The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

First in a Series


Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

17 thoughts on “The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

  1. Ben

    Pure, one sided crap. Maybe before spewing off garbage you should look a little closer at facts. One of the founding members of Stand UP is a die hard Democrat. You did the same thing thing you accused the MCRC of doing. Throwing out labels. Btw. If you plan on suing the EPA you get the best corporate lawyers you can afford. No matter if their political agendas match yours.

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Ben. I wish you’d worded it a little more politely, but it seems you’re angry, and I’m trying to figure out why. From what I can tell, the source of your consternation is my use of the word “Republican.” That’s “throwing out labels,” in your view. Clark Hill includes within its ranks one of the most powerful Republican fundraisers in the country. That’s just a fact. On the one hand, you say, that doesn’t prove a thing, because one of the founding members of Stand UP is a Democrat. On the other hand, you say, it does prove something: Clark Hill has a political agenda. I’m not entirely sure about the latter point, or at least it’s not a simple agenda that comes down to Republican vs. Democrat. They are, as you say, a “corporate law” firm, and that probably says more about their mission than any party affiliations. So we seem to agree that it’s complex and needs sorting out, and that’s what I’m trying to do by reading the complaint, doing some research and offering my thoughts. At this juncture it’s difficult to say precisely what this complex situation means for Stand UP, since as a 501c4 they don’t and won’t disclose the sources of their funding. But I don’t want to put this entirely on Republicans. Democrats from Governor Granholm to Senator Levin have been enthusiastic about the return of mining to Michigan, and support for the mining company’s agendas — as well as CR 595 — runs across party lines. I hope you’ll read subsequent posts in the series.

  2. Jeremiah Baumann

    It’s time to handle this heavy-haul operation with greater safety and efficiency: a straight, relatively short, dedicated haul route between the mine and the mill as opposed to running them on a long, roundabout route through Mqt and neg/ish and along a busy highway corridor. Common sense logistics, respecting values of safety and efficiency. This isn’t a political football, it’s simply local people and their reps asking for common sense to be applied.

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Jeremiah: yes, people now need relief from the trucks. Don’t you think the time to work out a haul route was before the mine was permitted to open? I was surprised Lundin didn’t make that a condition of the sale from Rio Tinto. As for political football: just to be clear, I’m mainly focusing on the political posturing in the text of the complaint, as it is written, and trying to figure out what or whose ends it serves.

      1. Jeremiah Baumann

        If you value safety and efficiency, a direct haul road makes the most sense. I think part of the motive behind forcing trucks into town and tearing up our roads is because if the mine operated with very little public impact (as it would with a haul road or rail line) there would only be a few diehard anti-mine activists left. As it stands, people are constantly reminded of the mine because we see trucks all day.
        It’s sick, the opposition is forcing the mine to operate in a less safe and less efficient way so they can point out how unsafe and inefficient it is.

  3. lvgaldieri Post author

    Well, I see your point — out of sight, out of mind — but maybe there are people in the area who value other things over and above the efficiency of a mining operation, or think mining is unsafe to begin with. You also seem to be suggesting that the EPA objected to the road because it was in cahoots with “anti-mine activists.” Otherwise I am unsure how you would explain EPA’s refusal to remove the objections. That’s essentially the argument in the MCRC complaint I’m trying to make sense of here.

  4. Ben

    How else can you explain how the Mi. DEQ approved the road then the EPA shut it down when the proposal was above and beyond the permitting requirements. Which is the entire basis of the suit. Don’t quote me but I believe then required wetland replacement amount is 7 to 1. MCRC proposed 40 to 1. And it was going to be protected wetlands. That’s my problem. Why would the EPA stick it’s nose in this anyways. I have one guess. The Huron Mountain club. Same people who sued the MCRC for ownership of a county road to keep people off the Salmon-Trout. I have no problem with any of the groups fighting this, I think they will keep Lundin on their toes keep them honest and they maybe with the environmental groups breathing down their neck all the time they will do all they can to keep it clean. We build roads all the time why is this one such a concern. How come they were able to make vast improvements to the triple a and the EPA wasn’t all over that. Who cares who STAND UP is getting their money from when the ultimate outcome of the suit will be available thanks to FOIA. How about the we find out how a government agency makes up rules as they go. How about we find out who influences them?

    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Ben, the wetland mitigation proposals are all laid out in the complaint, which points out that MCRC went well beyond what was legally required. I am not sure what you are saying here about FOIA: as a 501c4, Stand UP is not legally required to disclose donations or donors. I’m all for sunlight and transparency at EPA and across the board. But what are we to make of an organization demanding transparency at EPA that is itself completely dark?

  5. Ben

    I know everything about stand up I care to. I know the members and I know or can find out who their legal counsel is. You brought up the transparency ascpet. I brought up the freedom of information act in reference to the lawsuit and that only. As far as trying to get a donor list it will never happen, maybe there are citizens who don’t want to express the fact that they donated to stand up put out there. Their status as a 501c4 protects the donors as well. If they raised the money to do this I’m sure that there were logging companies and the such throwing in some cash , who cares. The end goal is the same. Nothing hidden. They want the road built. Big difference in asking for the names of donors that are protected by law vs. Asking why the EPA can change the rules willy nilly.

    1. Gail Griffith

      Will the 40:1 wetland replacement going to be the Wetland Mitigation Bank established by the Lindberg company adjacent to the Humboldt Mill? This “mitigation bank” is going to be filled with waste water from the mill through a new outfall being built by Lindberg, and currently under review by the MIDEQ. This doesn’t fall under the legal specifications for a wetlands mitigation bank which is meant to restore functional wetlands, not create waste ponds.

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