Tag Archives: Kathryn Hoffman

A Mining Renaissance?

On the Almanac program I discussed in yesterday’s post, Kathryn Hoffman cited “42 exceedances of water quality standards” at Eagle Mine to make the point that reverse-osmosis technology isn’t as effective as mining proponents in Minnesota make it out to be. I was expecting some rundown of those exceedances in Codi Kozacek’s January 8th article about Eagle Mine on Circle of Blue; but Kozacek focuses, instead, on the Eagle Mine water-monitoring agreement Rio Tinto struck with Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust two years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Kozacek seems to have traveled from Hawaii (where she’s based) to the UP to do some interviews and take some photographs: it appears she was there in summertime. But so far as I can tell she’s based her article on a “case study” jointly commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership, a piece of bespoke research entitled Unity of Place: Giving Birth to Community Environmental Monitoring.

In fact, the opening of Kozacek’s article documenting – or should I say celebrating? — this “unprecedented” water-monitoring agreement seems to be nothing more than a loose paraphrase of that publication, which tells the story of how the community around Eagle Mine gained “a measure of power over the mine. And it was Rio Tinto that gave it to them.”

Leave aside for the moment the preposterous idea that that power was Rio Tinto’s to give in the first place: the Unity of Place case study simply asks us to accept that business can and will decide the power society has over it, and Kozacek seems untroubled by the notion. That Rio Tinto sold Eagle Mine to Lundin Mining after descending from the heights to strike this unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the little people living around the mine does not give her pause, or raise questions about the mining giant’s good faith or much-touted commitment to the community around Eagle; and Kozacek only gets around to mentioning the sale to Lundin 28 paragraphs into her 34-paragraph story.

For the sake of balance, she includes a couple of interviews with “skeptics,” people who remain, to this day, distrustful of the water monitoring agreement but express the hope that it will have some good effect. She mentions the uranium leakage discovered at Eagle last year, which she offers as proof of the success of the program in alerting “the public to potential water quality threats,” quoting the Superior Watershed Partnership’s Jerry Maynard (who is also featured prominently in Unity of Place): the monitoring program, he says, “is gaining the trust and respect of the community….We want this to get out there—we want other mining communities to say ‘we want this too.’” But she fails to mention any other exceedances or violations – I guess she missed that episode of Almanac before filing her story — and apparently didn’t bother looking into the new water story now unfolding around Eagle Mine: the renewal of the mine’s groundwater discharge permit. (Michele Bourdieu has that story over at Keweenaw Now.)

My guess is that Kozacek is unfazed by any of these questions and complications, because the real story she wants to tell here is the story of a mining “renaissance”: she uses the word a few times in her article, once as a header and then twice in the body:

The Eagle Mine is viewed as either on the leading edge or the troubling future of a mining renaissance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that has seen more mining bust than boom in the past 50 years. Just as in the oil and gas industry, improvements in mining technology are making previously overlooked ore bodies economically attractive. Rapidly developing countries, particularly China and Brazil, are driving demand for iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold.

But many of the once booming mine communities in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, operating with a fraction of their historical populations and downtowns darkened by empty storefronts, are eager for a mining renaissance.

Not a return of mining. Not a re-opening of the mines. Not a new mineral leasing, exploration and mining boom (which would have to be followed by yet another bust). A mining renaissance. It’s an odd word for someone writing about water issues to choose. I wonder if the ungainly use of the word “birth” in the subtitle of the Rio Tinto-Superior Watershed case study inspired Kozacek here: with the “Birth” of “Community Environmental Monitoring” advertised on the cover and on every recto page of that pamphlet, why not imagine a rebirth – and wouldn’t the word “renaissance” be so much more elegant? – of mining?

MinersAtVillanders

Renaissance miners, in the early 16th-century stained glass window of the Villanders parish church.

It’s at best an ugly parody of historical discourse, but I take it that it’s intended to give the new mining around Lake Superior a historical stature that it would otherwise seem to lack. In the second of the two paragraphs I’ve quoted here, Kozacek even imagines the area longing to emerge from a kind of Dark Age, or at least “darkened” downtowns, into renewed prosperity.

But in the first of those paragraphs, I must admit, she does a pretty good job of spelling things out. New extractive technologies have made it not only possible but “economically attractive” (read: highly profitable) for large multinational players to mine previously neglected or abandoned ore deposits, extract oil from tar sands and drill for natural gas by fracking. Chinese urbanization and rapid development in the BRIC countries continue to drive and raise demand for minerals and fossil fuels, as economic power shifts away from developed, Western economies.

Communities in the Upper Peninsula and all around Lake Superior are now feeling the pressures of these bigger changes. Whether they will bring renewal — or more boom and bust, or just catastrophic demise – is another question altogether.

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.