Tag Archives: copper mining

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

First in a Series

oretrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?

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.

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.