Tag Archives: hubris

The Big Drain on the Yellow Dog Plains

One of the more compelling themes of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has to do with what she calls our “Faustian restlessness,” the irrepressible, ambitious intelligence that made it possible for human beings to venture forth and multiply in the first place, and which now appears likely to be our undoing. We have launched a thousand kinds of ships, built bridges and towers and televisions, blasted mountaintops, traveled to the North Pole, dammed rivers, bored tunnels, felled whole forests to ease our way and launched rockets to the moon. Brilliant engineers, intrepid voyagers, seekers and conquerors, we’ve remade the world in our image and likeness, or at least to our liking, and in the process significantly rearranged and unalterably damaged the biosphere. In the course of our short time here on earth, we’ve managed to paint our way into what looks very much like a suicidal corner.

“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it,” she writes, “which…is also the capacity to destroy it.”

Kolbert doesn’t mention mining except in passing — and then only twice, both times to talk about mining (along with logging and other extractive industries) as a threat to biodiversity. But I was reminded of her discussion of human restlessness and recklessness in The Sixth Extinction as I read mining engineer Jack Parker’s Letter to The Editor in the April 21st Marquette Mining Journal.

Parker’s “basic contention” when he first studied the Eagle Mine in 2006 is one he still maintains: “the design data for the mine had been fudged, and that can be proved easily, provided that the regulating agency and their courts do not collude in the fraud.” Unfortunately, he charges, to date the Michigan DEQ and courts have so colluded. For reasons that are not too hard to surmise, the mining companies, from Rio Tinto to Kennecott to Lundin, have “studiously ignored” his finding: it is simply unsafe to mine at Eagle. “The prognosis for the Eagle, if mined as planned, is for sudden, unexpected collapse and flooding.”

Parker has been the Cassandra of the Eagle Mine for nearly a decade. The successive owners of the Eagle Mine have tried to refute him with their own geological data, but the current plan “to handle the situation by mining upward, assessing conditions as they go, and stopping if conditions so indicate” is tantamount to an admission of concern that Parker may be right. Unfortunately, he writes, they “refuse to learn from case histories” like the overnight collapse of an 1800 foot thick crown pillar at the Athens mine near Negaunee in 1932. As Parker describes it, the plan to mitigate risk at Eagle amounts to nothing more than a whole lot of lies and denial mixed with reckless determination.

In other words, even if the bid for Eagle Mine’s nickel is not the con game Parker alleges it is, it may turn out to be a Faustian bargain of the kind Kolbert describes — a hubristic feat, a  confidently-engineered ecological disaster.

A collapse at Eagle Mine of the sort Parker predicts from his study of the area’s geology would be far more serious than the Athens cave-in, even if there were no worker injuries or fatalities, and even more disastrous than the big slide at Bingham Canyon. One big reason is water. A sentence in Parker’s letter drives this point home: “A sudden collapse of the mine structure would drain the wetlands, the aquifers and the Salmon Trout River very, very quickly.”

Take a moment to picture that.

The big drain on the Yellow Dog Plains would wreck the place for a long time to come.

It would extinguish life in the Salmon Trout River and the surrounding watershed. It would kill indiscriminately. Among its victims would be the Coaster brook trout, whose numbers on this side of the Canadian border have dwindled into the mere hundreds.

The contours of the Coaster story are hauntingly familiar: it could have been lifted right out of The Sixth Extinction. Overfishing began around the 1840s, when European settlers first arrived in the region. Subsistence fishing soon gave way to sportfishing. Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle R.B. fished for brook trout in the 1860s, and in his 1865 monograph Superior Fishing he recommends putting just “a pinch of salt” in the brook trout’s mouth, “roll him up in a few folds of newspaper, dip the swaddled darling in the water, light a fire, and place him in the embers. When the paper chars, take him out and eat him at once, rejecting the entrails.”

But even before R. B. Roosevelt was spitting trout entrails, as early as the 1850s, the habitat of the Coaster brook trout was heading for trouble. As Donald R. Schreiner of the Minnesota DNR et al. note in an article in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, “logging and pollution from industry in rapidly expanding communities” had already begun “degrading stream habitat and further reducing brook trout abundance.” Mining was especially destructive. Schreiner and his colleagues cite the work of Charles Kerfoot (who appears briefly at the end of my film 1913 Massacre to describe the toxic legacy of the last round of Lake Superior mining):  “In the 1900s, mining activity impacted thousands of acres in the Lake Superior watershed and discharged more than 1 [billion*] tons of tailings along Lake Superior shorelines….Many streams have been impounded over the last 150 years, altering the hydrology and affecting brook trout migration and spawning and general habitat availability.”

Of the four or five hundred adult Coaster brook trout left in U.S. waters, about half swim and breed in the Salmon Trout River; most of the rest live in freshwater streams on nearby Isle Royale. (There are, however, reports of Coasters in the Baptism River and in other parts of northern Minnesota; at the moment, while the jury is still out on the Polymet project, it’s unclear whether those areas will be spared the coming mining boom). Despite their rapidly declining population, in 2009 the US Fish and Wildlife service denied a petition by the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club to have the Coaster declared an endangered species. It came down to a technical discussion of whether the potamodromous (or fresh-water migrating) Coaster met the “distinct population segment” provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is trying to establish a self-sustaining population of Coasters in northern Wisconsin, and a Minneapolis-based group called the Greater Lake Superior Foundation has set up and funded a Coaster Brook Trout Research Unit; but it’s unclear that these well-meaning efforts could make up for the devastation of the Salmon Trout River.

Parker has inquired about insurance in the event of a big collapse, but, he writes, “I haven’t heard from the insurance people yet”; and I have yet to find anything like a disaster-mitigation plan for the Yellow Dog Plains.

A Reply to Dan Blondeau

When I sat down to reply to a comment from Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine on my Mining Renaissance post, I found that I’d written what is, essentially, a new post. So I’m running my reply here instead of in the comments thread.

Here is Dan’s comment:

Louis and others commenting here – is there any way you would support mining anywhere? I highly doubt it. Large, long-life deposits are few and far between now. Smaller projects such as Eagle, Polymet and so on are becoming the typical scale of mining. Instead of just bashing the industry and focusing on events that happened decades ago, perhaps you could take a more positive and collaborative approach to your concerns. Thank you

Here’s my reply:

I take it that by “events that happened decades ago,” you are referring to the story told in my film 1913 Massacre. That story from what you correctly characterize as a bygone era of mining first drew me to the Upper Peninsula, and it would be dishonest or disingenuous to say that it doesn’t still color my thinking. But since completing that project I’ve tried to stay focused on what’s happening in the area now.

At the same time, the unresolved past and the present are not so easily kept apart. For example, the conversation after our screening of 1913 Massacre at the DeVos Art Museum last October went almost directly and without any prompting to the new mining up around Big Bay and across the Peninsula. I believe the film resonates with people in the UP (and in other parts of the country) not just because the immigrant experience it documents is the quintessential American experience, but also because the basic questions it raises are still very much alive today.

That aside, I am not sure why you read me as “bashing the industry” here. My post focused on sloppy and hopelessly compromised journalism. I don’t think of mining as something I would “support” or not support.  It would never occur to me to put it that way, and I’m not for or against mining per se. In some of my posts, especially those on Shefa Siegel’s work, I try to acknowledge mining’s crucial role in what Orwell calls “the metabolism of civilization”; and I’m trying to understand how bigger changes in the commodities markets and the global economic picture are driving the new mining around Lake Superior. But I also think it’s important to appreciate the real risks and the potential cost of copper and nickel mining operations in the Lake Superior watershed, and to question whether it really will create lasting prosperity for the UP or the Lake Superior region. Those are (for me) the big issues the new mining raises, and I think they are issues that any honest conversation about mining (or the development that mining brings) needs to take into account.

As I tried to suggest in my post, Kocazek just ignores them, and I wondered why she didn’t try to take them on – especially since she writes for a publication dedicated to water issues. And not just any publication: Circle of Blue, which was founded by J. Carl Ganter (who served as vice-chairman of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security) and which has ties to – it is a “non-profit affiliate” of – the prestigious Pacific Institute.

As for taking “a more positive and collaborative approach,” I am all for it, or at least I am all for genuine collaboration. I don’t really know what a “positive…approach” would entail in this case apart from boosterism. As I say, I don’t consider myself a mining booster or a mining basher, but an observer, still (and no doubt always) an outsider, despite my many trips to the UP, exploring a place and trying my best to document what’s happening there. I’m open to having my views challenged and being shown where I am wrong or where there’s a better way to talk about or do things. (And for that reason I appreciate you taking the time to comment here.) I don’t think there can be any collaboration unless each party is willing and able to listen and – this is important – ready to yield to the other. In other words, listening goes beyond making concessions to the other in conversation: it means doing things differently in response to the other’s demands. (This is a theme I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Power of Asking, and one that I come up against over and over again when I write about mining issues.)

Am I often critical of what mining companies are doing in the UP and around Lake Superior? Sure, and I am troubled, as well, by the almost hubristic level of confidence the mining industry places in technology and engineering, even in the face of disasters like the Bingham Canyon collapse; its worrisome record on environmental and human rights issues nearly everywhere in the world mining is done; and the power and distorting influence it exerts on politicians and public debate – in the UP and elsewhere.

I still think there’s plenty of opportunity for collaboration and dialogue. If I did not, I would just call it quits; but giving up on dialogue is tantamount to giving up on people. In the area of human rights, for instance, I believe there’s still opportunity for collaboration around the Ruggie principles (despite the doubts I’ve expressed about them) and – in the Lake Superior region – around the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Both frameworks (as well as the work done by the Lake Superior Binational Forum on Responsible Mining in the Lake Superior Basin) are decent places to start enumerating in a serious way the responsibilities and obligations that mining companies have in a region where human rights concerns and freshwater issues are intertwined.

In fact, I think genuine and ongoing collaboration on these efforts is essential, because I don’t think the mining industry can do it alone, or is the appropriate party to set the agenda here.

Steel — and Snow — In The Air

michwis

“We have been blessed with good weather” in the Upper Peninsula, Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear told a small group of analysts on the 3rd Quarter earnings call last week; “I think Indian Summer has arrived.”

We’re well, well advanced on concrete. Lots of steel in the air. The warehouse facilities we have are chockablock full of equipment that’s been delivered, just waiting for the concrete to cure to start placing.

Conibear says he was in the UP with the Lundin Board of Directors and an entourage of analysts and investment bankers at around the same time I was, but they probably didn’t venture far from Marquette. There, it still felt like October. Mornings were cold and damp. Days were mostly sunny.

In the Keweenaw, hail and snow and rain would fall, and then the sun would burst through the clouds and the sky would clear — all in the space of an hour or two. Before I reached Bessemer, big flakes of snow were falling steadily, and it had started to blow. I asked the woman wearing a Packers jacket behind the counter at the gas station if she thought it would stick. “Already is,” she said.

Lundin needs to keep moving ahead. Though it boasts of having “no high risk, major capital projects,” it’s clear that when it comes to Eagle Mine, high-powered analysts like Pierre Vaillancourt of Macquarie Securities are looking for “any opportunities to decrease the capital intensity a little bit.” Conibear had to admit there wasn’t much room to maneuver:

We’ve inherited a project [from Rio Tinto] that was 50% constructed and designed and 99% complete and permitted, and the clear instructions to the team is you don’t touch anything on the project that has any risk of requiring permit complexity. So yes, the bus [sic, not the train] has already left the station on being able to change any physical aspect in any significant way. You know if we were given a blank sheet of paper would it be designed differently or would it have a different flow sheet or something? Probably, but that’s years ago.

I can’t help but wonder how deep these misgivings about the design of the Eagle project run, especially given the flaws mine engineer Jack Parker and others have pointed to, and if Conibear and his engineering crew are pushing ahead with Rio Tinto’s design and flow sheet despite serious flaws. It’s hard to tell just from these remarks.

In any case, they’re “going as fast as possible” at Eagle. By pushing the schedule, Lundin Mining hopes “to get some capital cost improvement”: “the sooner we bring it in for sure the less overhead there is.”

Delays – and, I imagine, any protracted controversy over the Eagle haul route — will be costly. On site, big ore bins need to be installed before winter. The mechanical electrical piping contractor is already at work. Lundin has “modified the contracting strategy” around the Eagle project to take advantage of “a very competitive contracting marketplace” in the UP, and now “there’s quite a buzz going on” at both the mine and the mill sites. Progress underground is ahead of work on the mill. Conibear seems confident Lundin can commission the mine before the end of Q2 2014, and have the mill running and first ore shipped by the end of next year.

And yet, despite even the best-laid plans, winter is on its way. I saw the first signs of its approach around Lake Gogebic. The next day, in Minnesota, when I cut west on Route 1 from the Palisade Head, the big pines on either side of the road were dusted with snow. It all looked so gentle and dreamlike and the places I drove through had dreamy, faraway names: Finland. The Baptism River. This could not have been the harbinger of the “severe winter” Conibear talked about on his earnings call. It presented itself with quiet grace, like a spell to lull the world into long, deep sleep.

Nature can be the miner’s undoing: “all it takes is one mother nature event to throw you out,” Conibear explained. Whatever cost efficiencies Lundin achieves by speeding up the schedule or managing contracts at Eagle may be foiled by storms or snows or other forces beyond its control. In Andalusia, where Lundin has the Aguablanca mine, “it rains like hell starting about this time of year.” In 2010, it rained so hard that a collapse – a slope failure — shut down Aguablanca until August of 2012.

Margaret Thatcher and the Power of Asking

Margaret Thatcher, whose passing is not just in the news but almost all the news today, famously said: “in politics if you want anything said ask a man. If you want anything done ask a woman.” The occasion was a speech to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds Conference, in 1965. The remark was almost prescient: for the next twenty five years, Thatcher would make a career of doing things in politics.

While she was a gifted speaker, she often expressed impatience with the speechifying politicians who served with her: “she developed abrasiveness into an art form. She despised, above all, consensus,” wrote Hugo Young in The Guardian a day after her resignation as Prime Minister, in 1990. Eventually, of course, that inability to compromise would be her undoing: “Just as her triumphs were often rooted in her zest for combat, her refusal to listen to advice and her unwillingness to admit that she could be wrong, so were these the sources of her last predicament.”

Young applies the word “hubris”:

she saw too little value in the art of compromise. Leadership, for her, was equated too often with the satisfaction of her will. How often, when challenged with being overmighty, did she deride the notion of a leader who gave precedence to other virtues than strength. She was a conviction politician, but too often scorned the reasoned statement of different convictions, sometimes by her closest colleagues. Argument she relished, as long as she won, but persuasion she neglected. Give-and-take and the other techniques of sweet reason were alien to her nature. This made for abrasive and often decisive government, but it was fatally disabling for any kind of collective leadership.

Sometimes the exercise of soft power is the hardest thing of all, especially for an Iron Lady. Thatcher knew how to do what she thought politics or history required of her, and rarely yielded to others. Maybe, as Young would have it, this was some kind of tragic flaw. In any case, in the coming days we can expect more talk about her virtues as a leader; but let’s also pay attention to Thatcher’s shortcomings, her failure to appreciate the power of “give-and-take.” I would say that kind of power — the power we achieve, and share, when we ask, listen and yield to others — matters as much, if not more, than the power to command.

What’s Mozambique to Michigan?

Tom Albanese has stepped down from his position as CEO of Rio Tinto, after the mining giant announced a $14 billion dollar writedown. While most of those losses were connected with Alcan, the aluminum business, the company also lost $3 billion on a coal project in Mozambique. That’s by far the more interesting aspect of the story, and it’s one that deserves attention not just from investors, industry analysts and Africa watchers, but also from those (like me) with an eye on the company’s operations around Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Here’s how it all went down in Mozambique. A couple of years ago, Rio Tinto acquired Australian-based Riversdale Mining for $4 billion. Riversdale had a number of coal projects going in Mozambique near Tete, “the coal capital of the world.” Logistics – moving coal in significant quantities from the mines in the Moatize Basin – was a challenge. Some coal mined at Benga could move by rail, pending “final approval by government authorities.” Still, that was only a partial solution; “long term logistics,” as a Rio Tinto presentation [pdf] put it, would be required once the Zambeze and Tete East projects were in full swing.

The company proposed moving Zambeze coal by barge on the Zambezi River. Barges would travel from Tete to the port of Chinde, on the Indian Ocean. The promised solution would not only make the coal business boom in Mozambique; it would also allow for “future growth” and “provide a catalyst for further socio-economic development in [the] region.” The company sought approval for its Zambeze River project by autumn of 2011 and planned to start coal barging by 2014.

All very well, except the Mozambique authorities never approved the transport of coal on the Zambezi.

How could the Mozambique authorities refuse Rio Tinto? After all, the company’s own Environmental Impact Report showed that coal-barging on the Zambezi would have no “significant” environmental effects.

Mozambique Transport Minister Paulo Zucula saw things differently: “the impact was seen to be very negative, and there were no plans for mitigation. As proposed it is not doable,” he said. Barging would adversely affect the river’s fish and dredging would increase the likelihood of floods: “every four years we have problems with flooding and killing people. So if you’re going to dredge the river, expand the banks, we will be in trouble.”

Zucula suggested Rio Tinto move its coal by rail. He has championed the construction of a new railway line from Moatize to the port of Nacala, and helped secure a $500 million investment in the $1.5 billion project from the Dutch government and the European Union. So Zucula may not have been solely concerned with the fate of the Zambezi’s fish or the people living along its banks. But the purity of Zucula’s motives is really not at issue. The issue is that Rio Tinto seriously miscalculated and overplayed its hand in Mozambique.

A blogger in the Financial Times today sees here “a useful lesson for other mega-project investors in emerging markets.” He doesn’t say what that useful lesson is. I’m certain it’s something more than the need for prudence, and that it extends beyond emerging markets. It has to do with overconfidence – hubris, even: “Rio knew what the challenge was. It just couldn’t find an effective answer.” And yet, it forged ahead, certain that it would prevail upon the authorities in Mozambique to see things its way. That was just plain arrogant.

Sam Walsh, the new CEO of Rio Tinto, should take this $3 billion lesson in humility to heart. At the very least, he and the board of directors might ask whether the company’s failures in Mozambique are the outcome of behaviors that are in evidence elsewhere.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the company is developing the Eagle Mine, it faces a set of challenges of the same kind if not of the same magnitude as those it faced in Mozambique. The mine is being built on a site sacred to Native Americans and will be situated in the heart of the Yellow Dog Watershed, which feeds into Lake Superior. The company has run roughshod over Native American claims and issued familiar and predictable assurances that it will be a responsible steward of the environment – whatever that means when you’re extracting sulfide ore in the middle of a fragile watershed ecosystem. As for logistics, Rio Tinto was banking on the approval and construction of County Road 595, despite local opposition and concern from environmental regulators, just as it banked on the approval of the barge plan in Mozambique.

What could possibly go wrong? Rio Tinto had big Michigan politicians on its side: Debbie Stabinow, Dan Benishek, Rick Snyder, Matt Huuki. Even the Romney campaign was for County Road 595. But the EPA along with local environmental groups objected. After much wrangling, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the wetlands fill permit for the new road just a couple of weeks ago, on January 3rd: the road did not meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Rio Tinto has now had to shift financial support from this $82 million project to improving and upgrading existing roads. It’s as if the company’s blunder in Mozambique found a faint but telling echo in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.