Tag Archives: Superior Watershed Partnership

Does Eagle Mine Have Social License to Operate?

Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear hit all the right notes when he announced last week that Eagle Mine is now in production. Completed ahead of schedule and on budget, the new nickel and copper mine on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula marks “a tremendous achievement”:

The Eagle Mine is a significant new, high-quality, low-cost mine, that has been constructed to the highest of safety, environmental and social responsibility standards.

Our team has done an exemplary job in bringing the mine into production, and we look forward to the operation becoming a significant cash flow generator for the Company and a significant contributor to the local and regional economy. We would like to thank all employees and contractors for their dedication and excellent work in addition to all local stakeholders for their ongoing support.

Analysts and investors seemed pleased as well, and happy to take Conibear at his word. The company’s share price, which had been trending downward, ticked up the day after the announcement. Lundin Mining is “hitting the ground running,” declared one enthusiast, who goes by the pseudonym The Investment Doctor and published his report right on the heels of the company’s press release; “and it’s rare to see a large scale project being completed ahead of schedule. The production is starting just in time to benefit from a strong nickel price.”

Those inclined to follow the Doctor’s advice may wish to consider that his analysis focuses solely on nickel production, and makes no mention of what’s happened to copper prices lately: they’ve plummeted (though, to be fair, they now seem to be rebounding slightly).

In any case, the whole picture may be a little more complicated than the mining company and its boosters would have us believe. Eagle will count as “a significant contributor to the local and regional economy” only if you overlook the effect the mining operation is bound to have on tourism (which currently makes up around 20 percent of the Marquette area’s economy) and the many other detrimental and distorting effects mining will have on the economic life of the Upper Peninsula. Economist Thomas M. Power has run these down. For one thing, he observes, mining operations can hinder entrepreneurship and innovation, and drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers. They prefer not to live around a mine, or on the haul route from mine to mill; nowadays even the miners would rather commute. It remains unclear, too, how the region will benefit in the long term, after the accessible ore runs out and Eagle shuts down.

So one has the feeling that the tepid term “contributor” in Conibear’s statement about the broad economic benefits of the new mining operation was chosen with care: it positions the mining company as a social benefactor, but it reserves any talk of wealth generation for the “flow” of cash into the company coffers. Some will trickle down: the contribution Eagle makes to the economy will be “significant”; but even saying that leaves wiggle room to back away from stronger and more specific language about job creation that was used to promote the project in the first place. The main object here is to reassure Lundin’s creditors.

To bring the bigger picture into focus, we also have to take into account the social costs and environmental risks associated with this new mining operation. When Conibear says that Eagle Mine was built to “the highest of…standards,” I guess he’s talking about mining industry standards. At least some environmental and community groups have different and even higher standards, and they are not satisfied with DEQ enforcement to date or with the Community Environmental Monitoring Program established by Rio Tinto and the non-profit Superior Watershed Partnership (for which Lundin Mining will pay $300,000 annually). For local stakeholders like the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who opted out of the Superior Watershed Partnership deal, the new mine falls short on many important counts. Together with the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron Mountain Club and the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the KBIC sued, only to lose in the Michigan Court of Appeals in August of this year; but that loss hardly means the concerns that motivated the twelve-year legal challenge to the mine were without merit.

The stark fact remains that like Rio Tinto before them, Lundin Mining cannot point to a single example of copper and nickel mining in the United States or Canada that did not pollute surrounding waters or groundwater. Questions raised by Jack Parker about the geological stress field of the Yellow Dog Plains — and the risk of “sudden collapse” he alleges was covered up by regulatory collusion — continue to be “studiously ignored.” Haul road construction has been mired in controversy: it took corporate wrangling of the County Road Commission and exercise of eminent domain to push through the the current route; and that road work has already violated the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

The point is not to multiply examples or revisit all the controversies that still surround Eagle Mine. Now that the mine is in operation, some of these issues may even be “moot,” as a writer in Crains suggested after the decision by the Court of Appeals in August. But taken together, they raise the question whether Lundin Mining has done enough (since purchasing the Eagle operation from from Rio Tinto) to earn the trust, let alone gain the support, of local stakeholders who were not already in the mining camp or the mining company’s pocket. So far, Lundin has demonstrated that it can bulldoze ahead and get stuff done. Its claim to social license remains unsettled.

A Mining Renaissance?

On the Almanac program I discussed in yesterday’s post, Kathryn Hoffman cited “42 exceedances of water quality standards” at Eagle Mine to make the point that reverse-osmosis technology isn’t as effective as mining proponents in Minnesota make it out to be. I was expecting some rundown of those exceedances in Codi Kozacek’s January 8th article about Eagle Mine on Circle of Blue; but Kozacek focuses, instead, on the Eagle Mine water-monitoring agreement Rio Tinto struck with Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust two years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Kozacek seems to have traveled from Hawaii (where she’s based) to the UP to do some interviews and take some photographs: it appears she was there in summertime. But so far as I can tell she’s based her article on a “case study” jointly commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership, a piece of bespoke research entitled Unity of Place: Giving Birth to Community Environmental Monitoring.

In fact, the opening of Kozacek’s article documenting – or should I say celebrating? — this “unprecedented” water-monitoring agreement seems to be nothing more than a loose paraphrase of that publication, which tells the story of how the community around Eagle Mine gained “a measure of power over the mine. And it was Rio Tinto that gave it to them.”

Leave aside for the moment the preposterous idea that that power was Rio Tinto’s to give in the first place: the Unity of Place case study simply asks us to accept that business can and will decide the power society has over it, and Kozacek seems untroubled by the notion. That Rio Tinto sold Eagle Mine to Lundin Mining after descending from the heights to strike this unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the little people living around the mine does not give her pause, or raise questions about the mining giant’s good faith or much-touted commitment to the community around Eagle; and Kozacek only gets around to mentioning the sale to Lundin 28 paragraphs into her 34-paragraph story.

For the sake of balance, she includes a couple of interviews with “skeptics,” people who remain, to this day, distrustful of the water monitoring agreement but express the hope that it will have some good effect. She mentions the uranium leakage discovered at Eagle last year, which she offers as proof of the success of the program in alerting “the public to potential water quality threats,” quoting the Superior Watershed Partnership’s Jerry Maynard (who is also featured prominently in Unity of Place): the monitoring program, he says, “is gaining the trust and respect of the community….We want this to get out there—we want other mining communities to say ‘we want this too.’” But she fails to mention any other exceedances or violations – I guess she missed that episode of Almanac before filing her story — and apparently didn’t bother looking into the new water story now unfolding around Eagle Mine: the renewal of the mine’s groundwater discharge permit. (Michele Bourdieu has that story over at Keweenaw Now.)

My guess is that Kozacek is unfazed by any of these questions and complications, because the real story she wants to tell here is the story of a mining “renaissance”: she uses the word a few times in her article, once as a header and then twice in the body:

The Eagle Mine is viewed as either on the leading edge or the troubling future of a mining renaissance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that has seen more mining bust than boom in the past 50 years. Just as in the oil and gas industry, improvements in mining technology are making previously overlooked ore bodies economically attractive. Rapidly developing countries, particularly China and Brazil, are driving demand for iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold.

But many of the once booming mine communities in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, operating with a fraction of their historical populations and downtowns darkened by empty storefronts, are eager for a mining renaissance.

Not a return of mining. Not a re-opening of the mines. Not a new mineral leasing, exploration and mining boom (which would have to be followed by yet another bust). A mining renaissance. It’s an odd word for someone writing about water issues to choose. I wonder if the ungainly use of the word “birth” in the subtitle of the Rio Tinto-Superior Watershed case study inspired Kozacek here: with the “Birth” of “Community Environmental Monitoring” advertised on the cover and on every recto page of that pamphlet, why not imagine a rebirth – and wouldn’t the word “renaissance” be so much more elegant? – of mining?

MinersAtVillanders

Renaissance miners, in the early 16th-century stained glass window of the Villanders parish church.

It’s at best an ugly parody of historical discourse, but I take it that it’s intended to give the new mining around Lake Superior a historical stature that it would otherwise seem to lack. In the second of the two paragraphs I’ve quoted here, Kozacek even imagines the area longing to emerge from a kind of Dark Age, or at least “darkened” downtowns, into renewed prosperity.

But in the first of those paragraphs, I must admit, she does a pretty good job of spelling things out. New extractive technologies have made it not only possible but “economically attractive” (read: highly profitable) for large multinational players to mine previously neglected or abandoned ore deposits, extract oil from tar sands and drill for natural gas by fracking. Chinese urbanization and rapid development in the BRIC countries continue to drive and raise demand for minerals and fossil fuels, as economic power shifts away from developed, Western economies.

Communities in the Upper Peninsula and all around Lake Superior are now feeling the pressures of these bigger changes. Whether they will bring renewal — or more boom and bust, or just catastrophic demise – is another question altogether.