Tag Archives: mining boom

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.

Mark Your Calendars

This week, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a resolution brought to the floor by Senator Tom Casperson, who represents the 38th district. Senate Resolution 27 declares an official day to commemorate mining in Michigan. Mining Day will fall on September 6th.

It’s clever to create a holiday for mining on 9/06 — the area code of the Upper Peninsula. But it’s also a little strange that the holiday will fall on a Sunday in its inaugural year (so much for sabbath and the respite it promises from the workaday world). Labor Day falls on the 7th of this year, and on the 5th in 2016; so maybe Mining Day will help put the focus on the Upper Peninsula’s archetypal laborer, the miner. But as the text of the resolution never even uses the word “miner,” “worker,” “labor” or “laborer,” and notes only in passing that mining in the UP “attracted immigrants from around the world,” it might be a little hasty or naive to conclude this measure is being taken to honor the working men and women of the region.

Casperson himself promotes Mining Day as a day to recognize the role of mining “in the settling of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and as a “way of life” characteristic of the region, and in a press release, he added that the day would also be an opportunity to “celebrate and support responsible mining operations” in the state. So SR 27 doesn’t just look back to a bygone era of mining, but forward, positioning mining as a “growing industry” in Michigan. The adopted resolution even includes language about the “Limestone mines” in the news lately.

In this way, SR 27 tees up a second resolution that Casperson introduced: SR 28, another pro-mining measure that met with unanimous approval. In this resolution, the Senate expresses its unqualified “support for the renewed growth of mining in Michigan.”

This is not just boosterism or servile flattery. SR 28 actually serves a couple of important political functions.

First, it burnishes Casperson’s legislative track record at no political cost. Down the road, he can and probably will claim some responsibility for the jobs that mining companies create in the UP.

Second, SR 28 establishes legislative precedent. Casperson and others can point to this resolution and the unanimous support it received when introducing other pro-mining legislation or when confronted with challenges to mining projects already underway. Interviewed about the bill, Casperson made this explicit: “we will work to remove any remaining barriers that could inhibit the continued growth of responsible mining interests in Michigan.” No barriers to continued growth: but still, somehow, “responsible,” as if responsibility can be had without limits.

The barriers to growth Casperson has in mind are, first and foremost, the flimsy ones upheld, but barely, by the EPA in the face of the new mining boom. The federal agency has not prevented any mining projects in Michigan; but it has so far been the primary obstacle to the building of CR 595, which was originally planned as a haul route for Lundin’s Eagle Mine. The EPA entered and then upheld its objections to construction of the road, and denied the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality authority to permit the road. (The US Army Corps of Engineers along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service had also entered objections.)

Casperson elsewhere has tried to cast this as a standoff between state sovereignty and federal government intrusion. Now, with SR 28, Senator Casperson has enlisted the full body of the Michigan Senate in his crusade to cut that haul road through the Michigan wilderness, and show big government what’s what in Michigan. (He’s been on similar state-sovereignty kicks to reinstate wolf-hunts — which caused him some embarrassment when he was caught fabricating stories of children being stalked by wolves — and to prevent the limiting of emissions from wood-burning stoves by the EPA.)

Casperson is now colluding with the Marquette County Road Commission to sue the EPA over CR 595. So far, the Road Commission and affiliated CR 595 die-hards have created a 501c4 non-profit organization called Stand U.P., which says it will raise $500,000 to cover the lawsuit. But there’s no reason to stop there. As a 501c4, Stand U.P. can fund the EPA lawsuit as well as a broad range of activities in the name of improving the “social welfare” — a concept even the IRS calls “abstruse” and lacking any clear definition. 501c4 organizations are not required to disclose the names of donors, but Brian Cabell figures “it’s safe to say” that the money for Stand U.P. won’t come in “$5 contributions or bake sales or lemonade stands. It’s mostly corporate money.”

Even if the EPA lawsuit fails, then, there is little to prevent Stand U.P. from becoming (unless it already is) a trough of dark money. No wonder the Senator is eager to celebrate mining’s return to the Upper Peninsula.

Social License in a Less Exuberant Climate

The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.

While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.

With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).

A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.

It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?

Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.

Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.

The Boom Starts With A Rush

Overturned Eagle Mine TruckThe news that an ore truck overturned last week on its way from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill brought me back to a conversation some friends and I had in the lobby of the Landmark Inn this past October. Earlier that day we’d been touring the Yellow Dog Plains on the smooth wide roads that the Marquette County Road Commission cut through the wilderness for the mining company, keeping count of the big trucks we saw. All the trucks were outfitted with double loads — two side-dump trailers worth of ore — and the ore was covered with black tarps, neatly tied down.

The ties caught my attention. I wondered how long it would be before human nature set in, and workers started getting lackadaisical about how they tied down the tarps, or stopped bothering to secure and check each tie.

I was not even thinking of anything so scientific as studies by Ludovic Moulin, which find that over sixty percent of industrial accidents can be attributed to “organizational and human factors.” I had in mind something closer to the line about the field of the slothful in Proverbs: “yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep,” and disaster can ensue. Eventually, someone in the course of the day was going to shrug and say to himself, “good enough,” slacken his attention, or hurry off to a break, I thought, and things could go downhill from there. A loosely tied load might spill on the highway or on the roadside, even if the driver was taking every precaution on his route. Repeat that small human error enough times, and you have a trail of sulfide ore from the mine to the mill, running through the Yellow Dog Plains and right through the center of Marquette.

Turns out I’d failed to fully grasp the reality of the situation. I didn’t imagine at the time that the tarps used to tie down the ore on the Eagle Mine trucks would rip in the case of an accident. In this case, the tarp of the second trailer was “torn open,” according to Save the Wild UP; Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve has a photograph of the torn cover here. I was also unaware that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality allowed these soft-cover tarps only after Eagle Mine had requested a special amendment to its permit. Hard covers would take longer to remove; with soft covers, the trucks could be more easily unloaded. Time is money.

Special amendments and exceptions seem to be the rule when it comes to Eagle. For instance, though Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear has repeatedly boasted to investors about the great transportation infrastructure already in place at Eagle when Lundin bought the property from Rio Tinto, the truth is that the current haul route for Eagle Mine was never part of the plan. It was a last minute concoction — an “upgrade” of roads hastily authorized by the Marquette County Road Commission. No surprise, then, that a full environmental assessment of the haul route — as required by Part 632 of the Michigan Nonferrous Metallic Mining Law — has never been made.

Last week’s accident might be yet another sign that Eagle Mine was not actually ready for prime time when Lundin announced, at the end of November, that Eagle had entered commercial production ahead of schedule. But consider things from the company’s point of view. Lundin had acquired the Candelaria copper mine from Freeport only a month earlier for $1.8 billion — taking on huge debt — and by the end of November copper prices were declining precipitously. That made it all the more urgent to start delivering nickel at Eagle. After all, analysts expect “Lundin to introduce a dividend in 2015 once its Eagle mine is ramped up.”  Pressure is mounting. The Lake Superior mining boom appears to have gotten underway in a slightly panicked rush.

A Liturgy of Loss and Hope

I was supposed to travel to Lake Superior at the end of this month. I’d hoped to visit some of the spots R. B. Roosevelt mentions in Superior Fishing, talk to some people along the way, and see for myself the Eagle Mine, the Humboldt Mill and the haul route from mine to mill.

Then I found out that today the Concerned Clergy of Marquette would be offering a community benediction — “a liturgy of loss and hope,” as they describe it, to “mourn” the changes the new mining has already brought to the area, and to invite people to “recommit to preserving what remains of our beloved land and her people.” (You can find out more about today’s two-part event here.) liturgy

The “quiet reverent time” promised by the benediction superseded what plans I had. I changed my ticket and flew to Marquette yesterday.

On the way here I reflected a little on the idea that rituals of mourning (like funerals) are for the living, not the dead. Mourning, which nowadays we so often do in private, can be a powerful social act. Funerals have stirred rebellions; mourning rites can also give communities a chance to heal and atone.

Today’s liturgy on the Yellow Dog Plains was a quiet reckoning, but a reckoning all the same. People spoke from the heart. There were prayers, poems and songs. A fire burned at the center of the circle. Snow graced the ceremony’s end.

Mine? What Mine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why A Lake Superior Mining Indaba Is A Good Idea

Twice this week, first in reply to a comment on another post, and then in an email exchange, I half-jokingly suggested that we need to call a Lake Superior Mining Indaba – a big gathering of all stakeholders around the Lake Superior Basin to deliberate, listen and be heard on the future the new mining boom is already ushering in. I’d been following the African Mining Indaba underway this week in Capetown; and while that buttoned-up event — a forum focused primarily on private sector investment in Africa — isn’t exactly a model for the public gathering I picture, the Zulu word indaba and the images it conjures of people coming from all around the lake have stayed with me, and the promise of the idea keeps growing.

First, don’t let the Zulu word put you off. That’s just what got me started down this path. The concept it conveys is definitely not foreign to the Lake Superior region. Gatherings like these have a long history there. “The Sault,” writes Warren in his History of the Ojibway, “was a major summer gathering place for many native people in the seventeenth century,” well before the establishment of a trading post there in 1750; at La Pointe, where “a continual fire burned,” there was “a yearly national gathering” and initiation into the rites of the Midewiwin. In the 18th century big regional events like the Montreal trade fairs were as essential as more formal diplomatic forums in establishing and renewing the French-Algonquin alliance (though, as White shows, the regular accommodations necessitated by daily life were most important of all in perpetuating it).

A Lake Superior Mining Indaba, as I envision it, could combine elements of a Future Search conference, a bonfire celebration (like the Juhannuskokko at Misery Bay) a Pow Wow (like the Manoomin festivals in Ontario and Bad River), and a music or cultural festival.

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the Indaba runs Wednesday to Friday, to be followed by a festival weekend. The conference brings together a few hundred people from around the lake to share stories and ideas and plan for the future. From more formal discussions and interactions to serendipitous, informal conversations, the conference would help people make meaningful connections, and build the kind of diverse, resilient network that’s needed to accelerate learning as the boom begins.

As I like to remind people, one of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. That calls for some concerted thinking about the future, as well as concerted planning and action.

The 90-day public comment periods like those we’ve seen in Minnesota for the Polymet project or the dysfunctional “community forums” Rio Tinto staged in Michigan – which I’ve written about before, and which have seen a falloff in attendance – are no substitute for genuine public deliberation. Nor do they allow for big-picture thinking or the kind of networked learning that a lake-wide Indaba like this could initiate.

Many environmental leaders in the region now sense the need for a cumulative environmental assessment – a scientific assessment of the effects all this mining on the US and Canadian sides of the lake is going to have on the waters and on the region as a whole. We also need a broad, cumulative assessment of where all this activity leaves people living around the lake, what direction things ought to take, and an actionable plan for how to get there.

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.

Time Out of Mind

I leave tomorrow for Lake Superior. On Thursday the 24th, Ken and I are going to show our film at Michigan Tech, where there’s a conference called Writing Across the Peninsula, and then, on Saturday the 26th, at the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette. I’m going up a little early to do some exploring, traveling north along the western shore of the lake to Palisade Head and then inland (west), through Finland and into the area around Ely, Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. That’s where Polymet Mining has proposed a huge open pit sulfide mine. It will be my first visit and maybe one of the few chances I get to see the area before the mining begins. After that, it’s never going to be the same. Or at least not in my lifetime — or in the lifetime of anyone alive today.

Polymet recently disclosed in a Preliminary Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that water runoff from its mine will have to be treated for the next five hundred years — “a minimum of 500 years,” just to meet water quality regulations. The proposal in its current form clearly violates Minnesota Rule 6132.3200, which requires that “the mining area” be “maintenance free” upon closure; but Polymet and its legions of apologists have already found some wiggle room here, arguing that state law allows for “perpetual treatment” as long as enough money is set aside and as long as the company can prove that it’s meeting federal and state water standards. For Polymet, it seems, this is just the start of a negotiation.

The Mining Examiner quotes Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota: “There’s no doubt it can be done, that it’s allowed. The concept is sound; the details have to be worked out by the experts.” I honestly don’t know how anyone can say things like this with a straight face. Five-hundred years: the experts just need to work things out. No doubt about it.

When I first heard about the five-hundred year disclosure, I tried to think of a place where mining was done five-hundred years ago: the best I came up with was Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia, where conquistadores set up silver-mining operations in the sixteenth-century. Potosi is now considered one of the most polluted places on earth. Of course, the Spanish crown did not set out the sorts of guarantees that Polymet is willing to set out; but apparently the mining company shares the crown’s illusion that its empire will last forever. Or at least they would like us to think so: they would like us to set aside our doubts and entertain the fantastic idea that they will provide water-treatment facilities for the maintenance of their copper mine for the next five-hundred years.

Mind you, the country’s only been in existence for 237 years, and Minnesota was only admitted to the union in 1858 — 155 years ago. The EPA only started operations in 1970; its workers only just got back on the job yesterday, after being furloughed during the shutdown. Why are we being asked to believe in the perpetuity or even the resilience of the EPA, the Minnesota DNR, or any government institution or form of government? Who can say what’s going to happen fifty years from now, let alone five hundred? Will there be a Minnesota DNR or an EPA in 2063? Will there be a Polymet? Minnesota? How about 2100? 2413? Insofar as history is about holding people to account, this is nothing more than historical fantasy: there’s no guarantee or even promise of accountability when you are talking about five centuries. As Steve Timmer would have it, nobody is going to be around to keep Polymet’s grave clean.

Time out of mind is the phrase this whole proposal conjures for me. The expression comes from English law. “Time out of mind” or “time immemorial” is a time before anyone can remember: a property or holding, a way of passage or a benefit has been enjoyed so long that those who claim it no longer have to prove ownership or their right to it; nobody can remember a time when it wasn’t so. In this case we are being asked to project that far into the future — way past the horizon of what we ordinarily consider the future, way beyond the time anyone can foresee.

Projecting that far into the future, time out of mind, is also a distorting lens. It’s easy when looking that far ahead to overlook what we know will really happen to the area in the near term, just in the course of constructing and operating an open-pit sulfide mine. Mine pollution that lasts for five-hundred years is a huge and terrifying prospect, no doubt, but that dread prospect might also have the weird effect of eclipsing (or normalizing) the more immediate environmental and social consequences of mining and the industrialization mining brings. Water Legacy estimates that the Polymet project will take 6,600 acres of forests out of public ownership, destroy or impair at least 1,500 acres of wetlands and result in 168,000,000 tons of permanent waste rock heaps and 228,000,000 tons of tailings waste. Add to this the haul roads, the mill operations, air and noise pollution, the effects of clear-cutting and deforestation, shifts in population, economic distortion, and so on.

It’s important to pull back, change the lens, and see clearly what’s going to happen, what’s already happening, to the waters and the wilderness areas, the Lake and all life around it, within our lifetime, and what effect our actions now will have for generations to come.

Walleye and the End of the Known World

Since the 1970s, Lake Superior temperatures have risen an average of five degrees Fahrenheit and ice cover has reduced by fifty percent. This makes the lake less hospitable to the fat siscowet or lake trout that favors its cold depths and more susceptible to invasive predators like the lamprey.

Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who run commercial fishing operations on Superior, have been raising walleye at their hatcheries since 2005, according to an article that ran last week in Scientific American.

Walleye

A canny adaptation, but it’s clear from the same article that continuing change will require something even greater — a whole new orientation.

“With the changes in temperatures,” the article says at its most thoughtful moment, “the intimate knowledge of the lake that tribes and other anglers have cultivated over the years no longer jibes with reality.” Evelyn Ravindrian, a KBIC natural resource specialist, puts it this way: “people used to know, ‘Well, whitefish will be here this time of day, this time of year.’ Now they have to look around.” This is the bit that stuck with me.

The lake that fishermen came to know intimately is vanishing. It is undeniably a loss, and I found myself wishing the article had more to say about it: the end of a long intimacy, a bereavement, a disorienting absence — the kind of thing one feels after divorce, death or displacement. The end of the known world. I suppose an article written along those lines wouldn’t have had much chance of making it into the pages of Scientific American; but it would have gotten much closer to the heart of the matter.

As the new environmental reality takes hold, a social and cultural reality slips away: all the things “people used to know” about the lake, the seasonal and circadian knowledge that they cultivated and shared and that bound them together, as a people, or simply as Lake Superior fishermen.

They probably took most of those things for granted: that’s the nature of cultural habits, local knowledge, familiar ties — all the things that make up our sense of place. We know where we are without even trying. Now people will have to “look around,” as Evelyn Ravindrian says. They’re in a new and unfamiliar place, even though they have lived around Lake Superior and fished its waters for as long as anyone can remember.