Tag Archives: Boundary Waters Canoe Area

McCollum Questions Zinke on the Boundary Waters Reversal

This morning, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appeared before the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing on the FY 2019 Budget.  The video below marks the moment when Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum questioned Secretary Zinke on the Boundary Waters reversal.

It begins with an exchange on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, in the course of which Zinke says reporting in the New York Times based on U.S. Department of Interior memos is not “credible.” Fake news.

McCollum then moves the discussion to the Boundary Waters reversal. Her main question, which she asks in a few different ways, is whether Deputy Solicitor Jorjani met with any stakeholders other than lobbyists for Twin Metals Minnesota before issuing his reversal memo.

Zinke’s response that this is all part of the public record is at best disingenuous, given that nearly all the information we have to date about the reversal is the result of FOIA requests; and it’s also Trumpian in its post-truthiness, since Zinke just declared a few moments earlier that reporting based on Department of Interior records is not to be trusted.

At any rate, here is the full exchange:

What Scott Pruitt’s Troubles Tell Us About Corruption in Kalorama

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the situation at 2449 Tracy Place NW, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent a mansion owned by Chilean mining billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, and Scott Pruitt’s sweetheart deal to rent a bedroom in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of powerful lobbyist Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, for fifty dollars a night. But that will not get us very far, and it’s best not to conflate the two cases.

To begin with, Jared and Ivanka are reportedly paying market rate for their place: $15,000 / month. While no one, to my knowledge, has seen records of those monthly payments in the form of cancelled checks or electronic transfer receipts, it seems pretty safe to assume that rent is actually being collected. Doesn’t it? The corporation that owns the property, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., was formed by Luksic’s lawyers at Duane Morris LLP in Boston, and the deal was put together by one of the Washington DC’s “top-producing” real estate agents: Cynthia Howar, who is herself a member of the bar. The lawyers, one would like to think, took care of the details.

Not so in Scott Pruitt’s case. Despite the friendly terms, Pruitt fell behind on his rental payments, according to Politico, “forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.” Pruitt’s landlord, Vicki Hart, did not have the appropriate business license to rent out a room in her Washington, DC condo, and now faces fines of up to $2000.

In Kalorama, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. had obtained the business license for a one family rental from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the District of Columbia by March of 2017. That license is good for two years, until February 28, 2019. Who can say where the first family tenants will be by then?

Of course, there is one important parallel to draw between the Pruitt case and the situation at Tracy Place. It doesn’t have to do with licenses or rental agreements or payments. It has to do with ethics — or an apparent lack of concern with ethics.

Scott Pruitt rushed an ethics review of his bedroom rental only after news stories about the deal started to appear. The review was botched, or its conclusions were forced; it’s unclear which. The EPA’s top ethics official now says he needs to revisit the matter, because he was not in full possession of the facts when he retroactively approved the arrangement. This only serves to highlight that the right time for Scott Pruitt to ask whether the rental was permissible or appropriate was before entering into it.

Much the same could be said of Jared and Ivanka’s rental of the Kalorama mansion: the lawyers may have left nothing undone, but there is still the question whether this rental agreement ought to have been struck in the first place, given the fact that the mansion’s owner — or the mining conglomerate his family controls — was suing the U.S. government over the renewal of mining leases.

Twin Metals Minnesota had already sued the United States government back in September of 2016 over lack of action on the Superior National Forest leases. When the Obama administration did act in December of 2016, denying renewal of the leases, and launching a study of a 20-year ban on sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, it was clear Twin Metals would sue again.

This second suit was filed by Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals, on February 21, 2017, just about a week before Tracy DC Real Estate obtained its license to rent the Kalorama mansion as a one family unit. A review of the rental agreement should obviously have been undertaken by the Office of the White House Counsel, with these and other facts in view, if only to preempt scandal-mongering and dispel any appearance of impropriety.

One of the earliest reports of the rental agreement in the Wall Street Journal quotes Rob Walker, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in election law and government ethics, to the effect that “there might not be an ethics problem” as long as the mansion is being rented at fair market value. Maybe not. But I’ve been unable to find any indication that a formal ethics review of the Kalorama rental agreement was ever requested or conducted.

Twin Metals At Interior – A Timeline

Some new reporting by Jimmy Tobias gives us more insight into the Boundary Waters reversal, which I’ve discussed in previous posts (1, 2, 3). Through a records request, Tobias obtained the calendar of Kathleen Benedetto, Special Assistant to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Described as “a fixer for the mining companies,” Benedetto now helps oversee the Bureau of Land Management. She has publicly taken the position that conservation of public lands is a barrier to “progress.”

Tobias identifies at least six meetings or communications with mining interests on Benedetto’s calendar regarding the Twin Metals project in Superior National Forest, including the July 25th all-hands-on-deck meeting between high-ranking Interior officials and representatives of Antofagasta Plc. The calendar gives us a much fuller chronology and more detail than we previously had. Putting it together with the Jorjani calendar results in this timeline:

December 15, 2016 Obama administration releases Memo M-37036, denying renewal of Twin Metals leases. Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. formed in DC by Luksic’s lawyers.
December 22, 2016 Tracy DC Real Estate Inc. purchases the Kalorama Triangle mansion at 2449 Tracy Pl NW. [For this part of the story, see this post.]
January 3, 2017 First news reports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are moving into the Kalorama mansion.
January 4, 2017 Official sale date entered for the Kalorama mansion.
February 21, 2017 Antofagasta subsidiaries Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals sue the United States Department of Interior.
February 28, 2017 Tracy DC Real Estate obtains business license for the rental at 2449 Tracy Pl. NW. The license expires in 2019.
April 6, 2017 Kathleen Benedetto: Ext. Meeting Boundary Waters [with?].
April 18, 2017 Benedetto: Ext. Mtg. Twin Metals [with? Cf. Friday 16 June].
April 19, 2017 Benedetto: Twin Metals. On the calendar of Karen Hawbecker, Associate Solicitor, Dept. of Interior.
April 26, 2017 On the calendar of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: meeting with Landon Zinda, legislative council for Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN, 6th District) and Will Mitchell, Legislative Director for Representative Rick Nolan (DFL-MN, 6th District). A briefing by Kathy Benedetto and Kate MacGregor of the Department of Interior on the Twin Metals Leases.
April 28, 2017 Benedetto Meeting with Rob Lehman, WilmerHale re: Twin Metals Minnesota. On the calendar of Gareth Rees, Executive Assistant at US Department of the Interior.
April 28 2017 Benedetto: Twin Metals briefing. On the calendar of Briana Collier. U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor.
May 3, 2017 Benedetto: Meet and Greet with Representatives of Save the Boundary Waters.
May 26, 2017 Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani call with Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale, regarding a “DC Bar Event.”
June 9, 2017 Benedetto: Chat w/Timothy Martin from WilmerHale, re: Twin Metals – Minnesota. On the calendar of Katharine MacGregor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management.
June 14, 2017 Daniel Jorjani meets with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale.
June 16, 2017 Benedetto Ext. Mtg. Twin Metals – Bob McFarlin [at that time, Vice President of Public and Government Affairs, Twin Metals Minnesota].
June 19, 2017 Meeting w/ USDA and DOI on Twin Metals Superior National Forest. On the calendar of Katharine MacGregor.
July 11, 2017 Call between Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Also attending: Jennie Maes, Assistant Chief of Staff to Governor Dayton. Topic: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and nearby copper-nickel mining.
July 25, 2017 All Hands on Deck for meeting with Antofagasta Plc re: Twin Metals Minnesota Project. On the calendar of Gareth Rees.
September 7, 2017 Internal meeting at Department of Interior on Twin Metals: Daniel Jorjani with Jack Haugrud.
December 22, 2017 Principal Deputy Solicitor Jordan releases Memo M-37049, allowing Twin Metals to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands.

We now know that Interior was meeting with Twin Metals representatives and holding internal meetings about Twin Metals as early as mid April of 2017. (This would have been a little over a month before Rachel Jacobson of WilmerHale contacted Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani regarding “a DC Bar Event” — which, in a previous post, I speculated might have teed up the lobbying effort.) An offsite or “ext.” meeting with Twin Metals representatives on April 18 seems to kick things off — though who attended an earlier meeting on April 6th about the Boundary Waters is unclear. The entry for another offsite meeting, on Friday June 16th, suggests that Benedetto’s counterpart at Twin Metals was Bob McFarlin, who was at that time Twin Metals Vice President of Public and Government Affairs.

There were five meetings about the Twin Metals project before Benedetto hosted a “meet and greet” with a Boundary Waters conservation group on May 3rd, 2017.

It’s also worth noting on whose calendar some of Benedetto’s meetings are scheduled, and where possible I’ve added that detail to the timeline. It helps us get a sense of who is in the room with Benedetto, and just how many people in the upper ranks at the Department of Interior were involved in reversing the Obama-era protections.

For example, after Benedetto’s first external meeting with Twin Metals, she meets the very next day with Karen Hawbecker, who works for Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. This puts the matter in the Office of the Solicitor right away. Benedetto’s first meeting with lobbyists from WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals originates from the calendar of Gareth Rees, Executive Assistant at US Department of the Interior. WilmerHale is working at the highest levels of the Department. Another meeting with WilmerHale involves Benedetto and Katharine MacGregor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. According to the Western Values Project, MacGregor is a known “ally of the oil and gas industry” and an advocate for allowing oil pipelines to pass through national parks.

Progress.

From Caval to Kalorama

Kalorama

The Washington, D.C. mansion rented by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

We know this much. In December of 2016, just after the election, Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig bought the Kalorama Triangle mansion that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump now rent in Washington, D.C.. Just about six months later, records show, the Department of Interior began drafting the December 22nd, 2017 memo that would reverse Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters and renew the lease of lands in Superior National Forest held by Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Antofagasta Plc, the mining conglomerate controlled by the Luksic family. Headlines have hinted at corrupt dealings, as I’ve noted in previous posts, but no hard evidence has come to light.

Maybe it’s all just a happy coincidence of the kind that frequently befalls the world of billionaires, mansions, and yachts. In any case, Andronico Luksic Craig, Jared and Ivanka’s landlord, is clearly a master of such coincidences. Journalist Horacio Brum dubs him “el gran titiritero de Chile,” the great puppetmaster of Chile. He is “a man who does not need to do politics,” writes Brum, “because he makes politicians.” The role Andronico Luksic Craig played in the scandal known in Chile as “el Caso Caval” — The Caval Affair — is illustrative.

The Caval Affair involved a $10 million loan for a shady real estate scheme undertaken in late 2013 by Natalia Compagnon, the daughter-in-law of Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, and 50 percent owner of a company called Sociedad Exportadora y de Gestión Caval Limitada. El Caso Caval was a drawn out and complicated affair, and charges of corruption and influence peddling would dog Compagnon and the Bachelet family for years. Just one feature of the scandal needs to concern us at the moment, and that’s the timing of the loan itself.

In the months immediately preceding Bachelet’s election, Compagnon had been trying to secure a line of credit for her company to purchase three plots of land in Machalí, in the O’Higgins Region in central Chile. Compagnon and her husband, Sebastian Davalos Michelet, met with the Vice President of Banco de Chile to discuss the project on November 6th, 2013. This was about ten days before the elections, which were scheduled for November 17th. The loan was approved on December 16th, 2013, just a month after Michelle Bachelet was elected to the presidency. The Vice President of the Banco de Chile who made these timely financial arrangements for the daughter-in-law of the new president elect was none other than Andronico Luksic Craig.

The pattern looks familiar. When questioned about the loan, Luksic Craig at first denied meeting the young couple more than once. (This is classic Luksic, who claims never to have met his first family tenants, and only to have said hello to Trump himself once, at a Patriots’ football game in 2012.) Only later did he admit to various meetings and contacts between him and Compagnon, including one the day after Bachelet won the election. As the scandal grew, Andronico Luksic Craig managed to retreat back into the shadows and to keep himself and the Luksic family out of the headlines.

So far, the almost daily revelations of Jared Kushner’s far-flung attempts to bail out his family’s foundering real estate empire have not turned up anything that connects Kushner’s business troubles to Chile’s Grupo Luksic or the Luksic family. But it would not be terribly surprising to learn that there is more to the Kushner story and that Kalorama mansion than Luksic Craig claims. The president’s son-in-law is a quo looking for a quid, and when it comes to making that sort of delicate arrangement, Andronico Luksic Craig appears to be a real pro.

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.

Labor Day, 2013: Will Big Mining Do Better This Time Around?

On Labor Day, I’ll be in New York City, so I won’t be able to see the television broadcast premiere of 1913 Massacre on Twin Cities Public Television. How many will tune in? How will the broadcast cut of the film look and play on TV? Above all, I wonder, what connections will the Labor Day TV audience draw between 1913 and 2013? My comments here run this holiday weekend on MinnPost.

Many people Ken and I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming 1913 Massacre urged us to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that had introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me to Calumet and the Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors.

But there were limits to their benevolence. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers – Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice “sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly-technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents; and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. Polymet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs – just 25% — will go to local communities. Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property. Overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

gogebicguard

Bulletproof Securities patrols Gogebic Taconite’s property in northern Wisconsin.

The Hysteria of H.R. 761

The authors of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (H.R. 761) complain that we depend on China — can you believe it? China! — for rare earth minerals that are “vital to job creation, American economic competitiveness and national security.” But the Act, which passed in a House Committee on Natural Resources vote on May 15, 2013 with bipartisan support, will effectively ease regulation of foreign multinational mining companies operating in the United States, including those who mine here and market U.S. minerals in — yes, you guessed it — China.

Bureaucratic delay puts “good-paying mining jobs…at the mercy of foreign sources,” according to the Act. Our security and prosperity are threatened from without, so we need to protect ourselves from within; and we are asked to believe that the surest way to do that is to replace careful assessment and regulatory oversight of risky mining operations with new efficiencies. The Act laments the weight of “onerous government red tape”: if only Atlas would shrug.

The authors of this act do not even try to disguise their contempt for the role of government in regulating industry and the “environmentally responsible development” they purport to uphold. Citing a report by international mining consultancy Behre Dolbear Group (with offices in Beijing, Chicago, Guadalajara, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, among other places, where, presumably, its teams of advisors and engineers steadfastly champion the strategic and economic interests of the United States), they note that “the United States ranks last with Papua New Guinea out of twenty-five major mining countries in permitting delays, and towards the bottom regarding government take and social issues affecting mining.”

That last clause about “government take” and “social issues affecting mining” gets sneaked into the sentence here without consideration for the social effects mining operations have: society here is just in the way of business and taxes or takings are just a burden. This is reckless thinking, but it’s carefully smuggled into discussions of the Act with the distracting reference to Papua New Guinea. That line snorts mockery and imperial contempt, and it’s intended to shame and prompt outrage — like the newspaper headlines the ranking inspired: The Wall Street Journal: “U.S., Papua New Guinea at Bottom of List for Mining Permit Delays.” Mineweb: “Protracted Permitting Delays Depress U.S. Mine Investment.” The Hill: “U.S. Wins Race to the Bottom on Mining Permits — Again.” The comparison with Papua even figured into an article by M.D. Kittle in the Wisconsin Reporter: “Wake Up, Environmentalists: Your Cell Phone Was Mined Somewhere Else.”

Needless to say, these newspaper discussions aren’t balanced by any appreciation of the complex social, environmental and human rights issues around mining in Papua New Guinea (or the United States). The promoters of H.R. 761 certainly aren’t going to invite debate on the situation in Papua — where growth in the mining sector has brought corruption, violence, and environmental devastation. Their intention is clear: they want to hold up Papua as one of those foreign and dirty places, a slow, corrupt and silly place, a little, squalid, underdeveloped and dark place. Certainly not an efficient place.

Lest the Chinese enslave us or we end up living like pygmies in grass huts, we have to make it easier for big mining companies to give Americans jobs. That is the hysteria just under the surface of H.R. 761. The legislation is so broadly and poorly written, and either so cynical or so ill-conceived, that any mining operation will be able to claim its protection from regulatory oversight. The “strategic and critical” exemption from government interference and delay will be repeatedly invoked, as it was by Republican Chip Cravaak in 2011, who at the time represented Minnesota’s 8th district in the U.S. House.

Before his defeat in 2012, Cravaak advanced the claim that exploiting the copper and nickel resources of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota would be “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” According to a 1978 law, those areas can only be mined in case of national emergency; but Polymet, a Canadian company, has been working since 2006 to obtain permits for an open pit mine in Superior National Forest. They negotiated a land exchange and loan scheme to get around the prohibition. Cravaak waved the stars and stripes for them on the Hill. Meanwhile, Toronto-based Polymet made a deal with the Swiss company Glencore to sell its American metals on the global market. At the time, Elanne Palcich noted, demand was especially strong in China and India.