Tag Archives: Lake Superior

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, Revisited

Judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed the Marquette County Road Commission’s case against the EPA back in May, and last week the Road Commission’s attorneys at Clark Hill PLC filed a motion to alter and amend that judgment. They complain that the Court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim is not only mistaken on points of law but, more dramatically, it allows the “EPA and the Corps to wage a war of attrition on local governments seeking to protect the health and welfare of their people.”

I was struck by this inflammatory piece of political rhetoric about federal overreach for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s just the sort of hyperbolical language Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson and StandUP, the 501c4 dark-money organization funding the Road Commission lawsuit, have used to frame the case for County Road 595 and advance what, in a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) last summer, I called the political project of MCRC v. EPA. Second, because the motion here tacitly admits that mining activity on the Yellow Dog Plains has put “the health and welfare” of people in Marquette County at risk. Rio Tinto and then Lundin Mining proceeded with their plans to mine copper and nickel at Eagle Mine and truck it to Humboldt Mill without a clear haul route. They not only went ahead; they were permitted by the state to do so. The risk was transferred to the public.

This is a familiar pattern, but the story it tells is not about federal overreach or intrusive oversight. Quite the opposite: it’s a story about mining companies rushing projects into production without due consideration for the communities in which they are operating, regulatory capture or lax oversight and enforcement, and elected officials who all-too-easily and all-too-conveniently forget where their real duties lie.

The June 13th motion doesn’t often have recourse to this kind of language. For the most part, the motion deals with fine points of administrative law, citing a few cases that it claims the court misread or misapplied. Probably the most important of these is the Supreme Court’s discussion of the Administrative Procedure Act in a May 2016 opinion, United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co.. (Miriam Seifter explains Hawkes over at ScotusBlog. Even with her very clear analysis in hand I can only hope to make a layman’s hash of things.)

In Hawkes, a company that mines peat for golf-putting greens — a process that pollutes and destroys wetlands — sought an appeal of “jurisdictional determinations” by the Army Corps of Engineers that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act.

The “‘troubling questions’ the Clean Water Act raises about the government’s authority to limit private property rights” came up for some brief discussion in Hawkes, notes Seifter, but that was not the main focus of the Supreme Court opinion. The case instead revolved around the question whether jurisdictional determinations are “final,” which in this context means they constitute an action “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.”

The Army Corps in Hawkes maintained that appeals of the Corps’ jurisdictional determinations should not be allowed, because the determinations of the Corps are still subject to review and are not “final” or binding. The court found unanimously in favor of the peat-miners, saying that determinations by the Corps were final — they would put legal constraints on the peat-miners, who would have to stop polluting or face penalties — and therefore could be reviewed in court.

In MCRC v. EPA, the Road Commission now seeks a decision along similar lines. “The Court erred,” the motion complains, “by holding that EPA’s veto was not ‘final’ because Plaintiff could submit a new application to the Corps.”

In other words, the court held that the EPA’s objections to County Road 595 weren’t the last word: they didn’t constitute “final agency action” and did not entail legal consequences or impose obligations the Road Commission didn’t already have. The Road Commission can even now take EPA’s opposition to the road under advisement, go back to the Corps and seek a new permit. They can continue to work with the EPA, whose objections to the road are “tentative and interlocutory”: there is still room for conversation.

The attorneys for the Road Commission don’t deny that the Road Commission could have gone back to the Army Corps of Engineers; but they say that it would have been time consuming, burdensome and ultimately futile, as the Corps had joined the EPA in its objections to the road, and the EPA’s objections had the effect of a veto.

This brings us back to the arguments advanced in the original complaint. The EPA didn’t just object to the Road Commission’s proposal; they unfairly vetoed the new road, in a “biased and predetermined ‘Final Decision’.” The Final Decision, according to the motion, took the form of a December 4, 2012 objection letter from the EPA to the Marquette County Road Commission, to which the Road Commission replied on December 27th. They did not receive a reply, and the EPA’s failure to reply was tantamount to a “refusal.”

The EPA’s refusal (or failure) to reply to the Road Commission’s December 27th letter indicated that their objections had “crystalize[d] into a veto,” according to the motion. “Unequivocal and definitive,” a veto is a final agency action, “akin” to jurisdictional determinations made by the Corps. What legal consequences flowed from the veto? For starters, the EPA’s Final Decision divested the state, specifically the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, of any further authority in the matter.

While this is not a new position for the Road Commission, the way the motion lays it out is nonetheless clarifying. The discussion of Hawkes, especially, brings into focus the question before the court — a question of administrative law concerning the “finality” of the EPA’s objections to CR 595. Of course that question entails others: whether the EPA’s failure to reply to the Road Commission’s letter of December 27th amounts to a refusal of the Road Commission, whether that refusal, in turn, crystalized their objections into a veto, and whether EPA vetoes are really “akin” to jurisdictional determinations by the Corps.

Stronger accusations are only being held at bay here. For example, it would be difficult to read the EPA’s failure to reply to the Road Commission’s December 27th letter as a deliberate refusal to reply without accepting the original complaint’s charges of bias and allegations of conspiracy at the EPA, or indulging its witch hunt for “anti-mining” attitudes and its demonizing of “activists.” But even if we are not willing to follow the plaintiff down that dark road, it would also be difficult, now, to overlook the serious dysfunction and administrative incompetence exposed by the Flint Water Crisis, which cost the head of EPA Region 5 her job, and which showed the world just how broken the system of environmental governance is in Michigan.

A Postscript on the Political Project of MCRC v. EPA

A ProPublica investigation of dark money organizations lends context and additional color to some of what I had to say a a short while ago about the Marquette County Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA.

Sponsored by State Senator Tom Casperson, the Republican representing Michigan’s 38th district, the MCRC lawsuit is being funded by a non-profit organization called Stand UP. Stand UP is exactly the kind of dark money organization profiled by ProPublica: it’s a special kind of non-profit, a 501c4 “social welfare” organization that is not required by law to disclose the names of donors. It does not have to confine its fundraising and expenditures to the MCRC lawsuit or any other specific purpose. It is a trough of dark money that can serve any number of political efforts.

So, as I tried to suggest in a series of posts on the MCRC complaint (here, here, here and here), while the lawsuit is nominally over a haul road that will serve both mining and timber companies, it also appears to be part of a larger, coordinated effort to sideline federal regulators, stifle local environmental watchdogs, and arrogate the authority and power to direct economic development in the Upper Peninsula to a set of undisclosed actors and moneyed interests.

Now, as Robert Faturechi reports, with efforts in 38 states to make non-profit organizations like Stand UP more accountable and transparent gaining ground, powerful conservative groups are “coaching” allies on how to fight back against any new legislation requiring the disclosure of dark money sources. The tactics they recommend should sound familiar:

Get the debate to focus on an “average Joe,” not a wealthy person. Find examples of “inconsequential donation amounts.” Point out that naming donors would be a threat to “innocents,” including their children, families and co-workers.
And never call it dark money. “Private giving” sounds better.

They urge dark money groups to claim the victim’s mantle and to see conservatives as “a persecuted class,” according to one January 2016 memo Faturechi uncovered. It’s “all part of a plan to choke off our air supply of funding,” they warn.

The documents presented by Faturechi were distributed at a conference held in Grand Rapids by The State Policy Network. The Network “calls pro-regulation activists ‘enemies of debate,’” and generally takes the line that regulation quashes freedom and criminalizes belief — a refrain often heard from climate change denialists — and that transparency will only threaten privacy.

The State Policy Network brings together conservative and tea-party organizations from around the country dedicated to “advancing freedom and making a difference,” so it’s well positioned to coordinate local efforts like the MCRC lawsuit against the EPA with other state, regional and national causes. In Michigan, the Network’s member organization is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Just last week, they ran a widely shared update (303 “likes” and counting) on the MCRC lawsuit in which Casperson crows about the progress they’ve made in the discovery phase of the suit and wails about prejudicial treatment at the EPA.

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

1

When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

2

Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

3

Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

4

Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

Two Upcoming Events In Marquette, Michigan

SWUP2015Gala

On Saturday, December 5th, I’ll be at Save the Wild UP’s December Gala, where I’ve been invited to give the keynote.

Save the Wild UP is a great local grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nature and the culture of the Upper Peninsula. The people at Save the Wild UP (most of them are volunteers) do the work of educators, naturalists, social scientists, industry watchdogs and field guides all throughout the year, and I hear they throw a great party, too.

If you can’t make it to Steinhaus Market on the 5th, and even if you live far from Marquette or have never been to the Upper Peninsula, check out Save the Wild UP’s website, learn about the critical work they’re doing, and consider making an end-of-year, tax-deductible contribution to support their work.

I’ll post the text of my remarks here after I talk.

On Monday, December 7th, the Peter White Library in Marquette will be screening 1913 Massacre,, the feature length documentary film I made with Ken Ross about the Italian Hall disaster and the Woody Guthrie song it inspired. Part of the library’s DocuMonday series, the screening is free and open to the public. The film starts at 7PM and runs 70 minutes, and I’ll stick around afterwards to take questions, talk and say hi.

Hope to see you there.

12-7DocuMonday

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.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 4

Fourth In A Series

A still from a Tom Casperson campaign spot, in which Casperson (left) says the UP is “truly someplace special…now facing truly special challenges,” among them, “standing against the EPA and the unreasonable overreach of other agencies.”

Demagoguery

Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson is the most visible political figure associated with the MCRC v. EPA lawsuit, the agent if not the author of its political project. We don’t know exactly what or how much he did to encourage members of the Marquette County Road Commission to take the EPA to court, what assurances were given and what expectations were put in place, as at least some of those meetings appear to have been conducted on the down low (and in violation of the Open Meetings Act). But the Escanaba Republican has never been shy about his support for CR 595 or his hostility toward the EPA.

Brian Cabell is stating what seems obvious when he links Casperson’s support for CR 595 to his business associations with timber and trucking in the Upper Peninsula, and it’s reasonable to believe that timber interests are among the donors to Stand U.P., the 501c4 dark money association funding the Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA. Before entering public life, Casperson succeeded his father as owner and operator of Casperson & Son Trucking, a log-trucking business started by his grandfather and based in Escanaba, Michigan. Associations like the Michigan Forest Products Council, the Great Lakes Timber Professionals and the Michigan Association of Timbermen support and celebrate the Senator’s achievements.

But those relatively direct and straightforward business associations are probably not the only ones in play here, and in supporting CR 595 and encouraging the CR 595 lawsuit, Casperson appears to be doing more than a little favor for himself and his friends back home in the timber and trucking industries. While a 2013 tally of Casperson’s supporters shows — not surprisingly for a Republican politician in the UP — that Michigan mining, timber and fossil-fuel PACs have been among his biggest backers, I suspect the MCRC lawsuit will serve an even deeper and more shadowy entanglement of alliances and alignments.

In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I’ve described the formation of a political authority, or power bloc, that now pretends to direct economic development in the UP and decide what’s in the region’s best interests. That project is closely bound up with Casperson’s own political ambitions, and those ambitions are hardly limited to advocating for this haul road. Tom Casperson covets a seat above his current station, a role on the national stage; or at least he once coveted that bigger role, and politicians don’t often reconcile themselves to less power than they think they deserve. In 2008, Casperson ran against Bart Stupak to represent Michigan’s first district in the U.S. Congress. He made a pretty good showing, with nearly 33% of the vote against the incumbent’s 65%. With Stupak’s successor Dan Benishek announcing in March that in 2016 he’s running for a fourth term (after pledging to serve only three terms), Casperson will have to cool his heels until 2018. In the meantime, however Senator Casperson has a constructive role to play.

Casperson gained a certain notoriety in 2013 when he expressed doubts during a radio interview about whether President Obama was born in the United States, but he never found his footing as a birther, at least not in public. He’s spent most of his political career fighting the EPA and the regulation of industry in Michigan. That’s apparently where his heart is. Back in 2008, when he ran against Stupak, Casperson represented oil drilling as “lining up with my core beliefs.” At the time, he also claimed that the National Environmental Protection Act (passed in 1970) has regulators “walking around looking for amoebae on the ground so that they can find something to block timber sales,” and whined that environmentalism was “bringing the country to its knees.”

In 2011, Senator Casperson introduced a resolution (SR-10) “to impose a moratorium on greenhouse gas, air quality, and other regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency” and require the EPA to account for the cumulative economic effect of “all regulatory activity” on climate change, air quality, water use, and coal ash. He recently joined Dan Benishek in opposing the Obama administration’s modifications of the Clean Water Act as “regulatory overreach” — echoing the point urged by other conservative opponents of the rule, who lined up obediently behind mining, fossil-fuel and energy producers, big agriculture and fertilizer companies like Koch.

Blaming the “war on coal” — the phrase itself is borrowed from the lexicon of climate change denial — for the closing of Marquette’s Presque Isle coal plant, Casperson warns that “there is no bigger threat to affordable, reliable electrical service to our districts than the EPA.” He grandstands about the EPA at every opportunity: “At some point,” he said back in March, “somebody’s got to take a stand here or they will take our way of life away from us. Clearly, they don’t like mining, clearly they don’t like timbering and quite frankly it appears they don’t really care much for us using the great outdoors unless they give us their permission and I think that’s unacceptable.”  

For Tom Casperson, any and every environmental regulation poses an existential threat. Against this ever present danger, he is out to protect what he frequently calls the UP “way of life” and force a David and Goliath standoff with the federal government. “The burdensome regulations proposed by the EPA,” he said when introducing a bill calling for a halt to the regulation of wood-burning stoves, “are an overreach of government and need to be stopped to protect our way of life.” “If we don’t pay attention,” he warned in a recent interview, “we’re going to get run over here.” On that occasion, he wasn’t talking about the danger of ore trucks barreling through downtown Marquette; he was rising to the defense of barbecue grills.

The barbecue resolution Casperson introduced this year with State Senator Phil Pavlov (and which passed the Michigan legislature unanimously) is an unabashed exercise in demagoguery. “Barbecues are an American tradition enjoyed by families from all walks of life across the country,” it begins, “whether tailgating for a football game, hosting a backyard get-together, or just grilling a summer meal, barbecues are a quintessentially American experience and an opportunity to eat and socialize with family and friends.” What prompted this noble defense of American tradition and the quintessentially American experience of barbecue? Of football, get togethers, and families from all walks of life across the country? Nothing much.  

In an EPA-sponsored competition, students at the University of California, Riverside were awarded a grant of $15,000 for proposing “to perform research and develop preventative technology that will reduce fine particulate emissions from residential barbecues.” That’s all there was to it. But those prize-winning students and their particulate emission preventing technology posed enough danger for Casperson — along with Missouri State Senator Eric Schmitt, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Allen West and others of their ilk — to start hyperventilating about Obama and the EPA “coming after” our backyard barbecues. It looks like a loosely coordinated effort, with all the shills singing from the same sheet.

It’s a common tactic used to stir up popular sentiment against the regulation of polluters: when big pesticide users don’t like a new rule clarifying which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, the demagogues tell small farmers that even a little ditch on their property will be counted among the “Waters of the US”; when regulators take aim at the fossil-fuel industry, the demagogues make dark predictions about the end of s’mores and campfires.

This is, by the way, the second time the Michigan legislature has fallen for this particular barbecue canard; the last time was back in 1997, when the Michigan House unanimously approved a resolution protecting barbecue grills against over-reaching federal bureaucrats. Casperson’s resolution was a reboot. Back in the 90s, and again in 2014 when Texas Senator Pete Olson demanded the Clean Air Act had to be amended if Texas-style barbecue were to be saved, the phony patriotism around Americans and their barbecue grills was a flag-waving effort to thwart the EPA’s proposal of stricter ozone limits. This time? Maybe rallying the troops around their barbecues helped to galvanize anti-EPA sentiment in the fight against the new Clean Water Act rule, or capitalize on the Pyrrhic victory the Supreme Court handed to industry in Michigan v. EPA.

A watchdog blog notes that Casperson’s “legislative record directly reflects the money trail,” but the equally important point — the one that I want to emphasize here — is that Tom Casperson’s efforts in the Michigan legislature appear to be connected and aligned with other legislative and extra-legislative efforts to ease environmental regulation and advance extractive projects and industrial development. The MCRC complaint presents a sterling opportunity for Casperson to strengthen these connections and forge new alliances. He would be a fool to pass it up.

Clark Hill, the attorneys who prepared and filed the complaint, already support Dan Benishek through their federal PAC; so Casperson may be able to jockey for a position in line behind him. But the law firm also gave more to Michigan Democrats than Republicans, and their real power and political influence does not depend on the nominal contributions they make to various political campaigns. Those are just goodwill gestures. Their political law practice, on the other hand, is a true nexus of political power, and at the head of it sits none other than Charles R. Spies. In 2012, Spies was Chief Financial Officer and Counsel for Restore our Future, the largest super PAC in history, formed to elect the unelectable Mitt Romney. Nowadays, Spies is supporting Jeb Bush, with a new Super PAC called Right to Rise.

These are the big leagues — much bigger than Casperson could ever dream of playing in. But the national success of Right to Rise will depend on thousands of coordinated local and regional efforts. If the MCRC lawsuit continues to go forward, it could easily have a place in that scheme, while raising Casperson’s profile and burnishing his conservative credentials. For its part, Stand U.P. can continue to raise all the money the MCRC needs for its lawsuit and whatever other political projects Tom Casperson and his cronies may be planning, and never have to disclose the sources of those funds. Its 501c4 “public welfare” status affords that protection.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 3

Third in a Series

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, pushing jobs.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, pushing jobs.

Sunlight and Skullduggery

When it comes to parceling out the land, water and future of the Lake Superior region to the highest bidders, few have matched the auctionary zeal demonstrated a couple of years ago by David Dill, a member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives. In the debate over the proposed Boundary Waters Land Exchange, Dill was among those urging that the state should exchange School Trust Lands in the Boundary Waters area for 30,000 acres of Superior National Forest. Since by law Minnesota would be bound “to secure maximum long-term economic return” from lands thus acquired, Dill proclaimed, “we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land.”

Dill understood this much: if there is hell to be found in Superior National Forest, there is probably no better way to bring it out.

The unanswered question in Minnesota and throughout the Lake Superior region is not, however, theological: it’s whether extractive industries and the developments they bring will actually deliver “long-term” economic benefit for the region, and not just a short-term spurt or boom, or another period of destructive plunder followed by long-term decline. That is not just a question up for debate by economists and other experts; it is, at root, a political question.

As I’ve suggested in my first two posts in this series, the complaint filed by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA is part and parcel of an effort to shut this question down, or exclude it from public consideration. This complaint is only incidentally about a haul road. It’s part of a political offensive that aims to stifle debate and hand the future of the region over to unseen powers. Those powers lurk under legal cover of the dark 501c4 “public welfare” organization funding the MCRC’s lawsuit against the EPA.

So with this lawsuit, the Road Commission pretends to political authority that goes way beyond building and maintaining Marquette County’s roads: it assumes the authority to direct economic development in Marquette County and decide what’s in the area’s best interest. In order to seize that authority, I’ve said, the complaint sets up an “anti-mining” straw man, and tries but fails to prove that the EPA had a “predetermined plan” to prevent the construction of County Road 595.

No surprise, then, that the argument gets especially tendentious whenever the complaint tries to demonstrate collusion or discover “anti-mining” attitudes within the ranks of the EPA itself; and where it comes up short, it raises questions about the motives and associations of those bringing these allegations.

Consider, for example, the report to Senator Carl Levin’s office by an unidentified “informant” (Exhibit 15), who alleged that at a meeting with “environmental and tribal groups,” EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman made remarks to the effect that:

1. the EPA will fight mining in Michigan,
2. that there will be no mining in the Great Lakes Basin,
3. that there was or will be an EPA sponsored Anti-Mining committee, and
4. that the KBIC [Keweenaw Bay Indian Community] tribe had received an EPA grant which [sic] they used the funds to sponsor an anti-mining activity.

The informant seems to have been lying in some places and exaggerating in others: Hedman claims she never made the remarks attributed to her. But the MCRC complaint doesn’t hesitate to repeat the informant’s false allegations, and it tries to build its case around Senator Levin’s staffer’s awkward summary of what she heard from an unnamed informant who proved untrustworthy in every particular.

True to pattern, the complaint casts both environmental groups and the KBIC as “anti-mining groups” as it doubles down on the informant’s lies. The detail about the EPA grants is wildly inflated. The EPA gave the tribe “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the MCRC claims, even as the KBIC was “actively lobbying USEPA against local mining and against CR 595.” This turns the false report of an unspecified “anti-mining activity” to “actively lobbying,” and it neglects to mention that EPA grants to the KBIC are, in large part, to help the tribes cope with the lasting damage done by mining and industrialization. (In recent years, grants have supported things like a survey of tribal fish consumption habits to reduce health risks associated with contaminants in fish, or the tribal Brownsfield response program.)

The phrase “actively lobbying” is especially cheeky here, for a couple of reasons.

First, the Eagle Mine project went ahead without the full, prior and informed consent of the KBIC. A Section 106 hearing ignored testimony from tribal elders that the ground at Eagle Rock is sacred to the Ojibwe, and objections by the KBIC and the Ho Chunk to the location of the mine portal at Eagle Rock were summarily dismissed. Tribal appeals to the EPA went unheeded.

Second, if we are really going to start tracking lobbyists and money spent on lobbying efforts, then in all fairness let’s spread the sunshine around and give a full account of money and efforts spent actively lobbying for mining interests in northern Michigan and throughout the Lake Superior region over the last decade. Or if that is too arduous a task, a full accounting of the money behind this complaint would suffice.

The complaint also fails to mention that the EPA responded immediately to Senator Levin’s office with a full schedule of grants given to the KBIC and the charter of the “cross-media” mining group at EPA Region 5. Cross-media groups are formed to satisfy the Cross-Media Electronic Reporting Rule. The fearsome EPA-sponsored “Anti-Mining” group turned out to be a specter of the informant’s imagination, and really comes down to bureaucratic reshuffling in order to make electronic reporting easier. There’s just no red flag to raise.

Elsewhere, when the complaint tries to demonstrate “anti-mining” sentiment within the EPA itself, the best the MCRC can do is police tone. There is an EPA official who writes “sarcastically” to a colleague at the Army Corps of Engineers, and then there are a couple of sentences in a January 2011 email by Daniel Cozza, an EPA Section Chief. Cozza refers to Wisconsin as “the new front” and says that in a three-hour town hall meeting Governor Scott Walker was “pushing jobs” when promoting the Gogebic Taconite project.

I think the WI Governor’s additions to the Welcome to WI signs stating ‘Open for Business’ is a sign of things to come. I listened to the 3hour [sic] townhall meeting last night regarding the G-TAC or taconite mining project in the Gogebic Penokee range and sounds like they are pushing jobs.

This sounds pretty innocuous, and I am unsure where the offense is: “pushing jobs”? That’s a pretty apt description of the rhetorical tactics used to promote mining in midwestern districts and around the world for that matter. Job numbers are overstated, as Tom Power notes in his study of sulfide mining projects in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, Senator Tim Cullen, Chair of the Senate Select Mining Committee, said he was amazed that immediately upon signing a controversial mining bill into law in 2013, Scott Walker and his cronies were “telling the workers of Wisconsin, who need jobs, that the jobs are just around the corner….The people who understand the mining industry know the jobs are years away.”  Sounds like they were being pretty pushy to me.

Of course, “front” might suggest a battle or military campaign, or it might imply that Cozza sees himself or the EPA as embattled, fighting against the encroachment of mining projects — which of course the EPA is, and will continue to be if it is going to protect the environment against the resurgence of mining all around Lake Superior. Forbes Magazine, hardly a bastion of environmental activism, struck the same note when it ran an article on Gogebic Taconite’s Chris Cline with the title: “Billionaire Battles Native Americans Over Iron Ore Mine”; Dale Schultz, a Republican State Senator who broke with his party to oppose Wisconsin’s mining legislation, said his conscience would not allow him to “surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open debate”: no one gasped in horror and astonishment at the white-flag battleground metaphor. Mike Wiggins, Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, did not mince words and declared the Gogebic project tantamount to “genocide,” as it would kill the wild rice crop. The list could go on.

So the real objection is that some people working at EPA are not enthusiastically on board with the agenda of the mining company and its development plans for the area. They’re not supposed to be; they’re supposed to protect the environment. The complaint is still far from proving that the EPA itself, when making its specific determinations about CR 595, acted with bias or according to a predetermined plan.

It’s interesting, however, that the complaint should make an example of Daniel Cozza and his attitudes toward Wisconsin mining. Cozza has a long history with the environmental regulation of mining in Wisconsin, and he was working in EPA Region 5 when the Crandon Mine project unraveled, due to the inability of the mine’s backers, which included Eagle Mine developers Rio Tinto and Kennecott Minerals, to meet tribal water quality standards and deliver appropriate environmental assurances. Cozza is said to have caused “consternation” when he reminded Crandon Mining in a letter of its “duty to look at the cumulative economic and environmental impacts” of other mining projects in the region; and it was this big picture perspective that prevailed when Governor Tommy Thompson signed a mining moratorium into law in 1998.

To many people inside and outside the mining industry, Crandon seemed to signal the end of mining in Wisconsin, and there are still bitter feelings within the industry about the failure of the Crandon project. Having lost in the courts and the legislative arena, the industry and its backers resorted to other means, achieving their first big comeback victory in Wisconsin with Scott Walker’s 2013 mining bill.

By signing it, the governor also obliterated his past. He had voted for the mining moratorium in 1998 as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly. As governor, Walker worked to ease regulations, and did a decisive about-face during his 2012 recall election, when he received a $700,000 contribution from Chris Cline and Gogebic Taconite. That mind-blowing, mind-changing contribution came via the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark money 501c4 like Stand U.P., the organization now putting up other people’s money — whose? — for the Marquette County Road Commission’s lawsuit against the EPA. Corruption is in the cards.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 1

First in a Series

oretrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

Laudato Si’ on Mining

The views of mining we find in the new papal encyclical Laudato Si’ clearly reflect the Latin American experience — centuries of plunder and absconded wealth, industrial development and economic underdevelopment, violence and ruin, degradation of the land and destruction of communities where mining is done. But in its careful attention to issues of water, water access, and the condition of the world’s poor, the encyclical raises serious questions about mining and the ethics of mining everywhere in the world.

Laudato Si’ explicitly addresses mining in three places, raising the very same issues that I’ve been writing about here, in connection with the new mining around Lake Superior. So I thought I would set out these passages for consideration now, with the intention of returning to them after I have had a chance to read the encyclical more carefully.

The first explicit mention of mining in Laudato Si’ comes at 29, which deals with the “serious problem” of “the quality of water available to the poor.”

Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.

At 51, one of the most powerful passages in the entire encyclical looks at the role of mining in creating an “ecological debt” of the global north to the global south, where raw materials are taken from the land for markets that serve the wealthy, industrialized north:

Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.

Quoting a 2009 Christmas Message from the Bishops of Patagonia-Comahue Region of Argentina, Laudato Si’ goes on to explain that the industrialized world has incurred this debt because mining and other companies

operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”

Finally, at 146, the encyclical addresses the way mining projects degrade and destroy land that indigenous communities regard as “sacred space,” often displacing them and threatening their very survival:

it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?