Tag Archives: Chinese urbanization

A Postscript on Weird Timing and Pending Collapse

Since I wrote my last post on Eagle Mine, I’ve been thinking about the thing I most wanted to say and never managed to say. I’d hoped in that post to call attention to the weird timing of Conibear’s announcement, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. The company announced the start of mining operations in the Yellow Dog Plains right in the wake of the People’s Climate March, and during a week when world leaders were gathered at the UN to discuss the global climate crisis and acknowledge the fragile condition of the biosphere.

The Eagle announcement never takes any of that into account. It makes some predictable noises about environmental responsibility. You don’t have to listen very hard to hear the dissonance.

Hands up during the 12:58 moment of silence at the People's Climate March. Just before this, a group led a chant that went something like: "Keep the tar sands in the ground / Close the mines and shut them down." Other than that I didn't hear too much talk about mining at the march.

Hands up during the 12:58 moment of silence at the People’s Climate March. Just before this, a group led a chant that went something like: “Keep the tar sands in the ground / Close the mines and shut them down.” Other than that I didn’t hear too much talk about mining at the march.

That this mining operation poses an immediate threat to the Yellow Dog watershed hardly needs saying. As I mentioned in my last post, Lundin Mining cannot point to a nickel and copper mining operation in the U.S. or Canada that has not polluted groundwater or surrounding waters, and there is no reason to believe that Eagle will be the magical exception — despite the company’s claims that the water they are discharging is drinkable. No one who makes that statement should be taken seriously, let alone believed, unless he follows it with a nice big glass of minewater, and fetches one for the kids while he’s at it.

Eagle is just the start. The bigger mining, leasing and exploration boom all around Lake Superior only magnifies the threat. One of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The timing couldn’t be worse. Freshwater ecosystems are under greater pressure than ever before. Just this week, the Living Planet Index reported a 76 percent decline in freshwater species since 1970. That alarming statistic is one very clear indication of pending environmental collapse, and reason enough to protect Lake Superior from any further encroachments by risky mining operations.

It’s disconcerting, too, that the new mining around Lake Superior was spurred, in no small part, by Chinese growth and urbanization, which put a new premium on copper and nickel; and of course urbanization in China — which starts with pouring cement and raising stainless steel — will only aggravate emissions, further compromise China’s freshwater resources, and hasten environmental collapse. It is hard to see how this can end well, and it’s difficult for me to understand why anyone would pretend it is sustainable.

The weirdest twist in all this may be that this new mining operation goes into production just as China appears to be slowing down, after two decades of heady growth. As a result, “money managers are bearish on copper,” reports Bloomberg’s Luzi Ann Javier in a review of commodity ETFs; and “global inventories of nickel tracked by the London Metal Exchange are at an all-time high.” There is a glut. The warehouses are full. Right now, at least, it looks as if the rush is over.

Miner’s Almanac

It’s difficult for me to read the grim news of the chemical spill in West Virginia without thinking immediately of my friends in Minnesota. “A 23 year gap in oversight” is now listed among the chief causes of the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River. How, in the wake of this disaster, or in light of any of the other industrial spills and explosions and disasters that seem to be in the news nearly every week, can anyone in Minnesota still seriously entertain the idea that Polymet Mining will maintain water treatment facilities for up to 500 years at its open-pit sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes?

If Freedom Industries, the Department of Homeland Security and other government entities can’t keep track of one storage tank in West Virginia for less than a quarter century, how are we going to keep track of a toxic site on Lake Superior for five centuries? The whole thing seems so absurd, like a really bad joke, told with a sinister wink and a nod.

As I tried to suggest in a previous post, the debate over Polymet’s 500 year water treatment model projects responsibilities so far out into the future as to render them utterly meaningless, making a farce out of the very idea of oversight or even what in the ugly parlance of the regulator is called “environmental impact.”

But just a couple of weeks ago, in a roundtable on Polymet aired on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program, host Cathy Wurzer dutifully took up her part in the farce, fidgeting with her fancy glasses to indicate that she was being serious and inquiring of her guests whether this “has this been done, this kind of treatment, over this amount of time, has it been done successfully elsewhere?” Really? I half expected someone to remind Wurzer that reverse-osmosis technology wasn’t exactly around in the year 1514. Instead, Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, politely answered: “we certainly have no models or examples of successful mitigation over that period of time,” and to her credit she kept a straight face and even managed to cite “over 42 exceedances” of water quality standards at Eagle Mine in Michigan, where water is treated through reverse osmosis – and the mine has not even yet gone into production.

Only later in the program did Becky Rom, of the organization Sustainable Ely, suggest that “it’s not rational to believe” that the facilities Polymet builds today will last “for hundreds of years.” That’s exactly right: it’s completely irrational. In fact, it’s a ridiculous fantasy – or a pathological delusion — to think that Polymet itself will be around fifty or one-hundred or five-hundred years from now, and “always in compliance” as Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota declared on the same program.

But that’s only the most egregious falsehood that Polymet and pro-mining groups are asking us to credit.

Pro-mining guests on Almanac were also trying to foist on the public the idea that the mining of copper and nickel at the Polymet site will be no different — – in terms of its potential effects on the land and water — from the mining that has been historically done on Minnesota’s Iron Range. That is patently untrue, but it tugs at the heartstrings and appeals to the nostalgia and pride that the immigrant mining story still inspires: that’s why Polymet has already secured a place for itself in Minnesota mining history on its website, and it’s also why Carly Mellin, who hails from the Iron Range and serves as Assistant Majority Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, played the heritage card at the end of the program: “we’ve been mining 132 years on the iron range and we still have an absolutely beautiful region of the state,” she said, in what sounded like a clearly rehearsed closing remark, “and I plan to continue for it to be beautiful after copper-nickel mining.” Lucky for her there was no time for people to press her on what exactly those plans are and how she plans to realize them.

For his part, Frank Ongaro kicked off the entire debate with a misleading statement that cast Polymet’s mining project as a matter of self-sufficiency – a project done in the national interest:

We’re sitting in Minnesota on one of the largest deposits of copper, nickel, platinum metals in the world – metals we’re import-dependent on for everything we use, every day in our life.

Carly Mellin reiterated the point a little while later. There may be some traces here of an earlier argument that proponents of HR 761 tried to advance – claiming that mining near the Boundary Waters was “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” But here Ongaro is really making a cheaper appeal, to jingoism and state pride, and at first blush, he makes a certain amount of sense. Why import what we have in abundance here? If we have metals or other resources we need, why not use them instead of relying on imported stuff?

The copper and nickel taken out of the Minnesota ground will not stay in Minnesota and be smelted and worked as in the days of yore by hardworking Minnesota craftsmen into sturdy tools and smart technologies that twenty-first Minnesotans can use. Mining copper and nickel on the Iron Range may, in fact, have the unintended effect of exposing the region in new ways to the turbulence of the global commodities marketplace.

Rio Tinto’s play for Michigan copper was never about Michigan; it was part of a bet on continued Chinese growth and urbanization. The price of copper – U.S. copper, Chilean copper, Mongolian copper – rises and falls these days on Chinese demand. Copper and nickel mined on the Iron Range will not make us more self-sufficient or serve the strategic interests of the United States. At best, those minerals may be warehoused here for a while, in New Orleans and in other ports; but they are destined for the international market.

This is the cat Frank Ongaro was desperately trying to keep in the bag when Becky Rom called Polymet “a shell company” for Glencore Xstrata, the Swiss global commodities giant. (With about 35 percent of all shares. Glencore is Polymet’s largest investor.)

Rom: I think you have to understand that Polymet isn’t going to be around at year 20. This is a shell company that’s shielding its major investor —
Ongaro (clapping his hands): That’s not true!
Rom: Glencore, that’s known for corruption, and environmental and labor violations —
Ongaro: Every company that operates in the state of Minnesota –
Rom: and at the end…at the end —
Ongaro: –will have to follow state laws, period.
Rom: –at the end of twenty years when they have done extracting the metals and earning their revenue, all they will have as an asset is a polluted mine site. So…we the taxpayer…will carry…the burden for what is going to be in fact hundreds of years.

Eventually, of course, the truth will out. But with precious little time left in the 90-day public comment period that began on December 14th, it needs to come out now.

Haul Road to China

Ore Truck
The mid-day flight from Marquette to Detroit last week was delayed for a few hours, and while we waited I had a pleasant conversation with a man who was on his way back to San Jose, California. He’d been in the Upper Peninsula visiting his father and staying in a cabin that’s been in his family for several generations. “It’s a little red cabin,” he said, “the one you see in all the postcards and stuff.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the place, but I’ve been to the UP enough to know from his description roughly where the cabin is. It wasn’t until we were on our way to Detroit a few hours later that it dawned on me: his family cabin is situated right on the new Eagle Mine haul road.

Once the mine is in operation, ore trucks will pass by 100 times every day, making 50 trips down County Road 550 to US 41 via Sugarloaf Avenue and Wright Street. At the Humboldt Mill, the big trucks will dump their loads, turn around and make their way by the same route back to the mine. So much for those quiet family retreats to the picture-postcard cabin. He might as well turn the place into a diner or gas station, or open a 7-11.

Haul roads and trucking routes have been a point of contention ever since the Eagle Mine was planned, and they are now a bigger issue than ever, with the City of Marquette announcing last week that it wanted a new environmental review of any plan to haul ore down the Big Bay Road, through woods and over blue-ribbon trout streams, past the NMU campus, and into the town’s commercial district. It seems people in Marquette are finally realizing with horror what’s going to happen to their beautiful city and the nearby wilderness areas once those trucks start hauling ore out of Eagle.

Rio Tinto huffed and bluffed about their haul route for years, and when plans for County Road 595 fell through, they huffed and bluffed some more about the multi-million dollar investment they would make to upgrade existing roads. Who knows what Rio Tinto told Lundin Mining about infrastructure when they sold the Eagle Mine; but (as I noted in a previous post) Paul Conibear, Lundin’s CEO, did not seem fully in possession of the facts, or was not very forthcoming about what facts he possessed, when he said that good roads were one of the things that made the Eagle Mine so attractive.

An old timer in the Upper Peninsula once told me with pride that you can drive US 41 south all the way from the Keweenaw to Miami, Florida. He could not have imagined where that same road now leads. The ore trucked down US 41 will likely end up in China, where urbanization on a scale and at a pace we can hardly imagine is driving demand for materials like the copper and nickel that northern Michigan has in abundance. Rio Tinto’s business strategy depends on rapid Chinese and, more broadly, Asian urbanization (and with the imminent opening of Oyu Tolgoi — which will ship copper from Mongolia directly to Chinese smelters — the road from Eagle must have seemed an awfully long and unnecessarily expensive haul). The Chinese government’s ambitious plans to move hundreds of millions of people into megacities and move the country to a consumer economy shape the business decisions of mining companies and will also help determine the price Michigan copper and nickel fetch. That’s why analysts who foresee a further Chinese slowdown or predict the bursting of the Chinese credit bubble advise shorting Rio and other big mining stocks.

An article about Chinese urbanization in the Times last month characterized it as a risky, large-scale, “top-down” social experiment which has already exacted huge costs: across China, rural villages are being razed, temples torn down, farmers forced from their land and moved into high-rise towers, fields and farmland paved over — often by government fiat. A little imagination and you can see the Marquette haul road as a remote extension of that effort, and it doesn’t take much imagination at all to appreciate that the road will exact its own social and environmental costs. The truck route from mine to mill will carve a noisy, busy, dirty industrial corridor along Big Bay Road and right through the city of Marquette — threatening wildlife all along the route and permanently changing the way people live around the Lake. Everything is at risk of becoming roadkill.