Tag Archives: UN Guiding Principles

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 Limits of Corporate Benevolence, from Mongolia to Michigan

The phrase “human rights” is nowhere to be found in the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement, a document [pdf] that will play a critical role in guiding Mongolia’s development over the next decade. The Agreement sets the terms for the $6.2 billion investment in the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mining project, which promises to account for no less than one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by the year 2020. Rio Tinto has a 66 percent stake in the project through its subsidiary, Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd; the Mongolian government owns the rest.

Along with the serious environmental concerns cited by the United States when it abstained, in February of this year, from a World Bank investment scheme in Oyu Tolgoi, there are a host of human rights issues to address — from migrancy to land seizures, rights to the scarce water resources of the Gobi desert region, conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger camps, and the survival of Mongolia’s herder communities. (The Bank Information Center provides an overview of these concerns, here and here.) The Investment Agreement briefly addresses some of these points, but it resorts, in all instances, to what I would call the language of corporate benevolence.

So the Investor agrees to abide by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a voluntary agreement to publish payments made by the Oyu Tolgoi mine to the government); in another place (section 4.13; but cf. also section 4.6) the Investor consents to “build and maintain productive working relationships, based on principles of transparency, accountability, accuracy, trust, respect and mutual interests, with non-governmental organizations, civic groups, civil councils and other stakeholders.” Beyond this, there is not much else to guide or govern the company’s conduct vis a vis civil society and its responsibility to respect human rights.

Given the high stakes, the scale of Oyu Tolgoi and the involvement of the World Bank and IFC in the project, it is surprising the Agreement does not explicitly incorporate — or reference — the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Instead of creating binding agreements or even practical mechanisms to ensure that Oyu Tolgoi and the government of Mongolia meet their respective human rights obligations as the economy accelerates and the social terrain continues to shift, the Investment Agreement relies on the language of corporate social responsibility to smooth things over.

Part of the trouble with CSR isn’t just that it tends to replace binding agreements and articulated responsibilities with vague sentiments, the language of corporate benevolence, and promises of sustainability and shared prosperity. That’s bound to happen when social responsibility meets public relations. A bigger problem is that the commitments companies voluntarily make to contribute to economic development and social progress — and to respect human rights — will last only as long as the business requires them.

For an example of how abruptly a company can ditch stakeholder communities, what happened in Michigan yesterday with another Rio Tinto project may turn out to be more instructive than what’s happening right now in Mongolia. In the face of serious environmental and human rights challenges to its Eagle Mine project over the last several years, Rio Tinto all along touted its good corporate citizenship, promising to “leave more wood on the woodpile” and to take an active hand in the long term, “sustainable development” of the Upper Peninsula. That is just part of “The Way We Work,” as the title of a Rio Tinto CSR publication would have it — or at least it was the Way We Worked. Yesterday, the company announced that it had sold the Eagle Mine project to Toronto-based Lundin Mining for the tidy sum of $325 million cash — part of CEO Sam Walsh’s strategy to divest from “non-core” assets and protect the single-A credit rating the company currently enjoys. A community of stakeholders whose future Rio Tinto promised to make happy, bright and prosperous became, overnight, a disposable asset.

Liability? Responsibility? No, Sustainability.

I’ve been looking for a transcript of the remarks Johan Lubbe made yesterday, on behalf of the National Retail Federation — a trade association representing about 9000 American retailers and the chief and most vocal proponent of an “alternative” to the legally-binding global pact to ensure the safety of clothing factories in Bangladesh. The global pact has won pretty widespread support in Europe, but so far there are only two American signatories. The Americans won’t sign up because, they say, the global pact would expose them to litigation, or what one spokesperson for The Gap called “unlimited litigation,” should something go wrong at one of the factories they use.

Yesterday they brought out Lubbe. Here is how today’s AP report summarizes his remarks:

On Friday, the retail trade group made available for the media an international labor lawyer who rebuked the global pact and said that it is too vague for retailers to sign. At the heart of the criticism: the contract would expose retailers to legal liability for the failure of factories to comply with the set standards even though merchants don’t own the facilities.

In rejecting the global pact, Lubbe and the NRF are trying to limit the scope of legal liability to ownership — in this case, brick and mortar property ownership. I can’t tell if the claim here is that with outsourcing comes immunity, or that liability does not extend in any way down through the global manufacturing supply chain. For the moment, however, I’m less interested in all that than in knowing whether Lubbe or the NRF have made any kind of statement acknowledging their responsibility for conditions in the Bangladesh garment factories.

Responsibility is a word that applies, or should apply here, no matter how the debate about liability gets resolved. It is not a “vague” word of the sort that the NRF would reject. It’s a word that entails specific human rights commitments, which have been carefully enumerated and articulated in connection with the UN’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. It comes with ownership, but it also extends beyond ownership to business partnerships and relationships — all the way to Bangladesh.

I imagine there is anxiety that acknowledging responsibility might be misconstrued as admitting liability. The word and the idea of responsibility are certainly nowhere to be found in the statement the National Retail Federation issued on Wednesday. Instead, the NRF focused on how applying “a legal standard” would limit the ability of retailers and brands “to respond” to an “ever-changing environment.”

Given the global nature of the apparel and retail industry, applying a legal standard is a very complex proposition. The Safer Factories Initiative understands that flexibility is required to address a broad array of worker safety issues and enables brands and retailers to respond swiftly and effectively to an ever-changing environment.

Let’s forgive the sloppy confusion (“flexibility is required to…enables”?) of the second sentence, and hope that in future the NRF hires a PR firm with grammarians in its employ. Just have a look at the language they’re floating here. These are such well-worn business tropes that we barely notice them: complexity, flexibility, responding swiftly to an ever-changing environment. Here, the big, giant brand, the multinational with suppliers and partners all around the world, is both powerful agent and vulnerable patient: capable of responding, at least if not bound or restricted by law, but subject to forces far beyond its control.

Sidestepping obligations and commitments, the NRF statement opts for “flexibility” and (as the statement continues) “sustainability,” an already-overused and much-abused word that appears in nearly every statement the Federation makes. Talk about vague. The NRF want “sustainable solutions” to make the Bangladesh garment industry “a sustainable manufacturer.” They offer a “sustainable action plan” now and “will continue to pursue a sustainable industry-wide solution,” and so on. The word and its variants appear 9 times in the course of a single statement.

You get the idea. As companies respond to rapidly changing conditions — or flee from one disaster to the next — they need flexibility to fashion a sustainable way forward. Otherwise they might be engulfed by their own blunders, or held responsible or liable for their part in the whole mess before they can run to the next country.