday’s post, Kathryn Hoffman cited “42 exceedances of water quality standards” at Eagle Mine to make the point that reverse-osmosis technology isn’t as effective as mining proponents in Minnesota make it out to be. I was expecting some rundown of those exceedances in Codi Kozacek’s January 8th article about Eagle Mine on Circle of Blue; but Kozacek focuses, instead, on the Eagle Mine water-monitoring agreement Rio Tinto struck with Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust two years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Kozacek seems to have traveled from Hawaii (where she’s based) to the UP to do some interviews and take some photographs: it appears she was there in summertime. But so far as I can tell she’s based her article on a “case study” jointly commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership, a piece of bespoke research entitled Unity of Place: Giving Birth to Community Environmental Monitoring.

In fact, the opening of Kozacek’s article documenting – or should I say celebrating? — this “unprecedented” water-monitoring agreement seems to be nothing more than a loose paraphrase of that publication, which tells the story of how the community around Eagle Mine gained “a measure of power over the mine. And it was Rio Tinto that gave it to them.”

Leave aside for the moment the preposterous idea that that power was Rio Tinto’s to give in the first place: the Unity of Place case study simply asks us to accept that business can and will decide the power society has over it, and Kozacek seems untroubled by the notion. That Rio Tinto sold Eagle Mine to Lundin Mining after descending from the heights to strike this unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the little people living around the mine does not give her pause, or raise questions about the mining giant’s good faith or much-touted commitment to the community around Eagle; and Kozacek only gets around to mentioning the sale to Lundin 28 paragraphs into her 34-paragraph story.

For the sake of balance, she includes a couple of interviews with “skeptics,” people who remain, to this day, distrustful of the water monitoring agreement but express the hope that it will have some good effect. She mentions the uranium leakage discovered at Eagle last year, which she offers as proof of the success of the program in alerting “the public to potential water quality threats,” quoting the Superior Watershed Partnership’s Jerry Maynard (who is also featured prominently in Unity of Place): the monitoring program, he says, “is gaining the trust and respect of the community….We want this to get out there—we want other mining communities to say ‘we want this too.’” But she fails to mention any other exceedances or violations – I guess she missed that episode of Almanac before filing her story — and apparently didn’t bother looking into the new water story now unfolding around Eagle Mine: the renewal of the mine’s groundwater discharge permit. (Michele Bourdieu has that story over at Keweenaw Now.)

My guess is that Kozacek is unfazed by any of these questions and complications, because the real story she wants to tell here is the story of a mining “renaissance”: she uses the word a few times in her article, once as a header and then twice in the body:

The Eagle Mine is viewed as either on the leading edge or the troubling future of a mining renaissance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that has seen more mining bust than boom in the past 50 years. Just as in the oil and gas industry, improvements in mining technology are making previously overlooked ore bodies economically attractive. Rapidly developing countries, particularly China and Brazil, are driving demand for iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold.

But many of the once booming mine communities in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, operating with a fraction of their historical populations and downtowns darkened by empty storefronts, are eager for a mining renaissance.

Not a return of mining. Not a re-opening of the mines. Not a new mineral leasing, exploration and mining boom (which would have to be followed by yet another bust). A mining renaissance. It’s an odd word for someone writing about water issues to choose. I wonder if the ungainly use of the word “birth” in the subtitle of the Rio Tinto-Superior Watershed case study inspired Kozacek here: with the “Birth” of “Community Environmental Monitoring” advertised on the cover and on every recto page of that pamphlet, why not imagine a rebirth – and wouldn’t the word “renaissance” be so much more elegant? – of mining?


Renaissance miners, in the early 16th-century stained glass window of the Villanders parish church.

It’s at best an ugly parody of historical discourse, but I take it that it’s intended to give the new mining around Lake Superior a historical stature that it would otherwise seem to lack. In the second of the two paragraphs I’ve quoted here, Kozacek even imagines the area longing to emerge from a kind of Dark Age, or at least “darkened” downtowns, into renewed prosperity.

But in the first of those paragraphs, I must admit, she does a pretty good job of spelling things out. New extractive technologies have made it not only possible but “economically attractive” (read: highly profitable) for large multinational players to mine previously neglected or abandoned ore deposits, extract oil from tar sands and drill for natural gas by fracking. Chinese urbanization and rapid development in the BRIC countries continue to drive and raise demand for minerals and fossil fuels, as economic power shifts away from developed, Western economies.

Communities in the Upper Peninsula and all around Lake Superior are now feeling the pressures of these bigger changes. Whether they will bring renewal — or more boom and bust, or just catastrophic demise – is another question altogether.

13 thoughts on “A Mining Renaissance?

  1. Colleen Powers

    Have you tried to publish your writing about the MN mining water debacle-in-the-making to publications in the Twin Cities or even Duluth? Even free papers (if any still exist up there) to get the word out. Your thoughts are so well presented and the scary reality comes alive in your prose. I don’t think any journalists based in MN are writing about this.

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      There are some good journalists writing about the Polymet and Twin Metals mining projects in MN, and they are a lot more in touch with the political realities and people’s attitudes than I. I published a piece in MinnPost about the new mining, to mark the Labor Day broadcast of 1913 Massacre. As I tried to explain in a post a while back, I think of this blog mainly as a public notebook — a place to work out some thoughts, write down things that interest me, develop ideas, and so on, and it’s really great to hear that you (and I hope others) find some of these thoughts worth reading. All that said, you are right: I probably could and should do more in the way of publishing. It’s good of you to encourage me.

  2. Michele Bourdieu

    Thanks, Louis, for this great analysis and for the link to the “Unity of Place” report. I was suspicious of the Circle of Blue article when I noticed the cutline/caption under the first photo — the tunnel portal to the mine that goes under Eagle Rock. In re-reading the article, I see now that they used this same caption twice. Jessica Koski said she noticed that, too. The second photo it describes may very well be the beach at Sand Point, but there is no beach right at the portal. In the first photo, that seems to be dirty snow that has accumulated. I just attended 2 community information meetings by Highland Copper Co., which is exploring in the Keweenaw and about to purchase the old White Pine mine and open up the northeast end of it for a new mine, very close to Lake Superior and the Porcupine Mountains State Park. I’m about to write about these meetings, which we videotaped. Thanks for calling attention to Keweenaw Now. Still trying to get the DEQ to post that draft groundwater discharge permit so people can access it to make comments.

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Thank you right back, for the solid reporting — with footnotes, no less. I know a little about Highland and White Pine, but not a whole lot. There’s so much new mining going on around the Lake. It’s an ongoing education.

  3. Colleen Powers

    Here’s what can happen to the water remediation. 20 years after Polymet starts mining, they will be done and move on. They can declare bankruptcy, like the W. Virginia company did that just destsroyed the watershed of safe drinking water for 300,000 W. Virginians. Corps have rights of personhood but no values or moral duty to keep their word. It is hard for ordinary people to declare bankruptcy but corporations are limited to their corporate assets, eh?


    I believe you when you say good journalists are writing about it but I have close ties to MN and most Minnesotans are unaware of the fact that their government officials are going along with 500 years water remediation. As I indicated before, when I ask MN friends about this mining, they know about it, are saddened but they also know folks up on the Iron Range need jobs.

    What we really need is an entirely new economic landscape that does not make raping the earth the core of our economic life. Where will the bulk of the wealth generatead by this project go? No on the Iron Range. The Iron Range has been raped before and the people living there mostly stay poor while the wealth is stripped out for wealthy corporate shareholders.

    Time for the Precautionary Principle to be applied to this public decision making, eh?

    The fact that public officials are going along with the 500 years water remediation is almost impossible for my mind to fully grasp, esp. after what just happened in Virginia. Destroy water for humans and declare bankruptcy. Cake.

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Good comment: the Freedom Industry bankruptcy should be a red flag on the Polymet project and the whole financial assurances scheme. But “public decision making” needs some help here too. One thing we need is time. A long time. Allowing a 90 day public comment period on a 2,200 page environmental impact statement might allow the public to vent before state agencies review a mining permit, but it doesn’t allow for much discussion or understanding of the real stakes.

  4. Becky Rom

    There is a core group of people who live in northeastern Minnesota who are fighting sulfide mining in their backyard, many in the Ely area. We are working hard to make this a national issue and gather support throughout the country. The Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will be degraded (much will be permanently destroyed) and our waters polluted with toxins if sulfide mining is developed. The PolyMet project is horrendous, but it is small compared to the proposals within the Boundary Waters watershed. I note that you are a film maker. Would you consider making a film about local people who are taking on the giant Chilean mining company, Antofagasta?

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Becky – I have not considered making a film about local opposition to the Antofagasta/Twin Metals project per se, but I’ve been developing a project about the new mining around Lake Superior. How far that project or any film project gets all depends on funding. Of course you are right: this is a national issue, and considering the stakes it ought to be an international issue.

  5. Dan

    Louis and others commenting here – is there any way you would support mining anywhere? I highly doubt it. Large, long-life deposits are few and far between now. Smaller projects such as Eagle, Polymet and so on are becoming the typical scale of mining. Instead of just bashing the industry and focusing on events that happened decades ago, perhaps you could take a more positive and collaborative approach to your concerns. Thank you

  6. Pingback: A Reply to Dan Blondeau | lvgaldieri

  7. Dan

    I appreciate your reply and explanation. It’s clear that you give thorough and genuine thought to your words, not all journalists do. We’ve seen very mixed articles from the tour that Ms. Hoffman was on, which I hosted.

    We (no one) cannot pick the location of these ore bodies, but we can design and operate mines in a way that protects the areas we love. If it were not for this project I would be an export of the UP like many other residents have become. I look forward to continued exploration and extending out the life of Eagle.

    Thanks again, Dan

  8. Colleen Powers

    I doubt that you missed this good journalism about sulfide mining in MN but here is a lilnk just in case: http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2014/01/why-proposed-solutions-sulfide-mine-pollution-wont-work

    You wrote that good journalism was being done and you are right.

    All the new mining exploits of the Upper Midwest, surrounding our great fresh water lakes, gets scary to me. Wisconsin is going to allow some environementally threatening mining to get going way up north, just below the UP, too.


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