Tag Archives: Naomi Klein

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, 2

Second In A Series
Activists Afoot!

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

In this Greg Peterson photo from the Cedar Tree Institute site, Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes blesses one of the trees faith congregations planted on Earth Day, 2009.

As I suggested in my first post in this series on MCRC v. EPA, the complaint filed by the Marquette County Road Commission would have us believe that “anti-mining” forces worked secretly with and even infiltrated the EPA, and the agency’s objections to CR 595 followed a “predetermined plan.” The EPA, it claims, had decided to oppose the haul road even before the MCRC application was reviewed.

This sounds like legitimate cause for concern: permit applications should be reviewed on their merits, not pre-judged and not according to some other anti- or pro- agenda. We certainly wouldn’t want someone in the Environmental Protection Agency to be “pro-mining”; there are enough well-paid mining lobbyists already haunting the hallways in Lansing and Washington, DC. But in this case, the anti-mining label is being used as a term of opprobrium, and to distort and deliberately misrepresent what the Environmental Protection Agency is chartered and required by law to do: in short, to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect the environment.

When it comes to proving the insinuations it makes, the MCRC complaint offers slim evidence.

For example, the complaint makes a big fuss over a November 28, 2012 letter from Laura Farwell, who lives in the Marquette area and is described here as “a prominent environmental activist.”  The letter is addressed to Lynn Abramson, then a Senior Legislative Assistant for Senator Barbara Boxer, and Thomas Fox, Senior Counsel of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, asking them to “weigh-in” with the EPA on CR 595. (Exhibit 1).

EPA must determine whether to uphold its original objections to proposed County Road 595 under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), pursuant to its supervisory authority over Michigan’s delegated wetlands permitting program. Tom may remember that during the August 30, 2011 meeting at EPA Denise Keehner of EPA’s office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds definitively reiterated EPA’s position and stated that the haul road would not happen.
Thus, this letter is to request, respectfully, that you weigh-in as soon as possible with the EPA on its decision.

The MCRC complains about Farwell’s use of the word “definitively” here and casts the 2011 meeting in a sinister light:

on August 30, 2011, a very different type of meeting regarding CR 595 took place at USEPA Headquarters in Washington, DC. MCRC was neither invited to nor informed of the meeting. In attendance (as far as is known at the present time) were top USEPA officials, Congressional staff, KBIC representatives, and a prominent environmental activist opposed to the construction of CR 595. It further appears that USEPA made no formal record of the meeting.

Without a formal record, it’s impossible to know what transpired at this meeting, and if the complaint is going to rely on Farwell’s memory of the conversation, then it should also take into account her intentions in paraphrasing and recounting it, one year after it took place. The language here — “a very different type of meeting,” “neither invited nor informed,” “as far as is known at the present time,” “no formal record” — doesn’t help in that regard, and it’s meant to suggest that conjurations were already afoot.

It’s clear the MCRC was not included in some discussions at EPA. There’s nothing extraordinary or illicit about that. All concerned parties had been meeting with and petitioning the EPA for several years at this point. The complaint is still a long way from proving that the EPA “surreptitiously met with a number of environmental activists vocally opposed to the road,” and an even longer way from proving that there was anything like an anti-mining coalition assembled in secret at the offices of the EPA.

In an ironic twist, these allegations of secrecy and whispering behind closed doors may come back to haunt the MCRC: at a Marquette County Board of Commissioners meeting this month, the Marquette County Road Commission itself faced accusations that it had violated the Open Meetings Act in planning to bring its suit against the EPA. Public officials who intentionally violate that act are ordinarily fined and incur other liabilities; in this case, there would be some eating of words as well.

By November 28, 2012, the EPA had, in fact, “decided against the proposed haul road,” as Farwell puts it in the email she sent along with the letter to Abramson and Fox. The EPA had entered objections to the Woodland Road Application (in March, 2010) and announced their objections to CR 595 (in March, 2012).  Even so, a Fall 2012 public meeting held by the EPA “in Marquette…for more input” had Farwell worried. She was not at all confident the EPA would uphold its original objections to the haul road.  The matter was still far from being “definitively” settled.

Whatever reassurances Farwell was given at that 2011 meeting — or thought she had been given, or recalled having been given, one year later — were clearly at risk of getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. The purpose of her letter is to prevent that.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Those watching new mining developments in the Upper Peninsula are constantly having to chase after the EPA and demand that the regulator step in and do its job.

Jeffery Loman, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a former federal regulator, has repeatedly put the EPA on notice and complained of the agency’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act.

In May of this year, the grassroots environmental group Save the Wild UP filed a petition with the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, arguing that Eagle Mine was issued the wrong regulatory permit. The appeal requested that the EPA require Eagle Mine to obtain a Clean Water Act permit in order to protect the Salmon Trout River and other surface waters from the discharge of mining effluent. The Appeals Board did not contest the facts put forward in the petition, but dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction. They hardly proved themselves to be staunch allies.

So watchdogs and environmental groups, too, have reason to gripe about the EPA and often feel powerless in the face of bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude. Laura Farwell herself seems to have felt that way, and that’s why we find her asking Abramson and Fox for help. The MCRC complaint exaggerates her influence at the EPA when it describes her as “a prominent environmental activist.” The epithet is used here to create the misleading impression that within the offices of EPA Region 5 and the confines of Marquette County there are political opponents with resources to match the power of multi-billion dollar, multinational mining companies.

Laura Farwell and her husband Frank moved to the area in 2006 from Madison, Wisconsin. They are members of the St. Paul Episcopal Church and participate, along with their son Cody, in the church’s Earth Day tree plantings. The couple donated some money to the UP Land Conservancy. Farwell has also organized events for the Cedar Tree Institute, which works to bridge “faith communities and environmental groups.” (She is described on the Institute’s site  as “a concerned mother and local citizen.”) She is thanked for “working quietly behind the scenes” in a 2011 Earth Keeper TV video on the environmental risks posed by the Eagle Mine; and she’s copied along with many other local citizens in a Google Group post dated April 9, 2012, urging people to comment on CR 595 before the public comment period is closed.

Farwell’s commitments to land conservation are pretty clear, and while the complaint asks us to recoil in horror at the phrase “prominent environmental activist,” cooler heads are just as likely to be impressed by Farwell’s dedication to the people around her and the place where she lives. Maybe that dedication is all it takes to be a prominent environmental activist in the view of the Marquette County Road Commission.

Some locals, on the other hand, are legitimately concerned that nationally and internationally prominent environmentalists — like Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, Naomi Klein and their ilk — ignore the current situation around Lake Superior, or fail to give it the serious attention it deserves. National media have barely taken notice. Farwell herself admits that to the great and powerful in Washington DC “the proposed haul road may seem like some little back trail in the middle of nowhere,” but she urges that it will cut through “critical wetlands resources” and “enable the industrializing of this rural Great Lakes watershed by international mining interests.”

Farwell’s letter tries to create some urgency around the CR 595 issue by putting the road in context and specifying whose interests would be served by the industrializing of the region. A serious assessment of CR 595 would significantly widen the lens, taking into account the cumulative effects of all the new mining activities around Lake Superior: all leasing, exploration, development and active mining throughout northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario. Otherwise, we miss the big picture, and without that perspective, it’s just too easy to parcel out the land, the water, and the future of the region to the highest bidders.

The MCRC complaint, too, places CR 595 in the context of “mining and economic development in the Great Lakes region” in a few places, but only to make the specious argument that those who oppose or question the road are opposed to mining and therefore opposed to the region’s prosperity. These are the ideological leaps the complaint makes. Those who don’t make these leaps are called activists or anti-mining obstructionists. That is a political, not a legal argument.

It’s never too late to have a serious discussion of what sustainable economic development and true prosperity for the Great Lakes region might look like. How might we best organize our lives together in this place? is a fundamental political question. But at this juncture, it appears, the MCRC can’t afford to let that conversation happen. This lawsuit is an attempt to shut it down and stifle dissent. Where business leads, society must obediently follow. To question this order of things, as Laura Farwell seems to have repeatedly done, quietly, behind the scenes, is to commit some kind of nefarious act.

This is where the attitude on display in this complaint gets worrisome. With this lawsuit, the MCRC pretends to have the political authority to direct economic development in the region (not just to build and repair roads). But that is only pretense, and things in Marquette County are not as they appear. The public still does not know who is funding the Road Commission lawsuit, what they stand for and what they expect in return for their support. The real powers lurk behind the scenes.

Ancient Honor Is Not Dead

A old friend — we were best friends in high school, but since then we’ve drifted apart — emailed me last night to tell me he’d been laid off. He’d worked for the same company for twenty-three years.

He tells me the news in the passive voice: he was notified; his job was eliminated. This is perfectly appropriate, I suppose. A turn of events like this makes one feel deprived of all agency, a patient, not an agent, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, caught in the undertow, run aground or cast adrift as a huge economic wave breaks. Those twenty-three years, arguably the best years of a man’s life, don’t count for much these days; loyalty affords no blind, break or refuge.

My friend writes that he’s been soul searching; we’ve all been soul searching. The nation as whole is suffering from what one wag calls “free-floating economic anxiety.” It sounds very clever, but you have to wonder why anyone would want to be clever about all that’s happening around us. I suppose being witty is one way to keep your wits about you, especially if the alernative is to plug into the round the clock economic hysteria.

I was never a very good sleeper – maybe I’ve spent too much time searching the darker corners of my own soul to ever find my ease – and I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that email from my friend, and what this layoff could mean for him and for his family, and what it might mean for me: the decisions I may have to face if things get worse, the decisions we all may have to face. I am not sure we are ready, or equipped, or willing to face them together. At four o’clock this morning, I was looking at news from the Nikkei.

Clarence Thomas in his remarks yesterday said we have grown self-indulgent and soft, ignorant of the constitution and used to feeling entitled to things our ancestors would have considered privileges. He’s probably right. Now I am all for asking what I can do for my country, but I am pretty sure I’m not ready for the prescription Justice Thomas wants to write to cure our social ills or strengthen our political will. Besides, our forebears were not necessarily cut from better cloth, as if the very genetic material from which Americans are made has degenerated and declined over the past fifty years of post-war prosperity. But it seems like bad form to argue the point.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew hardships — all their lives — we have never known. They didn’t feel entitled. And they didn’t hope for as much out of life. But loyalty counted more in those days, and – we’ve been told — a company man was a company man, until the day he got his gold watch and pension. Unless, of course, you weren’t a company man: in which case you just worked hard all your life and took what few pleasures came your way.

So the story goes. But I’m not sure how exactly that story illuminates our current situation. I am not even sure that we are very close to knowing the truth about our current situation. John Stewart excoriates Jim Cramer on national television and America chalks one up for the good guys; but Cramer and company were just along for the ride, singing for their supper, flattering the princes who hired them for jest. (And I couldn’t help but feel that Stewart came off as a scold playing for easy applause.)

It may be fun to hate the big, fat greedy cigar-chomping AIG executives who took the bonuses; but cartoons are not reality, and most of us would demand compensation we’d been promised and contracted for. No, it wasn’t right; no, it didn’t look right: but considering AIG currently still has 1.6 trillion in outstanding derivatives exposure, we need to clean up that mess and do that in an orderly fashion. Litigation over bonuses won’t help accomplish that. So maybe Ron Shelp’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal has it right: “the bonuses stick in my craw,” writes Shelp, but the bonuses may be “justifiable… because the executives in the financial unit are trying to undo and wind down very difficult agreements. It is in everybody’s interest, AIG’s and the government’s, to get them cleaned up and to close down the unit.”

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is taking issue with that view now. But when Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa suggests the executives at AIG should all commit Seppuku, he’s not taking a stand for ancient honor; he’s just feeding populist rage, and he’s not helping anyone figure out the trouble we are in, the trouble we need to face.

Indeed, I wonder if all the theatrics around AIG and the catastrophic failures of the past six months or so aren’t doing more to obscure the problem we have than to illuminate it. There’s good reason to believe, isn’t there, that the “systemic” and structural problems we are facing now are not exactly new, but new and dreadful manifestations of problems kept from view by the housing bubble from 2003-2006 and by the Internet or dot.com bubble that burst in 2000.

In those days, we used to celebrate systemic and catastrophic structural change as “creative destruction”; the more mild-mannered among us would talk about the the emergence of a “new economy,” the shift from manufacturing to information services. Whole industries and supply chains would be “disintermediated”; once American industry had given up the ghost, or just moved offshore, the military industrial complex would evolve, yes, evolve into a new information economy.

Evolution, though, is brutal sport. I’ve noticed that it’s a word business-people like to use when they want to avoid the word revolution. But you don’t need Naomi Klein to know that capitalists are revolutionaries, and revel in catastrophe and the overturning of old orders. Some will emerge from the ashes triumphant. Others will not survive. It’s not really a question of who is made of better stuff. It’s a question of whether we can master the forces we ourselves have unleashed on the world, and turn them to our good.