Tag Archives: Public Trust

A Comment on the Aquila Back Forty Wetland Permit

AquilaWetlandMap

An Aquila Resources map outlines the wetlands that will be impaired by its open pit sulfide mine on the Menominee River.

Earlier this morning, I sent this comment on the Aquila Resources Back Forty Wetland Permit to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Public comments may be submitted here until February 2nd.

To the MDEQ:

You have probably already received a number of comments on the Back Forty Mine wetland permit application from people who live out of state, as I do. Some of those opposed to sulfide mining on the Menominee River live on the Wisconsin side, just across or downstream from the proposed mine site. Others, across the country and around the world, are deeply concerned about the cumulative effects the current leasing, exploration, and sulfide mining boom around Lake Superior will have, and are alarmed to see federal and state regulatory agencies abdicating their responsibilities to the American public in order to do the bidding of foreign mining companies.

Denying the wetland permit is the only prudent and responsible course for MDEQ to take.

As the organization American Rivers noted when it placed the Menominee River on its list of “most endangered” rivers in 2017, the Aquila Resources Back Forty project poses a “significant threat” of acid mine drainage to the river, and to the “cultural and natural resources of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and the Great Lakes Region.” Allowing Aquila to destroy or compromise area wetlands to construct its mine will only heighten the risk of large scale environmental catastrophe.

The risk is compounded by both regulatory and scientific uncertainty. As you are well aware, the Menominee Tribe maintains that the MDEQ lacks authority to issue this permit, because under provisions of the Clean Water Act the Menominee River and its wetlands are federal waters. This question remains unsettled. In the meantime, a third party, independent review of Aquila’s wetland permit application found errors and inconsistencies regarding the company’s findings on groundwater drawdown and the mine’s feasibility analysis. The wetland permit application you are considering is either flawed, because the people who filed it are incompetent, or misleading, because they have something to hide.

Deceit might be Aquila’s best strategy at this point. The Back Forty project has no claim to social license — none. The Menominee and other Wisconsin tribes have been adamant in their opposition. Local residents are overwhelmingly opposed as well. Of the 90 people who had the opportunity to speak at the January 23rd public hearing in Stephenson, only 4 could muster an argument for the mine, mainly because they put stock in the vague promise of “jobs” made by mining proponents. The rest — 86 out of 90, or 95 percent — stood in opposition to the mine.

Even if Aquila is not deliberately misleading the MDEQ and the public, the Canadian company has demonstrated time and again that it is not a responsible steward of Michigan or Menominee lands. In archaeological surveys of the region, for instance, Aquila claims to have uncovered nothing of “historical significance.” That is telling. These surveys have found nothing because they fail, or refuse to see, the significant Menominee history and culture that is right in front of their eyes. As tribal members have made repeatedly clear, Menominee history, ancestry, and culture begin and end in the river, the land, and the forest. What is historically significant or meaningful is not merely a collection of artifacts; it is a way of life and a deep connection to place. The Back Forty Mine threatens to destroy that connection.

In sum, the wetland permit application is flawed, the company has no social license to operate, and allowing the Back Forty to go forward would violate the public trust.

Postscript: On Monday, 4 June, Michigan DEQ Director Heidi Grether granted this wetlands permit, despite the DEQ’s own findings that the Aquila Resources project will likely cause “an unacceptable disruption to the aquatic resources of the State…and that the activities associated with the project are not consistent with the permitting criteria for an acceptable impact to the resources regulated under Parts 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, and Part 303, Wetlands Protection.” The permit DEQ issued — over its own objections — includes 28 pages of special conditions. It’s unclear why the DEQ did not simply deny the permit, as its findings warranted and in keeping with EPA objections to the Aquila application. More here.

Is Corruption at Interior Putting the Boundary Waters At Risk?


On the afternoon of Friday, December 22nd, with Congress in recess and most Americans already starting their holiday celebrations, the Department of the Interior issued a 19-page legal memorandum reversing hard-won, eleventh-hour Obama-era protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Signed by Interior’s Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, Memo M-37049 allows Twin Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta Plc, to renew its leases of Superior National Forest lands where it proposes to mine copper, nickel, and other minerals for the next 100 years.

Even one year of mining would scar the land, destroy wetlands, wreck the forest and fill it with industrial noise, and pollute the water. And this kind of mining — sulfide mining — always risks major environmental catastrophe, long after a mine is closed and the land reclaimed. After a brief reprieve, the Twin Metals project is again threatening this unique public wilderness area, along with the thriving tourist and outdoor economy that has grown up around it.

The reversal was immediately met with allegations of corrupt dealing. In a statement calling the move by Interior “shameful,” Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton cried foul.

A December 22nd headline in the Wall Street Journal offered what appeared to be a straightforward explanation: cronyism. “Trump Administration to Grant Mining Leases That Will Benefit Landlord of President’s Daughter Ivanka Trump.” But Chilean billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, whose family controls Antofagasta Plc, and who only after Trump’s election purchased the Washington, D.C. mansion Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent for $15,000 a month, claims never to have met his tenants, and says he met Donald Trump only once, at a New England Patriots game.

It’s unclear whether Luksic Craig’s denials can be taken at face value and whether they are enough to dispel the notion that the reversal was made directly to benefit Antofagasta or the Luksic family. What prompted the action? Who directed it? Who contributed to the memo, and who reviewed it? What conversations did Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, and other administrators have about the reversal, and with whom?

The public deserves clear answers to these questions, and last week, I submitted a FOIA request to the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior, to see if I might gain some insight into the process behind Memo M-37049. At the same time, it’s worth noting that these are not the only questions worth asking. Luksic Craig and his Washington, DC mansion may make good headlines, tabloid fodder, and Twitter snark, and there is no ignoring the whiff of impropriety about his real-estate dealings with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who also happen to be senior White House advisors. But that’s not the whole story here. A scandal involving Luksic-Craig and his tenants, or some direct dirty dealing between Antofagasta and Interior, might eventually come to light, but the prospect of such a scandal might also serve to distract us from other, large-scale corruption that continues to put the Boundary Waters — and other public lands and waters — at serious risk.

Put the reversal in context. Consider, for example, the Executive Order, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” that was issued just two days before the Boundary Waters reversal, and which, like the Interior memo, sets the stage for exploitation of mineral resources on public lands. The EO appeared to be the policy outcome of a U.S. Geological Survey of the country’s critical minerals resources published on December 19th; but Trump’s December 20th order was years, not one day, in the making.

The EO revives Obama-era legislative battles over so-called strategic and critical minerals and declares victory by executive fiat. Back in 2013, pro-mining measures introduced in both the House (HR 761) and the Senate (S 1600) promised to “streamline” the permitting process for multinational companies mining on federal lands, like Superior National Forest. The Obama administration opposed them on the grounds that they would allow mining companies to circumvent environmental review. Proponents of HR 761 called it cutting red tape; the resolution actually tried to shut the public out of the process. It touted jobs, but, as critics pointed out, provided no real strategy for creating them; and it hawked anti-Chinese hysteria of the kind that candidate Trump regularly advanced. (Tellingly, House Republicans rejected a motion that would have barred export to China of strategic and critical minerals produced under the HR 761 permit, in tacit acknowledgment that China drives global demand for copper and nickel.) Coming just two days after this EO, the Boundary Waters reversal looks less like a one-off favor to a Chilean billionaire, and more like a coordinated move in a broader campaign.

This subversion of public process is not just the dirty dealing of a few bad actors. It’s also the consequence of weakened institutions; and institutional sabotage — or what Steve Bannon pretentiously called the deconstruction of the administrative state — is the precursor to large-scale corruption. Scott Pruitt might still be the poster boy for putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but Ryan Zinke appears to be pursuing a similar brief at Interior. Though his bungling of the offshore drilling announcement made him appear incompetent, he is making big changes to favor big mining. The Secretary has made it one of his agency’s top ten priorities to “ensure access to mineral resources” and committed to minimizing “conservation objectives” that interfere with extractive industrial development. His plan to shrink Bears Ears followed a map drawn by a uranium mining company. At Grand Staircase-Escalante and Gold Butte National Monuments, Zinke has virtually surrendered vast swaths of public lands to extractive industry.

The Boundary Waters reversal, too, looks like the work of institutional saboteurs. It settles a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior by conceding that the government should not have discretion over public lands when commercial interests are at stake. Its author, Deputy Solicitor Jorjani, did a brief stint at Interior during George W. Bush’s second term, but it was his high profile job as Executive Director of the Koch Institute that distinguished him as the right man for Ryan Zinke’s Interior. As Polluter Watch, a project of Greenpeace, notes, Jorjani was the Koch Institute’s very first hire, and among the five most highly compensated employees at the Charles Koch Foundation. Now, along with Scott Cameron and Benjamin Keel, Daniel Jorjani works with the team at Interior charged with “reviewing rules their previous employers tried to weaken or kill,” according to reporting by the New York Times and Pro Publica. Similar deregulation teams, “connected to private sector groups that interacted with or were regulated by their current agencies,” were formed at all administrative agencies. The teams put public institutions at the service of powerful patrons, subordinating public protections to private interests.

This capture and sabotage of government agencies compounds and multiplies risk, removing public safeguards and compromising appointed guardians. In the case of the Boundary Waters, the risk of irreversible damage and environmental catastrophe would extend far beyond the mining location, because mining in Superior National Forest would also significantly intensify the cumulative effects of the recent boom in leasing, exploration, and drilling throughout the Lake Superior watershed.

All around the greatest of the Great Lakes, the industrial footprint of sulfide mining operations is expanding rapidly. Just to the southwest of the Boundary Waters, for example, Polymet, a company that has never operated a mine before, proposes building an open pit copper and nickel mine that will require water treatment and tailings dam maintenance “in perpetuity” — that means forever. Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is dismantling federal rules requiring hardrock mining companies to take financial responsibility for cleanup.

State regulatory agencies are poorly equipped to oversee these new projects. They often fail to give the public a meaningful voice in permitting, or obtain the required prior consent from the region’s Indigenous nations. For their part, many state politicians are racing to deregulate, or at least accommodate, the mining companies. Just this past October, Wisconsin republicans repealed the state’s Prove it First law, which required copper, nickel and gold miners to prove that they could operate and close a sulfide mine without producing acid mine drainage. (They never proved it.) In Michigan, where Canadian mining companies are moving aggressively into the Upper Peninsula, State Senator Tom Casperson has just proposed giving mining companies and other representatives of industry “disproportionate clout” in the review of environmental rules.

Obviously this all goes way beyond doling out favors to billionaire friends or cronies at Mar-A-Lago, and it didn’t start when the Trumps came to town. Until it is called out, voted out, and rooted out, corruption at this scale – coordinated, institutionalized, systemic – will make a mockery of rule-making and oversight, and put our public lands, as well as our public life, at risk.

Postscript: This January 10th article by Jimmy Tobias in the Pacific Standard takes a careful look at Daniel Jorjani’s calendar, which was obtained through a records request, and identifies two meetings with representatives of the Twin Metals mining project: a June 14, 2017 meeting with Raya Treiser and Andy Spielman of WilmerHale on behalf of Twin Metals, and a July 25th meeting with Antofagasta Plc. I discuss these meetings in this follow up post.

A Great Commons Narrative for the Great Lakes

A few days ago, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law released its report on the Human Right to Water Bill in California. Directed at State agencies, the report discusses the obligations these agencies have to consider the human right to water, as required by California Assembly Bill 685. Specifically it outlines what the duty “to consider” entails, discusses the human right to water, and offers some guidelines for implementation of AB 685.

Not every state has California’s water problems, but all states need to recognize the human right to water and put it on the public agenda. “The human right to water,” in the words of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity” and (to continue with the language of General Comment No. 15) “a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

And yet even where water is abundant, we find this basic right threatened and compromised when it should be respected and protected. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the UN High Commission on Human Rights expressed concern on a recent visit that in some regions of the United States, mining and extractive industries are compromising the human right to water; that concern now must extend even to the Great Lakes area, where one of the biggest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around Lake Superior, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.

A 2011 report issued by the Council of Canadians finds that “the human right to water is being violated in a number of communities around the Great Lakes,” especially but not exclusively in indigenous communities. The report, entitled Our Great Lakes Commons [pdf], lays out “a people’s plan” to remedy this situation and to save and protect Lake Superior and all the Great Lakes as our “common heritage.” I came to the report after reading an op-ed in the May 1 edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel by its author, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Chair of the organization Food and Water Watch. In her thought-provoking piece for the Journal-Sentinel and in this passage from her 2011 report, Barlow roots the human right to water in what she terms a broad “narrative” of the Commons:

The notion of the Commons is a very old one. A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own. Because it is a flow resource necessary for life and ecosystem health, and because there is no substitute for it, water must be regarded as a public Commons and a public good and preserved as such for all time in law and practice. Embracing the Commons helps us to restore to the centrestage a whole range of social and ecological phenomena that market economics regards as “externalities.” A language of the Commons would restore more democratic control over the Great Lakes and establish their care and stewardship the joint responsibility of citizens and their elected governments based on the notions of social equity, ecological survival and governance by the people most impacted.

The Commons approach is based on the belief that just by being members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, language and wisdom. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of denying a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extended the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social security for all members of the community. There are many working examples of Commons in North America today that include systems of national, state and provincial parks, cooperative fishing compacts to protect local stocks from depletion, and public libraries.

A Great Lakes Basin Commons would reject the view that the primary function of the Great Lakes is to promote the interests of industry and the powerful and give them preferential access to the Lakes’ bounties. It would embrace the belief that the Great Lakes form an integrated ecosystem with resources that are to be equitably shared and carefully managed for the good of the whole community. In a Commons framework, water is a fundamental human right that must be accessible to all. Private control of water cannot address itself to the issues of conservation, justice or democracy, the underpinnings of a solution to the crisis of the Great Lakes. Only citizens and their governments acting on their behalf can operate on these principles. Under a Commons regime, all private sector activity would come under strict public oversight and government accountability, and all would have to operate within a mandate, whose goals are the restoration and preservation of the waters of the Basin and water justice for all those who live around it.

At the same time, it is not a return to the notion that the Great Lakes are indestructible due to their size, or what has come to be known as “the tragedy of the commons.” It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the Great Lakes as well as the knowledge that they must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time.