Tag Archives: environmental stewardship

A Comment on the Aquila Back Forty Wetland Permit

AquilaWetlandMap

An Aquila Resources map outlines the wetlands that will be impaired by its open pit sulfide mine on the Menominee River.

Earlier this morning, I sent this comment on the Aquila Resources Back Forty Wetland Permit to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Public comments may be submitted here until February 2nd.

To the MDEQ:

You have probably already received a number of comments on the Back Forty Mine wetland permit application from people who live out of state, as I do. Some of those opposed to sulfide mining on the Menominee River live on the Wisconsin side, just across or downstream from the proposed mine site. Others, across the country and around the world, are deeply concerned about the cumulative effects the current leasing, exploration, and sulfide mining boom around Lake Superior will have, and are alarmed to see federal and state regulatory agencies abdicating their responsibilities to the American public in order to do the bidding of foreign mining companies.

Denying the wetland permit is the only prudent and responsible course for MDEQ to take.

As the organization American Rivers noted when it placed the Menominee River on its list of “most endangered” rivers in 2017, the Aquila Resources Back Forty project poses a “significant threat” of acid mine drainage to the river, and to the “cultural and natural resources of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes Region.” Allowing Aquila to destroy or compromise area wetlands to construct its mine will only heighten the risk of large scale environmental catastrophe.

The risk is compounded by both regulatory and scientific uncertainty. As you are well aware, the Menominee Tribe maintains that the MDEQ lacks authority to issue this permit, because under provisions of the Clean Water Act the Menominee River and its wetlands are federal waters. This question remains unsettled. In the meantime, a third party, independent review of Aquila’s wetland permit application found errors and inconsistencies regarding the company’s findings on groundwater drawdown and the mine’s feasibility analysis. The wetland permit application you are considering is either flawed, because the people who filed it are incompetent, or misleading, because they have something to hide.

Deceit might be Aquila’s best strategy at this point. The Back Forty project has no claim to social license — none. The Menominee and other Wisconsin tribes have been adamant in their opposition. Local residents are overwhelmingly opposed as well. Of the 90 people who had the opportunity to speak at the January 23rd public hearing in Stephenson, only 4 could muster an argument for the mine, mainly because they put stock in the vague promise of “jobs” made by mining proponents. The rest — 86 out of 90, or 95 percent — stood in opposition to the mine.

Even if Aquila is not deliberately misleading the MDEQ and the public, the Canadian company has demonstrated time and again that it is not a responsible steward of Michigan or Menominee lands. In archaeological surveys of the region, for instance, Aquila claims to have uncovered nothing of “historical significance.” That is telling. These surveys have found nothing because they fail, or refuse to see, the significant Menominee history and culture that is right in front of their eyes. As tribal members have made repeatedly clear, Menominee history, ancestry, and culture begin and end in the river, the land, and the forest. What is historically significant or meaningful is not merely a collection of artifacts; it is a way of life and a deep connection to place. The Back Forty Mine threatens to destroy that connection.

In sum, the wetland permit application is flawed, the company has no social license to operate, and allowing the Back Forty to go forward would violate the public trust.

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.