Tag Archives: political authority

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

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.  

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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, 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.