Tag Archives: regulation

Three Questions for the Michigan DEQ on the Back Forty Project

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced its intention to permit the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold and zinc sulfide ore mine that Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, plans to develop near the headwaters of the Menominee River. In response to the MDEQ’s request for public comment by November 3rd, I’ve submitted these three questions. I’m posting them here so that others might consider them in the run up to the public meeting with the MDEQ in Stephenson, Michigan on October 6th.

  1. In determining that the Back Forty Project application meets the requirements for approval under Part 632, did MDEQ take into account the cumulative effects of sulfide mining throughout the Lake Superior watershed? We know that the Back Forty project poses a significant risk to the Menominee River all by itself. With the mine in close proximity to the river, a flood, berm collapse, subsidence or a slide could destroy the Menominee River; to answer these serious concerns by asking the company to add a “synthetic, manmade liner under their waste/tailing rock facility,” as the DEQ has proposed, is to trivialize them. Other development that the mine will inevitably bring, including haul routes, power lines, lights, fueling stations, exhaust and machine noise, will leave a large industrial footprint and disturb the Menominee River and its environs in countless ways. At the same time, this mine will heighten the risk, in the long term, of large-scale environmental destruction posed by the resurgence of sulfide mining not just in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in Minnesota and Canada as well — all around the lake and throughout the Lake Superior watershed. Has the DEQ completed or participated with neighboring state agencies and tribal authorities in a scientific study of the cumulative impacts of sulfide mining around Lake Superior? Has the DEQ issued guidance on how cumulative environmental effects should factor into its decision-making process for permitting new mines in Michigan?
  2. Has MDEQ made any determination about the human rights implications of its decision to allow the Back Forty project to go forward? Human rights are not outside the DEQ’s bailiwick, no matter how hard it may try to exempt itself. Witness Flint. In the present case, the DEQ’s oversight is inextricably bound up with the state’s obligation to protect human rights abuses by third parties. Aquila’s Back Forty project is sure to disturb, and likely to desecrate, lands traditionally belonging to the Menominee and still held sacred by them; and making provisions for archaeological recovery and preservation of mounds and other sacred sites does not adequately address the basic human rights issues involved here. The headwaters of the Menominee River are central to the tribe’s creation story, marking the place where the Menominee people originated. Their very name derives from manoomin, or wild rice, which will not survive changes in sulfate levels or degradation of overall water quality. As tribal member Guy Reiter has said, “It’s no different than if an open-pit sulfide mine was put in Bethlehem for the Christians.” Seen from this perspective, the Back Forty is not only an affront to Menominee history; it also puts the cultural survival of the Menominee people at risk. How will the DEQ factor such human rights considerations into its decision-making process?
  3. What has the DEQ done to restore trust in its authority, and reassure the Menominee and people living downstream from the Back Forty project in Michigan and Wisconsin that it will exercise appropriate care? The Flint water crisis cast a long shadow, and reinforced the perception that “politics and poverty are big factors” in DEQ decision making. “The same attitude of disregard for citizens and the environment has repeated itself in DEQ decisions across our state for well over a decade,” said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley after news of the Flint water crisis broke; controversy over the renewed Groundwater Discharge Permit issued by MDEQ at Eagle Mine and legitimate concerns about lax oversight at Eagle East help make her case. Like all government agencies, the Michigan DEQ should operate in sunlight. Already, however, troubling questions have been raised about the transparency of the Back Forty permitting process. For example, Al Gedicks, Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, asks why the DEQ appears to be in a “rush” to grant the Back Forty permit. So as things now stand, the DEQ enjoys de jure authority in Michigan under Part 632, but it is unclear whether the DEQ still enjoys de facto authority, which could only derive from demonstrations of regulatory competence. How does MDEQ intend to quell public concern that it is compromised or incompetent, and reassure the public that it is a responsible steward?

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazards of the Copper Antimarket

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post connecting Chinese urbanization with the new mining around Lake Superior. Chinese demand for copper — which is used in everything from large scale infrastructure projects to new housing construction — is likely what brought Rio Tinto to the Upper Peninsula in the first place. But the copper extracted by Rio’s successor Lundin Mining, which took ownership of the controversial Kennecott/Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula just last week, or Polymet, which is developing a mine in Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, won’t be shipped directly from the US to China. Instead, it will travel a long and circuitous route from Lake Superior through a tightly-controlled system of warehouses, and now the copper those warehouses hold will be the property of big financial firms.

This new arrangement — copper’s new holding pattern — entails new risks for the global financial system, the American economy and the places where copper is mined.

A story in the Times this past weekend reported that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other big Wall Street players are already manipulating the market for aluminum, and developing Bank Holding Companies that will mix finance with global commerce in new ways. By hoarding aluminum and exploiting the rules of the London Metals Exchange — which the banks owned until just last year, when the LME was sold to a group of Hong Kong investors — Goldman and other banks are set to make billions of dollars without actually moving aluminum into the market. Copper, as the story noted, is “next up.”

Last winter, the SEC approved two new copper-backed Exchange Traded Funds, one from JPMorgan, which was the first of its kind, and a second from BlackRock. These new Copper ETFs not only permit but require JPMorgan and BlackRock to take possession of and physically store tons of copper in warehouses. It’s an audacious plan that will “ultimately allow JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock to buy 80 percent of the copper available on the market on behalf of investors and hold it in their warehouses.” A few firms will essentially control the world copper market — or to establish what rightly deserves to be called an antimarket. (The term is historian Fernand Braudel’s, and has been popularized by Manuel DeLanda).

Big copper consumers like Southwire and Encore registered their dissent, but SEC officials capitulated after heavy lobbying by too-big-to-fail finance. The SEC even said it shared the view put forward by the banks, that the new funds would “track the price of copper, not propel it, and concurred with the firms’ contention — disputed by some economists — that reducing the amount of copper on the market would not drive up prices.” Robert B. Bernstein, an attorney representing the copper consumers, suggested in a letter to the SEC last year that this took too narrow a view, and that copper prices were not the only thing to worry about. Bernstein argued that the investment houses’ hoarding of copper will disrupt the copper market, impede economic recovery, and work “contrary to the public interest.”

The public interest had some defenders at yesterday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing on Financial Holding Companies, where ETFs and the banking practices behind them came under scrutiny. Chaired by Senator Sherrod Brown and featuring expert testimony from Saule Omarova, Joshua Rosner, Timothy Weiner and Randall Guynn, the hearing touched several times on how the control of metals markets by financial players like Goldman and JPMorgan will affect the American consumer and greatly heighten the risk of another financial crisis like the one in 2008 — and necessitate another bailout by American taxpayers of firms that are too big to fail (but seem, oddly, hellbent on failure).

At the hearing’s end, Sherrod Brown said we need “to ask ourselves what it does to the rest of our society when wealth and resources are diverted into finance.” It was a good summary comment, because the hearing raised a whole host of questions about the social hazards this diversion entails.

For instance, what effect will these ETFs and financial manipulation of the global copper market have on the communities where copper is mined? Yesterday’s hearing didn’t directly address the point. Randall Guynn tried to suggest that a bank-controlled mine in a bank-controlled market where the bank warehoused and manipulated the price of the metal being mined would create a reliable and steady labor market. But others warned that the speculative bubble will inevitably burst, and that will leave both investors and communities in the lurch. Even while the boom lasts, workers and communities are likely to be powerless against giant commodity-extracting, -holding and -trading financial conglomerates with lobbying power, friends in high places and apologists like Randall Guynn.

Will the cornering and squeezing of the copper market by big finance exert new pressures to relax environmental controls? Why not, especially since multinational miners already complain about the delays caused by prudent environmental assessments? Both Omarova and Rosner asked us to imagine a scenario in which the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe happened on an oil rig owned by JPMorgan; now, with banks moving aggressively into copper, a mining catastrophe like the Bingham Canyon collapse (which I wrote about here) could send shockwaves throughout the entire financial system. “If we saw a catastrophic event at non-financial facility,” Joshua Rosner told the Committee, “the impact to the [financial] institution and the Fed would be catastrophic.”

Omarova stressed the complexities of these commodity markets, and expressed serious doubts that regulators “can oversee risks caused by Bank Holding Companies and this mixture of commerce and banking.” Rosner echoed these concerns: “to suggest regulators have ability to manage holding companies is to ignore all the areas regulators failed to oversee in 2008,” he said. Worse, the banks themselves would be incapable of predicting, controlling or even appreciating the risks to which they are exposed.

I made a similar point about JPMorgan’s inability to manage its exposure to human rights risks in the wake of the London Whale episode.

The new mix of banking, speculation and holding of commodities, said Saule Omarova, may make another London Whale more likely, and worse. So history may be about to repeat itself. Omarova went on to suggest that in making their moves into the commodities markets, Goldman, JPMorgan and the other firms playing this dangerous new game seem to have adopted a business model pioneered just a little over a decade ago, by Enron. That observation prompted Senator Elizabeth Warren’s dark comment: “This movie does not end well.”

The Hysteria of H.R. 761

The authors of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act (H.R. 761) complain that we depend on China — can you believe it? China! — for rare earth minerals that are “vital to job creation, American economic competitiveness and national security.” But the Act, which passed in a House Committee on Natural Resources vote on May 15, 2013 with bipartisan support, will effectively ease regulation of foreign multinational mining companies operating in the United States, including those who mine here and market U.S. minerals in — yes, you guessed it — China.

Bureaucratic delay puts “good-paying mining jobs…at the mercy of foreign sources,” according to the Act. Our security and prosperity are threatened from without, so we need to protect ourselves from within; and we are asked to believe that the surest way to do that is to replace careful assessment and regulatory oversight of risky mining operations with new efficiencies. The Act laments the weight of “onerous government red tape”: if only Atlas would shrug.

The authors of this act do not even try to disguise their contempt for the role of government in regulating industry and the “environmentally responsible development” they purport to uphold. Citing a report by international mining consultancy Behre Dolbear Group (with offices in Beijing, Chicago, Guadalajara, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, among other places, where, presumably, its teams of advisors and engineers steadfastly champion the strategic and economic interests of the United States), they note that “the United States ranks last with Papua New Guinea out of twenty-five major mining countries in permitting delays, and towards the bottom regarding government take and social issues affecting mining.”

That last clause about “government take” and “social issues affecting mining” gets sneaked into the sentence here without consideration for the social effects mining operations have: society here is just in the way of business and taxes or takings are just a burden. This is reckless thinking, but it’s carefully smuggled into discussions of the Act with the distracting reference to Papua New Guinea. That line snorts mockery and imperial contempt, and it’s intended to shame and prompt outrage — like the newspaper headlines the ranking inspired: The Wall Street Journal: “U.S., Papua New Guinea at Bottom of List for Mining Permit Delays.” Mineweb: “Protracted Permitting Delays Depress U.S. Mine Investment.” The Hill: “U.S. Wins Race to the Bottom on Mining Permits — Again.” The comparison with Papua even figured into an article by M.D. Kittle in the Wisconsin Reporter: “Wake Up, Environmentalists: Your Cell Phone Was Mined Somewhere Else.”

Needless to say, these newspaper discussions aren’t balanced by any appreciation of the complex social, environmental and human rights issues around mining in Papua New Guinea (or the United States). The promoters of H.R. 761 certainly aren’t going to invite debate on the situation in Papua — where growth in the mining sector has brought corruption, violence, and environmental devastation. Their intention is clear: they want to hold up Papua as one of those foreign and dirty places, a slow, corrupt and silly place, a little, squalid, underdeveloped and dark place. Certainly not an efficient place.

Lest the Chinese enslave us or we end up living like pygmies in grass huts, we have to make it easier for big mining companies to give Americans jobs. That is the hysteria just under the surface of H.R. 761. The legislation is so broadly and poorly written, and either so cynical or so ill-conceived, that any mining operation will be able to claim its protection from regulatory oversight. The “strategic and critical” exemption from government interference and delay will be repeatedly invoked, as it was by Republican Chip Cravaak in 2011, who at the time represented Minnesota’s 8th district in the U.S. House.

Before his defeat in 2012, Cravaak advanced the claim that exploiting the copper and nickel resources of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota would be “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” According to a 1978 law, those areas can only be mined in case of national emergency; but Polymet, a Canadian company, has been working since 2006 to obtain permits for an open pit mine in Superior National Forest. They negotiated a land exchange and loan scheme to get around the prohibition. Cravaak waved the stars and stripes for them on the Hill. Meanwhile, Toronto-based Polymet made a deal with the Swiss company Glencore to sell its American metals on the global market. At the time, Elanne Palcich noted, demand was especially strong in China and India.