The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.
While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.
With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).
A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.
It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?
Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.
Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.