Tag Archives: coaster brook trout

The Big Drain on the Yellow Dog Plains

One of the more compelling themes of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has to do with what she calls our “Faustian restlessness,” the irrepressible, ambitious intelligence that made it possible for human beings to venture forth and multiply in the first place, and which now appears likely to be our undoing. We have launched a thousand kinds of ships, built bridges and towers and televisions, blasted mountaintops, traveled to the North Pole, dammed rivers, bored tunnels, felled whole forests to ease our way and launched rockets to the moon. Brilliant engineers, intrepid voyagers, seekers and conquerors, we’ve remade the world in our image and likeness, or at least to our liking, and in the process significantly rearranged and unalterably damaged the biosphere. In the course of our short time here on earth, we’ve managed to paint our way into what looks very much like a suicidal corner.

“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it,” she writes, “which…is also the capacity to destroy it.”

Kolbert doesn’t mention mining except in passing — and then only twice, both times to talk about mining (along with logging and other extractive industries) as a threat to biodiversity. But I was reminded of her discussion of human restlessness and recklessness in The Sixth Extinction as I read mining engineer Jack Parker’s Letter to The Editor in the April 21st Marquette Mining Journal.

Parker’s “basic contention” when he first studied the Eagle Mine in 2006 is one he still maintains: “the design data for the mine had been fudged, and that can be proved easily, provided that the regulating agency and their courts do not collude in the fraud.” Unfortunately, he charges, to date the Michigan DEQ and courts have so colluded. For reasons that are not too hard to surmise, the mining companies, from Rio Tinto to Kennecott to Lundin, have “studiously ignored” his finding: it is simply unsafe to mine at Eagle. “The prognosis for the Eagle, if mined as planned, is for sudden, unexpected collapse and flooding.”

Parker has been the Cassandra of the Eagle Mine for nearly a decade. The successive owners of the Eagle Mine have tried to refute him with their own geological data, but the current plan “to handle the situation by mining upward, assessing conditions as they go, and stopping if conditions so indicate” is tantamount to an admission of concern that Parker may be right. Unfortunately, he writes, they “refuse to learn from case histories” like the overnight collapse of an 1800 foot thick crown pillar at the Athens mine near Negaunee in 1932. As Parker describes it, the plan to mitigate risk at Eagle amounts to nothing more than a whole lot of lies and denial mixed with reckless determination.

In other words, even if the bid for Eagle Mine’s nickel is not the con game Parker alleges it is, it may turn out to be a Faustian bargain of the kind Kolbert describes — a hubristic feat, a  confidently-engineered ecological disaster.

A collapse at Eagle Mine of the sort Parker predicts from his study of the area’s geology would be far more serious than the Athens cave-in, even if there were no worker injuries or fatalities, and even more disastrous than the big slide at Bingham Canyon. One big reason is water. A sentence in Parker’s letter drives this point home: “A sudden collapse of the mine structure would drain the wetlands, the aquifers and the Salmon Trout River very, very quickly.”

Take a moment to picture that.

The big drain on the Yellow Dog Plains would wreck the place for a long time to come.

It would extinguish life in the Salmon Trout River and the surrounding watershed. It would kill indiscriminately. Among its victims would be the Coaster brook trout, whose numbers on this side of the Canadian border have dwindled into the mere hundreds.

The contours of the Coaster story are hauntingly familiar: it could have been lifted right out of The Sixth Extinction. Overfishing began around the 1840s, when European settlers first arrived in the region. Subsistence fishing soon gave way to sportfishing. Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle R.B. fished for brook trout in the 1860s, and in his 1865 monograph Superior Fishing he recommends putting just “a pinch of salt” in the brook trout’s mouth, “roll him up in a few folds of newspaper, dip the swaddled darling in the water, light a fire, and place him in the embers. When the paper chars, take him out and eat him at once, rejecting the entrails.”

But even before R. B. Roosevelt was spitting trout entrails, as early as the 1850s, the habitat of the Coaster brook trout was heading for trouble. As Donald R. Schreiner of the Minnesota DNR et al. note in an article in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, “logging and pollution from industry in rapidly expanding communities” had already begun “degrading stream habitat and further reducing brook trout abundance.” Mining was especially destructive. Schreiner and his colleagues cite the work of Charles Kerfoot (who appears briefly at the end of my film 1913 Massacre to describe the toxic legacy of the last round of Lake Superior mining):  “In the 1900s, mining activity impacted thousands of acres in the Lake Superior watershed and discharged more than 1 [billion*] tons of tailings along Lake Superior shorelines….Many streams have been impounded over the last 150 years, altering the hydrology and affecting brook trout migration and spawning and general habitat availability.”

Of the four or five hundred adult Coaster brook trout left in U.S. waters, about half swim and breed in the Salmon Trout River; most of the rest live in freshwater streams on nearby Isle Royale. (There are, however, reports of Coasters in the Baptism River and in other parts of northern Minnesota; at the moment, while the jury is still out on the Polymet project, it’s unclear whether those areas will be spared the coming mining boom). Despite their rapidly declining population, in 2009 the US Fish and Wildlife service denied a petition by the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club to have the Coaster declared an endangered species. It came down to a technical discussion of whether the potamodromous (or fresh-water migrating) Coaster met the “distinct population segment” provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is trying to establish a self-sustaining population of Coasters in northern Wisconsin, and a Minneapolis-based group called the Greater Lake Superior Foundation has set up and funded a Coaster Brook Trout Research Unit; but it’s unclear that these well-meaning efforts could make up for the devastation of the Salmon Trout River.

Parker has inquired about insurance in the event of a big collapse, but, he writes, “I haven’t heard from the insurance people yet”; and I have yet to find anything like a disaster-mitigation plan for the Yellow Dog Plains.

Polluting the Future — A Question of Human Rights

Last week, the organization Earthworks released Polluting The Future, a report focusing on “the staggering amount of our nation’s water supplies that are perpetually polluted by mining” and the “rapidly escalating national dilemma” of perpetual mine management.

Perpetual is the key word here. Forty existing hardrock mines pollute 17-27 billion gallons of water per year, “and will do so in perpetuity,” for hundreds if not thousands of years. Include other mines likely to contribute to the problem, and take into account four new big mining projects currently being proposed, and the number jumps: to 37-47 billion gallons of polluted water every year. Pour that all into 8 oz water bottles and stack them one on top of the other and you can go to the moon and back about 100 times.

When Earthworks adds up the cost of treating this perpetual pollution, the figure is staggering: 62 to 73 billion dollars a year. That’s one very powerful way to talk about the social cost of mining — a cost that the mining companies (many of them foreign-based multinationals) are passing directly to the American public. The EPA “questions the ability of businesses to sustain” treatment and management efforts for the required length of time. That’s putting it mildly. As Earthworks points out, “most corporations have existed for far fewer than 100 years… Mining corporations simply won’t be around to manage water treatment that will continue for thousands of years.” They are passing along the true costs of their operations to all of us, for generations to come.

I was hoping to find some discussion of the proposed mining on Lake Superior. It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before — here and here, for instance — and I’m trying to put together a documentary project on the subject as well. So I was left wondering where the Rio Tinto / Kennecott Eagle Mine and the many other new mining projects around the perimeter of Lake Superior fit in the scheme Earthworks presents here.

It seems largely to be a question of scale. It may be easier for the mind to grasp the horror of open-pit projects with a “high risk for perpetual pollution” due to acid mine drainage, but acid mine drainage is also one risk of the sulfide mining projects about to be staged in and around the watershed of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes — Lake Superior. Again, the report singles out the Pebble Mine in Alaska, another Rio Tinto project, to talk about the threat that mine poses to “the nation’s largest wild salmon fishery”; but the new mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula threatens the natural habitat of the coaster brook trout, the Salmon Trout River in northern Marquette County. So there are a couple of ways to make connections between the mining around Lake Superior and Polluting the Future.

Then there are the policy recommendations in this report — which range from enforcement of the Clean Water Act to other legislative and regulatory changes to hold companies accountable. Those all deserve careful consideration. What’s missing for me is something that came out of another report issued last week, this one by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the end of a ten day mission to assess the state of business and human rights in the United States, the UN delegation “noted the allegations of significant human rights impacts of surface mining, particularly the rights to health and water, and the deep divisions between stakeholders on the most effective ways of assessing and addressing the impacts.” (Significantly, for those who have followed the controversy over the Eagle Mine project, the UN team also looked at “the rights of Native Americans, particularly as regards the lack of free, prior and informed consent for projects affecting them and sites of cultural and religious significance to them.”)

So I would like to talk about the Earthworks report in this human rights context. The discussion might start with the very first sentence of the report, which characterizes water as “a scarce and precious asset.” The word “asset” makes me a little uneasy (but I would have to defer on this to people like Jeremy J. Schmidt, who together with Dan Shrubsole just put out a paper on the ethics and the politics entailed in the words we use about water). Think, for a moment, about how this discussion of perpetual pollution for immediate profit might be reframed as a human rights discussion. Or at least how the two perspectives — the environmental perspective and the human rights perspective — are complementary, and more powerful when taken together. The problem isn’t just that freshwater is a precious asset in increasingly high demand and short supply; it’s that when we permit big mining projects to pollute our water for generations to come, we are also failing to protect the human rights of our children and our children’s children, and so on, in perpetuity.