Tag Archives: water pollution

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.

4

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.

Laudato Si’ on Mining

The views of mining we find in the new papal encyclical Laudato Si’ clearly reflect the Latin American experience — centuries of plunder and absconded wealth, industrial development and economic underdevelopment, violence and ruin, degradation of the land and destruction of communities where mining is done. But in its careful attention to issues of water, water access, and the condition of the world’s poor, the encyclical raises serious questions about mining and the ethics of mining everywhere in the world.

Laudato Si’ explicitly addresses mining in three places, raising the very same issues that I’ve been writing about here, in connection with the new mining around Lake Superior. So I thought I would set out these passages for consideration now, with the intention of returning to them after I have had a chance to read the encyclical more carefully.

The first explicit mention of mining in Laudato Si’ comes at 29, which deals with the “serious problem” of “the quality of water available to the poor.”

Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.

At 51, one of the most powerful passages in the entire encyclical looks at the role of mining in creating an “ecological debt” of the global north to the global south, where raw materials are taken from the land for markets that serve the wealthy, industrialized north:

Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.

Quoting a 2009 Christmas Message from the Bishops of Patagonia-Comahue Region of Argentina, Laudato Si’ goes on to explain that the industrialized world has incurred this debt because mining and other companies

operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”

Finally, at 146, the encyclical addresses the way mining projects degrade and destroy land that indigenous communities regard as “sacred space,” often displacing them and threatening their very survival:

it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Miner’s Almanac

It’s difficult for me to read the grim news of the chemical spill in West Virginia without thinking immediately of my friends in Minnesota. “A 23 year gap in oversight” is now listed among the chief causes of the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River. How, in the wake of this disaster, or in light of any of the other industrial spills and explosions and disasters that seem to be in the news nearly every week, can anyone in Minnesota still seriously entertain the idea that Polymet Mining will maintain water treatment facilities for up to 500 years at its open-pit sulfide mine near Hoyt Lakes?

If Freedom Industries, the Department of Homeland Security and other government entities can’t keep track of one storage tank in West Virginia for less than a quarter century, how are we going to keep track of a toxic site on Lake Superior for five centuries? The whole thing seems so absurd, like a really bad joke, told with a sinister wink and a nod.

As I tried to suggest in a previous post, the debate over Polymet’s 500 year water treatment model projects responsibilities so far out into the future as to render them utterly meaningless, making a farce out of the very idea of oversight or even what in the ugly parlance of the regulator is called “environmental impact.”

But just a couple of weeks ago, in a roundtable on Polymet aired on Twin Cities Public Television’s Almanac program, host Cathy Wurzer dutifully took up her part in the farce, fidgeting with her fancy glasses to indicate that she was being serious and inquiring of her guests whether this “has this been done, this kind of treatment, over this amount of time, has it been done successfully elsewhere?” Really? I half expected someone to remind Wurzer that reverse-osmosis technology wasn’t exactly around in the year 1514. Instead, Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, politely answered: “we certainly have no models or examples of successful mitigation over that period of time,” and to her credit she kept a straight face and even managed to cite “over 42 exceedances” of water quality standards at Eagle Mine in Michigan, where water is treated through reverse osmosis – and the mine has not even yet gone into production.

Only later in the program did Becky Rom, of the organization Sustainable Ely, suggest that “it’s not rational to believe” that the facilities Polymet builds today will last “for hundreds of years.” That’s exactly right: it’s completely irrational. In fact, it’s a ridiculous fantasy – or a pathological delusion — to think that Polymet itself will be around fifty or one-hundred or five-hundred years from now, and “always in compliance” as Frank Ongaro, Executive Director of Mining Minnesota declared on the same program.

But that’s only the most egregious falsehood that Polymet and pro-mining groups are asking us to credit.

Pro-mining guests on Almanac were also trying to foist on the public the idea that the mining of copper and nickel at the Polymet site will be no different — – in terms of its potential effects on the land and water — from the mining that has been historically done on Minnesota’s Iron Range. That is patently untrue, but it tugs at the heartstrings and appeals to the nostalgia and pride that the immigrant mining story still inspires: that’s why Polymet has already secured a place for itself in Minnesota mining history on its website, and it’s also why Carly Mellin, who hails from the Iron Range and serves as Assistant Majority Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives, played the heritage card at the end of the program: “we’ve been mining 132 years on the iron range and we still have an absolutely beautiful region of the state,” she said, in what sounded like a clearly rehearsed closing remark, “and I plan to continue for it to be beautiful after copper-nickel mining.” Lucky for her there was no time for people to press her on what exactly those plans are and how she plans to realize them.

For his part, Frank Ongaro kicked off the entire debate with a misleading statement that cast Polymet’s mining project as a matter of self-sufficiency – a project done in the national interest:

We’re sitting in Minnesota on one of the largest deposits of copper, nickel, platinum metals in the world – metals we’re import-dependent on for everything we use, every day in our life.

Carly Mellin reiterated the point a little while later. There may be some traces here of an earlier argument that proponents of HR 761 tried to advance – claiming that mining near the Boundary Waters was “necessary for U.S. strategic interests.” But here Ongaro is really making a cheaper appeal, to jingoism and state pride, and at first blush, he makes a certain amount of sense. Why import what we have in abundance here? If we have metals or other resources we need, why not use them instead of relying on imported stuff?

The copper and nickel taken out of the Minnesota ground will not stay in Minnesota and be smelted and worked as in the days of yore by hardworking Minnesota craftsmen into sturdy tools and smart technologies that twenty-first Minnesotans can use. Mining copper and nickel on the Iron Range may, in fact, have the unintended effect of exposing the region in new ways to the turbulence of the global commodities marketplace.

Rio Tinto’s play for Michigan copper was never about Michigan; it was part of a bet on continued Chinese growth and urbanization. The price of copper – U.S. copper, Chilean copper, Mongolian copper – rises and falls these days on Chinese demand. Copper and nickel mined on the Iron Range will not make us more self-sufficient or serve the strategic interests of the United States. At best, those minerals may be warehoused here for a while, in New Orleans and in other ports; but they are destined for the international market.

This is the cat Frank Ongaro was desperately trying to keep in the bag when Becky Rom called Polymet “a shell company” for Glencore Xstrata, the Swiss global commodities giant. (With about 35 percent of all shares. Glencore is Polymet’s largest investor.)

Rom: I think you have to understand that Polymet isn’t going to be around at year 20. This is a shell company that’s shielding its major investor —
Ongaro (clapping his hands): That’s not true!
Rom: Glencore, that’s known for corruption, and environmental and labor violations —
Ongaro: Every company that operates in the state of Minnesota –
Rom: and at the end…at the end —
Ongaro: –will have to follow state laws, period.
Rom: –at the end of twenty years when they have done extracting the metals and earning their revenue, all they will have as an asset is a polluted mine site. So…we the taxpayer…will carry…the burden for what is going to be in fact hundreds of years.

Eventually, of course, the truth will out. But with precious little time left in the 90-day public comment period that began on December 14th, it needs to come out now.

The Times Correction of Jim Harrison’s “My Upper Peninsula” Falls Short In Three Ways

The Travel section of the November 29th edition of the New York Times featured an article by Jim Harrison about traveling Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called “My Upper Peninsula.” It turns out Harrison’s Upper Peninsula is a place more fondly remembered than accurately observed, and the Times has had to make a number of corrections to his piece.

Probably the most egregious error in the original piece comes just a few paragraphs in, where Harrison explains to prospective travelers to the UP that “you can drink the water directly from Lake Superior,” as he himself used to do on his “long beach walks.” The water of Lake Superior is clean, he wrote in that first version, because “there is little or no industry, and all of the mines are closed.”

I was probably not the only person to send a letter to the editors reminding them that some UP mines are still open and that the Times itself had published a report, in May of 2012, on the new mining boom in the Upper Peninsula. My letter went on to say that the new sulfide mining (the mining of nickel and copper) along with new gold and uranium mining projects in the UP — and all around Lake Superior — pose a very serious risk to the big freshwater lake.

Just one project, the Polymet mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, will require water pollution treatment for a minimum of 500 years.

Last week, the Times published this correction:

Correction: December 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the state of mining in the Upper Peninsula; there are indeed some mines operating in the area — it is not true that all the mines are closed.

The passage about long beach walks now reads:

While camping I would study maps to try to figure out where I was other than within a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies, that irritating species that depends on clean water, of which there is a great deal in the U.P. There is little or no industry; therefore you could drink the water directly from Lake Superior — at least I always did on my long beach walks.

This new version tries to skirt the issue by consigning it to the past. Where Harrison originally wrote “you can drink,” now we are told “you could drink” the water. There is still “a great deal” of clean water in the UP, but this version takes refuge in “at least I always did,” to qualify the drinking. It could all have been a mistake.

But this correction doesn’t do the trick, for at least three reasons.

First, it doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s really going on these days. We still have no no reference to the Times original report on the boom. “It is not true that all the mines are closed” is a far cry from “many new mines are opening, and there is a mining and leasing boom” – which is a lot closer to the what the Times reported in 2012 and a lot closer to the facts: just look at the map of Lake Superior Mines, Mineral Exploration and Mineral Leasing published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. The problem here is only compounded by a couple of sentences near the end of the Harrison piece, which the editors let stand: “It’s not easy to cheerlead for the Upper Peninsula now after the extractive logging and mining. That bleakness is now mostly overgrown by forests except for a few slag piles.” Overgrown? Simply put, the bleakness that Harrison buries in the past is coming back to the UP.

Second – and this is a curious oversight for the Travel section – the new mining is going to endanger, or at least dramatically change, UP tourism, which is in large part about unimpeded access to wilderness areas and especially the freshwater wilderness of Lake Superior. Though tourism has been a growing sector of the UP economy, on its own it’s hardly enough to sustain the region (or any region for that matter). Mining proponents are usually quick to point this out. Most are very careful to say that they “don’t go around tearing down the tourism industry,” as one UP labor leader put it to me. Some are openly scornful of the contribution tourism makes to the regional economy. All acknowledge, as Harrison himself acknowledges, a tension between extractive industry and tourism; and doesn’t that tension belong at the center of any article about traveling to the UP?

Third, the corrected paragraph now makes very little sense. The editors have chosen to omit Harrison’s earlier statements about the disappearance of mining and recognize, in their correction, “some mines operating” in the Upper Peninsula. The paragraph about long beach walks simply states that “there is little or no industry” in the UP. I am not sure what this is supposed to mean: I guess “some” is supposed to be the equivalent of “little” or “none,” or mining doesn’t count as an industry. Be that as it may, the larger omission here has to do with the industrialization the new mining has already brought – the drilling, clear cutting, haul roads, and mine construction already underway are just the start — and how that will add to mounting industrial pressures on the lake: for example, the plan put forward by Enbridge to build a network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior.

I realize, of course, that none of these observations are likely to find a place in the Travel section. Readers go there to encounter a world where nature is picturesque, and history and culture are placed on quaint and colorful exhibition. Advertisers count on it. The Travel section presents an exotic world, in the most literal sense, a world outside ordinary lived experience, fully exteriorized, a fantasy of escape. I suppose readers should look elsewhere in the paper of record to correct that impression, and to see the world as it really is.

An Updated Map of Lake Superior Mining

Basin_mines_3-15-13
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has produced this updated map of Lake Superior mining. Since I’ve written about an earlier version of this map (here, but see also here and here and here) and I plan to write about Lake Superior mining moving forward, I thought it would be useful to share it.

This March 15, 2013 version of the map [pdf] includes more detail and definition as we see new projects come online and exploration and leasing continue apace.

Notice how much more detail we have in this version around Duluth and Hibbing, in the southwestern corner of Superior. Taconite and iron yield to copper and nickel as the trail of exploration moves north. On the south shore of Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Kennecott Eagle Copper Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains, along with White Pine and Orvana Copperwood, are now properly identified.

Claims and leases have turned much of this area, from L’Anse Bay to Marquette and over to Deer Lake, pink. The new mining runs right up to the edge of the watershed area that stretches from the Carp River to St. Mary’s River.

The densest concentration of leasing and mining claims remains on the Canadian side, on the northwestern shore of Superior, from Thunder Bay toward Lake Nipigon. Gold and rare mineral exploration predominate.

“Areas of Concern” singled out by the Lake Superior Mining Committee in 2010 are unchanged, on both the Canadian and the U.S. sides of the lake; and yet we see mineral exploration and new mining claims right around these areas.

It’s tempting to look at what’s happening around Lake Superior right now and make alarming conjectures about what might happen, three or five or ten years down the road. Nobody knows how many full-blown big mining operations will develop from all this exploration and activity. But it’s clear from this map that new mining is already putting significant pressure on Lake Superior.