Tag Archives: community

In Michigan, Mining Makes An Asset of A Community

John Kivela just can’t stop thanking people, it appears. Last week, at a ceremony held under a tent at Humboldt Mill to mark the transfer of ownership of the Eagle Mine from Rio Tinto to Lundin Mining, State Representative Kivela was effusive in his praise of officials from the two multinational mining companies and, above all, grateful. According to a report in the Mining Journal, Kivela gave a shoutout to outgoing Rio Tinto Eagle Mine President Adam Burley (who will be moving to Rio Tinto’s offices in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is now North American HQ for one of the biggest mine disasters in recent history — the slide at Bingham Canyon); and then, it seemed, Kivela was unable to hold back any longer. He spoke from the heart:

Adam and the folks from Rio, thank you for your commitment to the community. Thanks for providing opportunities for Michiganders to employ themselves. Thanks for running a safe, clean, environmentally sound operation. That means a lot to the folks here. To our good friends from Canada, welcome to the community. Thank you for your investment. Thank you for taking a chance in Michigan and in the United States in this operation and I wish you all the best.

It was just folks gathered under that tent at Humboldt Mill — “folks” from Rio Tinto, “folks here,” who live in close proximity to the Eagle Mine operation, all just folks who belong to the same “community” — and how gracious of Kivela to extend a warm welcome on behalf of that community to these new arrivals, strangers to the Upper Peninsula but already “good friends,” no, “our” good friends, from Canada! Kivela must have generated enough warm friendly feeling under that tent at the Humboldt Mill — a brownfield site from the last round of mining — that everyone could forget, just for that one sweet moment, that most of what Kivela was saying was just obsequious, ingratiating nonsense.

The ceremony was held at the mill, not at the mine, and for obvious reasons: the Eagle mine is built on ground sacred to the Ojibwe people and construction of the mine is proceeding apace without their full, prior and informed consent (as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People). Many in the community are glad to see Rio Tinto go but are not ready to welcome Lundin, and Lundin has done very little to reassure them that things are going to be different at Eagle. There are folks within the community Kivela represents who don’t share Kivela’s confidence that Rio Tinto has run “a safe, clean, environmentally sound operation.” Charges of corruption and incompetence hang over the entire permitting and environmental impact statement process around Eagle Mine. And, according to a recent report, the investment made first by Rio Tinto and now, Lundin Mining is likely to have a distorting effect on the economy of the Upper Peninsula, and will not contribute to the area’s long-term prosperity.

As for Rio Tinto’s commitment: it lasted only as long as Eagle strategically suited the global mining giant. Eagle rapidly went from being a “commitment” to a “non-core asset”; and that’s where Lundin came in: they saw a valuable asset where Rio Tinto no longer did. “Adding a mine like this to our asset base is really formative for our future,” said Lundin President and CEO Paul Conibear at the ceremony. “We’ve been looking very actively for two years now to rejuvenate our asset base to bring on a high-quality new base metals mine.” Conibear could be Canada’s answer to Ponce de Leon, with all his talk about searching far and wide for sources of rejuvenation. Eagle Mine may not be the Fountain of Youth, but its mineral riches will be “formative for the future” of Lundin’s “asset base.”

That is why Lundin has made its investment: it really has very little to do with Michigan, or the community, or friends or folks at all. The Eagle Mine is an asset. The land and the water and the trees, the minerals in the earth, the friends and communities around the mine, all the things that people in the Upper Peninsula know and love, have already been set down on a balance sheet alongside Lundin’s other assets. (It’s interesting, by the way, that on this occasion, as on others, Conibear talked about Lundin’s mines in “Portugal, Sweden and Spain” and neglected to mention the company’s substantial share in the controversial Tenke Fungurume Mine, where Conibear served as Chief Operating Officer, then President and Director before he helped bring about the merger of Tenke and Lundin Mining.)

The community of friends gathered under the tent at Humboldt Mill doesn’t even appear to have entered into Conibear’s thoughts, or at least he does not mention them in his remarks as reported by the local press. Instead, Lundin’s CEO told a story of courage in the face of doubt, and of making tough choices: he acquired Eagle Mine “when metals prices are at a 5 year low” and when shareholders were asking whether this is the “right time.” These are the things that are most on Conibear’s mind: metal prices and market timing. He needs to placate skeptical shareholders, or prove them shortsighted. He seems confident that he will, and eventually they will thank him for adding this sulfide mining operation on the shores of Lake Superior to Lundin’s asset base.

People living around the mine, and all around Lake Superior, may not share their gratitude.

Drop the Mic: Rio Tinto Community Forums

Last month, in towns around the Big Bay area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, global mining giant Rio Tinto held the second in its series of “community scorecard” forums. At these events, people from the communities around Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Eagle Mine project are asked to score the company on its performance in five areas: environmental performance, local hiring, safety, transparency and communication, and, finally, something the company calls “leaving more wood on the woodpile,” which is supposed to be a folksy way of talking about the company’s contributions to the development of the region.

Rio Tinto prides itself on these forums: “to our knowledge no other mining company has introduced a tool that allows the community to regularly rate their performance, which is then made public. We hope with the Eagle Mine Community Scorecard the UP continues to set new benchmarks in how modern mining works with communities.” But after reading a few accounts of the forums and watching some video clips of the meetings included on Keweenaw Now, a local blog, all I see is a lost opportunity.

Turnout at these forums has been low — about fifty people showed up for the biggest forum in Marquette, and most of them were Rio Tinto employees — so the scorecard results, which the company touts as proof of social license, will hardly stand close scrutiny. “It’s a global mining corporation’s idea of democracy,” remarked Kathleen Heideman of Save the Wild UP. “First they show slides about how great they are — then we should click to indicate our agreement. That’s meaningless.” Even when the company allowed questions and comments before the scoring period at a May 15th meeting in L’Anse, the meeting could hardly be described as an authentic community forum.

Rio Tinto may think that with these forums it’s doing something entirely new, but in reality the company is making a lot of old mistakes.

If these community forums are going to be anything more than a public relations exercise with predetermined outcomes, the current design of the forum needs to be scrapped and they need to be radically reconceived. Voices from the communities around the Eagle Mine need to be heard and heeded — to use a phrase I’ve used elsewhere (e.g., here and here) to talk about what real listening takes — and the power dynamic in these forums needs to shift. Otherwise, I don’t see much chance of the forums making the slightest difference in how the mining company operates, how it contributes to the development of the region, and whether it can ever enjoy social license to operate in the UP. Those are all things Rio Tinto claims it cares about.

In the video clips posted on Keweenaw Now, you can see how things went. Put aside, for the moment, the content of the discussion (which, despite the company’s attempt to kill the discussion by PowerPoint, is rich and provocative — a real tribute to the local citizens who did their homework and turned out for the meeting). You don’t have to know anything about the situation in the Upper Peninsula to sense that things are amiss. Focus on just one very telling detail in the video clips: who’s holding the microphone? At Rio Tinto Community Scorecard forums, the Rio Tinto people stand at the front of the room and speak into microphones. Nobody else does.

This may seem like a small detail. There are, after all, big things at stake — the integrity of the environment around Big Bay and the Salmon Trout River, the economic future of the Upper Peninsula as well as the future of life on Lake Superior. Rio Tinto’s Eagle mine opens the first phase of one of the biggest mining operations in the world — which is about to be staged around one of the biggest freshwater lakes in the world. This is a critical turning point. All around Lake Superior, things are going to change: things are already changing. Surely it can’t matter who’s standing where and whether they are holding a microphone?

I think it might.

Here’s a typical clip, where Jeffery Loman of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community asks Rio Tinto’s Matt Johnson about the permitting process for discharging mining effluent into groundwater and surface water.

Johnson stands in front of his PowerPoint slides, holding the microphone as Loman, seated with the others in attendance, tries to engage him. At around 2:40 in the clip, when Johnson feels that the question is too technical for him to answer, he hands off to Kristen Mariuzza, Rio Tinto Eagle Project Environmental and Permitting Manager. And what does Mariuzza do? She marches to the front of the room and takes the microphone.

Mariuzza probably does this thinking that it’s the only way everybody in the room can hear her, or she’s so accustomed to presenting in a Rio Tinto corporate setting that she doesn’t know how to drop the act in other settings. Everyone can obviously hear Loman, who remains seated and addresses Johnson and Mariuzza in a normal tone of voice. It’s curious, isn’t it? Johnson and Mariuzza seem to be the only people in the room who require a microphone in order to speak and to be heard. Why do their voices need to be amplified above all others? That is, after all, what microphones do: they amplify one voice so that others are relegated to the background, or drowned out altogether. So both Johnson and Mariuzza are speaking over the community, and (I don’t choose this word lightly) dominating the discussion. The microphone sets the power dynamic of the situation.

Some of us are old enough to remember those corny Popeil TV commercials for a product called Mr. Microphone. The commercial runs through a number of different scenarios in which people use this amazing product to amplify their voices — transmitting it to a radio and broadcasting it for all to hear.

Essentially each scenario is the same: everyone finds Mr. Microphone amazing, but everyone is most amazed at the magical sound of his or her own voice coming through the radio. People around them laugh and notice, but the astonishment, the surprise, the wonder at Mr. Microphone is a deeply narcissistic pleasure. Something like that is happening here, to a lesser degree but with graver consequences. The people from Rio Tinto are amplifying — and most likely hearing — only their own voices, not the voices of others, and they are, I’d venture, deriving from that experience a false sense of satisfaction at having engaged with the local community.

What could they be doing instead? For starters, I would suggest they ditch the microphones, so that no one’s voice is amplified over all others. This won’t solve the problems being discussed, but it will increase the chances for voices from around the community to be heard. If people seated in the back of the room can’t hear what’s being said, then it can be repeated for their benefit: there’s value in repetition, as it gives everyone in the room a chance to assess again what’s being said and agree that someone’s view is being accurately communicated. Efficiency is not a virtue of real conversation.

If the Rio Tinto people are not standing at the front of the room holding a microphone, what will they do? Sit down — and not at the front of the room, where they are sure to command attention and where everyone must ultimately direct their remarks. There is no good reason not to sit in the same chairs that are comfortably accommodating the people with whom one is meeting. Again, this sounds like a minor adjustment, almost a point of etiquette, but I have seen this work wonders in classrooms deliberately designed so there is no front of the room, in corporate as well as academic settings. This way, anyone in the room can lead the conversation at any given time.

Now the room is starting to look like a face-to-face meeting — with everyone’s face at the same level and everyone seated at roughly the same distance from each other. Let’s not pretend for a moment that this will somehow put Rio Tinto on equal footing with the citizens in the room. Johnson and Mariuzza represent a multi-billion dollar global mining company with tremendous power and enormous reach in the Michigan legislature and beyond, to the highest levels of national government. In fact, Matt Johnson himself came out of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s administration to work for Rio Tinto as its local front man on the Kennecott project; Mariuzza also walked through a revolving door, out of government and into Rio Tinto. So there is a huge power disparity in the room — one that a simple conversation like this cannot bridge. But at least with these and other changes there might be a chance at conversation.

There are other steps the mining company can take if it is serious about developing these forums. Here are just a few:

Relinquish control. A credible, independent third party, someone who isn’t in Rio Tinto’s employ, should moderate and facilitate the conversation. Right now the flow of the conversation is controlled by the man with the microphone. A facilitator can help the whole group focus on issues, clarify what’s being said and ensure that people in the room are being heard.

Map the conversation. It looks as if right now there’s no way to capture what’s being said in the room and ensure that everybody agrees on what was said and that their point of view is being adequately represented. Video cameras record, but they also capture one point of view. Some sheets of white paper or a whiteboard would allow one person to track the conversation, and make it possible for anyone to stand up and edit, on the spot, what’s on them.

No more dog and pony. The PowerPoint show should be left where it belongs — back at the corporate office. It is a way to control the narrative, discouraging conversation, other points of view and other stories. If diagrams or maps are required for the conversation, then anyone in the room should be able to control the slideshow — and anyone in the room should be able to introduce slides.

These Community Scorecard forums may ultimately succeed or continue to fail, but people living around the Eagle Mine don’t need microphones or PowerPoint slides or corporate sponsors to talk about what’s happening in their communities. Towns and townships in the Upper Peninsula and communities all around Lake Superior may not have the clout of Rio Tinto or any of the other mining companies, but they have each other — and there’s great power in that, or at least there can be, no matter how much wood Rio Tinto leaves or does not leave on the woodpile.