Tag Archives: haul road

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.

The Political Project Continues, Even if the Case is Dismissed

Earlier this week, the EPA filed its Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, requesting that Judge Robert Holmes Bell stick with his dismissal of the case. Just a day later, State Senator Tom Casperson, chief political architect of the MCRC lawsuit, was defeated by Jack Bergman in his primary bid to run against Lon Johnson for Dan Benishek’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Prospects for the haul road are dimmer than ever, reduced to a fine point of administrative law — namely, whether EPA’s objections constitute “final agency action” or are merely “an interlocutory step” that continues the administrative process. (If the latter, the case remains dismissed.) In the likely event of the lawsuit’s failure, Stand UP, the dark money organization funding it, might fold or it might try to convert itself to other political purposes. As a 501(c)(4) it can legally do that, as long as it continues to satisfy the vague requirements of a “social welfare” organization.

Casperson still has two years left to serve as a Michigan State Senator; and while he was unable to translate gripes about federal overreach into victory on a bigger political stage (to hear him tell it, people below the Mackinac Bridge just don’t get it), Bergman, the Republican candidate, seems just as hostile to effective environmental regulation. He is, for instance, an advocate of the REINS Act (S. 226 and H.R. 427), a cynically designed piece of polluter-friendly legislation that aims to undermine rules like the Clean Water Act and allow politicians and lobbyists to second-guess science. So it’s important to remember that the Road Commission’s lawsuit over the haul road has always been bound up with a larger, coordinated political project, and that project will continue well after the judge considers the last brief in this case.

Does Eagle Mine Have Social License to Operate?

Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear hit all the right notes when he announced last week that Eagle Mine is now in production. Completed ahead of schedule and on budget, the new nickel and copper mine on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula marks “a tremendous achievement”:

The Eagle Mine is a significant new, high-quality, low-cost mine, that has been constructed to the highest of safety, environmental and social responsibility standards.

Our team has done an exemplary job in bringing the mine into production, and we look forward to the operation becoming a significant cash flow generator for the Company and a significant contributor to the local and regional economy. We would like to thank all employees and contractors for their dedication and excellent work in addition to all local stakeholders for their ongoing support.

Analysts and investors seemed pleased as well, and happy to take Conibear at his word. The company’s share price, which had been trending downward, ticked up the day after the announcement. Lundin Mining is “hitting the ground running,” declared one enthusiast, who goes by the pseudonym The Investment Doctor and published his report right on the heels of the company’s press release; “and it’s rare to see a large scale project being completed ahead of schedule. The production is starting just in time to benefit from a strong nickel price.”

Those inclined to follow the Doctor’s advice may wish to consider that his analysis focuses solely on nickel production, and makes no mention of what’s happened to copper prices lately: they’ve plummeted (though, to be fair, they now seem to be rebounding slightly).

In any case, the whole picture may be a little more complicated than the mining company and its boosters would have us believe. Eagle will count as “a significant contributor to the local and regional economy” only if you overlook the effect the mining operation is bound to have on tourism (which currently makes up around 20 percent of the Marquette area’s economy) and the many other detrimental and distorting effects mining will have on the economic life of the Upper Peninsula. Economist Thomas M. Power has run these down. For one thing, he observes, mining operations can hinder entrepreneurship and innovation, and drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers. They prefer not to live around a mine, or on the haul route from mine to mill; nowadays even the miners would rather commute. It remains unclear, too, how the region will benefit in the long term, after the accessible ore runs out and Eagle shuts down.

So one has the feeling that the tepid term “contributor” in Conibear’s statement about the broad economic benefits of the new mining operation was chosen with care: it positions the mining company as a social benefactor, but it reserves any talk of wealth generation for the “flow” of cash into the company coffers. Some will trickle down: the contribution Eagle makes to the economy will be “significant”; but even saying that leaves wiggle room to back away from stronger and more specific language about job creation that was used to promote the project in the first place. The main object here is to reassure Lundin’s creditors.

To bring the bigger picture into focus, we also have to take into account the social costs and environmental risks associated with this new mining operation. When Conibear says that Eagle Mine was built to “the highest of…standards,” I guess he’s talking about mining industry standards. At least some environmental and community groups have different and even higher standards, and they are not satisfied with DEQ enforcement to date or with the Community Environmental Monitoring Program established by Rio Tinto and the non-profit Superior Watershed Partnership (for which Lundin Mining will pay $300,000 annually). For local stakeholders like the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who opted out of the Superior Watershed Partnership deal, the new mine falls short on many important counts. Together with the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron Mountain Club and the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the KBIC sued, only to lose in the Michigan Court of Appeals in August of this year; but that loss hardly means the concerns that motivated the twelve-year legal challenge to the mine were without merit.

The stark fact remains that like Rio Tinto before them, Lundin Mining cannot point to a single example of copper and nickel mining in the United States or Canada that did not pollute surrounding waters or groundwater. Questions raised by Jack Parker about the geological stress field of the Yellow Dog Plains — and the risk of “sudden collapse” he alleges was covered up by regulatory collusion — continue to be “studiously ignored.” Haul road construction has been mired in controversy: it took corporate wrangling of the County Road Commission and exercise of eminent domain to push through the the current route; and that road work has already violated the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

The point is not to multiply examples or revisit all the controversies that still surround Eagle Mine. Now that the mine is in operation, some of these issues may even be “moot,” as a writer in Crains suggested after the decision by the Court of Appeals in August. But taken together, they raise the question whether Lundin Mining has done enough (since purchasing the Eagle operation from from Rio Tinto) to earn the trust, let alone gain the support, of local stakeholders who were not already in the mining camp or the mining company’s pocket. So far, Lundin has demonstrated that it can bulldoze ahead and get stuff done. Its claim to social license remains unsettled.

Mine? What Mine?

Haul road construction for Eagle Mine has already polluted the Salmon Trout River, but unless you’ve been following the Eagle Mine story closely you wouldn’t know that after reading in the local paper about this minor disaster: a road crew’s accidental “exposure” — or rupture — of a perched groundwater seep. “Dirty Roadside Runoff,” by John Pepin, a Marquette Mining Journal staff writer, never once mentions Eagle Mine or Eagle’s parent company, Lundin Mining. Pepin is scrupulous at least in this regard: he keeps the mining company clean.

(The Mining Journal is available online to subscribers only, but you can read it on a phone or tablet if you download the paper’s free app).

The front page item sidesteps any mention of Eagle, laying the “unlawful discharge of sediment and turbid water to a wetland ravine” — which violates the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act — at the feet of the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DEQ sent a violation notice directly to the Road Commission on August 4th; to date, so far as I can tell, Lundin Mining and Eagle Mine were not put on notice either by the DEQ or the EPA. Nor, it seems, will the local press hold the mining company accountable. Instead, the Journal seems to have taken pains to keep the company’s name out of the dirt, and keep the reading public in denial. (Those looking for a more honest and more informative account will find it here, on the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve’s site).

Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve's site features this photo -- data August 6th -- and other photos of the perched seep's destruction.

Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve’s site features this photo — dated August 6th — and other photos of the perched seep’s destruction.

Let’s be clear. The Road Commission has undertaken this “upgrade” of County Road AAA for the mining company; there is no other reason for the work, and no other reason to advertise the work as an upgrade except to pretend that the Eagle Mine haul route will benefit the public in some way. The truth could have been stated in a single sentence: Lundin will be the primary if not the sole beneficiary of the road work on the AAA.

Pepin’s article never comes close to stating that one simple fact, and never even hints at the controversy over the haul route that led to this disaster. But this is about more than shoddy journalism or what might even be a case of corporate capture at the editorial offices of the Mining Journal.

As Lundin prepares to bring Eagle online, and as the mining boom proceeds all around Lake Superior, clear lines of accountability are critical — and need to be carefully drawn. Big miners continue to “de-diversify” and juniors are trying to scale up: in the turmoil, we’ve seen mine properties around Lake Superior flipped (e.g., Copperwood, or Eagle itself); others, like Twin Metals, thrown into limbo; and who can tell what effects Lundin’s big South American acquisition of Freeport’s Candelaria (in partnership with Franco-Nevada) will have in this northern district?

In a situation like this, where ownership stakes are changing hands and companies are exerting undue influence over public officials, accountability can get blurry and responsibilities neglected. The last thing we need — when the future of Lake Superior itself is at stake — is a compliant and servile press adding to the confusion.