Tag Archives: environmental stewardship

Dialogue at the Rock

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources aerial photo of Flambeau Mine, after reclamation.


Bill Rose, Professor Emeritus at Michigan Technological University, hopes the big rock brought over to the university from Eagle Mine — three and a half tons of nickel-copper sulfide, suffused with platinum and rare elements — will be a site for respectful gatherings. Rose says he wants to get beyond divisive and fruitless “bickering” over mining, and hopes for “constructive dialogue about mining, its opportunities and threats.” That’s a conversation many people in the Upper Peninsula have been trying, and mostly failing, to have for more than a decade.

Building dialogue about mining is notoriously difficult, even in the friendliest jurisdictions. Part of the trouble — but only part of the trouble — is that companies come to the table having invested enormous amounts of capital (and usually in a panic to service their debt and start delivering for shareholders). They are focused on the short term and the near horizon. It’s not surprising they often refuse to listen, listen badly, or try to co-opt the dialogue from the outset; and that puts people on guard. Public participation usually gets kettled to “public comment” periods overseen by a government agency or sham community forums (like the ones Rio Tinto tried to stage in the Marquette area back around 2012 and 2013). Before too long, ordinary people realize decisions about the place they live are being made elsewhere, without them.

Professor Rose says he wants “the public to participate,” but it’s unclear from his remarks (as reported) exactly he means by that, or how far beyond gawking at the big rock and marveling at new mining technology he and his colleagues want public participation to extend. Where does his invitation lead? The dialogue about mining seems to be already set within a familiar public relations narrative that is rushing toward conclusions.

This narrative features the idea that sulfide mining can now cover its tracks through reclamation and water treatment, leaving no lasting effects. So Dean Wayne Pennington (who was on hand to announce the revival of a mining engineering as a degree program at MTU) expressed confidence that new mining methods will “ensure that no legacy situations are left for future generations.” In this context, “legacy” is code for water pollution. Examples of sulfide mining’s toxic legacy are not hard to find. Some examples of “no legacy” mining would have helped Pennington’s case.

The stock example from Eagle Mine public relations — which has also been used in promoting the Polymet project in Minnesota — is the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Flambeau is a Rio Tinto/Kennecott project advertised as a sulfide mining reclamation success story, despite repeated litigation over less than satisfactory water quality results. The mining company won in the courts, but Flambeau remains controversial.

For his part, Rose likened “mining with environmental responsibility” to dentistry. That is not supposed to make you squirm in your chair; it’s meant to reassure people that new technology will be sufficient to address environmental concerns about sulfide mining. It also goes further, portraying mining as therapeutic — an extraction necessary to relieve pain and maintain health. Before the conversation even gets underway, we are being asked to accept technology as a proxy for responsibility and to see mining as a way of caring for the earth.

This is the story created around the big rock at Michigan Tech: the greening of mining and the benevolent power of technology. Mining is being naturalized here — made part of or partner to nature; nature, the earth itself is being remade and reclaimed by new mining technology. This theme emerged again with a new twist at the dedication ceremony, when Michigan Geological Survey Director John Yellich stood beside the big boulder to push for a new geological survey.

Yellich started out praising the “infrastructure” of the UP: “we have electrical, we have internet access and we have roads better than what [they] were.” But in a confusing turn, he moved quickly — in the same breath — from talking about mining-friendly infrastructure to talking about “people coming in and enjoying what we have here in the UP.” Yellich was obviously trying to find a way to finish his statement for the TV cameras, and end on a positive note; so he played the Peninsulam Amœnam card, and talked about mining in language ordinarily reserved for tourism.

For a brief moment, we were asked to imagine that haul roads (a continuing source of controversy and litigation around the Eagle Mine project) were scenic lakeside byways for Sunday drivers or winding paths through a quiet wood, and that UP tourism would benefit directly from further mining development.

It appears this new dialogue about mining is already off to a confusing, false start.

Sustainable Development, Derailed

train-derailment-sept-ilesOn Thursday of last week, an avalanche derailed a Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway freight train owned by Iron Ore of Canada as it made its way north along the banks of the Moisie River.

Divers recovered the body of Enrick Gagnon, the train’s engineer,  just this morning. The train’s lead locomotive is still completely submerged in the Moisie and another is partly submerged. Each locomotive holds about 17,000 litres of diesel fuel, and a 20 kilometer slick — “a silvery layer” — has spread over surface of the Moisie. The train was not hauling ore; its freight compartments were empty for its northbound run.

The Moisie and its watershed are part of a designated aquatic reserve, so the river is technically protected from mining activity; but so far as I can tell, the 16 mile stretch that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway line runs along the Moisie was built in 1954, when mining first began in the region, and more than fifty years before the Quebec government published its conservation plan.

One stated aim of that plan is to protect native species, including and perhaps especially the Atlantic salmon running in the Moisie. As nearly every report on the Moisie catastrophe notes, the pristine waters of the remote northern river are internationally renowned for salmon fishing.

For the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam, whose traditional territory the Moisie crosses, the river is much more: it is, in the words of one newswire report, a thing of “inestimable cultural value.”  So development in Innu territory continues to risk the inestimable for the merely estimable: in this case iron ore, jobs, growth. The Innu, who call themselves “the true owners of the land,” say they never consented to the tradeoff, and that the mining operation in their territory violates “international law, particularly the principle of ‘free, prior and informed consent.’”

Now, with this trainwreck, the Innu have an environmental crisis on their hands; but over the past couple of decades, the Innu say, they have also witnessed a gradual and “cumulative” effect on the environment and their community due to “the intensification of industrial activities” in the Sept-Îles region.

Iron Ore of Canada has a lock on the region’s economy, and development opportunities in the Labrador Trough are, in the words of IOC’s CEO Zoe Yujnovich, “potentially unconstrained.” Rio Tinto, which owns the majority stake in IOC, recently increased annual production capacity for the region from 18 to 23 million tons of ore concentrate, and plans to open a new mine called Wabush 3 to help meet that goal.

A 2013 publication touting Rio Tinto’s “Sustainable Development” plan for the region notes that the additional revenue generated by IOC’s “wholly owned rail company” will keep pace with growth: “use of the railway is set to increase significantly in the next few years as a result of our own expansion projects and junior mining startups in the area.” In other words, more trains than ever will be traveling along the Moisie, from Labrador to Sept-Îles Junction.