Tag Archives: Watershed

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, 1

First in a Series

oretrucksAAA

Ore trucks from Lundin Mining’s Eagle Mine make their way down the Triple A road.

No Labels

I’ve just gotten around to reading the complaint filed on July 8th in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division, by the Marquette County Road Commission against the EPA. The complaint alleges that the EPA’s repeated objections to County Road 595 — that the road will threaten and destroy wetlands, streams and protected wildlife in its way — are “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of Section 404(J) of the Clean Water Act. The Road Commission asks the court to set aside the EPA’s Final Decision against the building of County Road 595, restore Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to permit the road, and bar the EPA from further interference in the matter.

While it may take the court some time to decide whether MCRC v. EPA has any legal merit, the complaint is written to serve other ends as well: political objectives. The complaint is aligned with efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, to ease regulations, subvert the legal authority of the EPA and whip up anger against the federal government; and the plaintiffs appear to be connected, through their attorneys, to one of the most powerful Republican party fundraisers and a network of ultra-wealthy political donors.

The MCRC complaint directs ire against a familiar cadre of enemies — environmental “activists,” overreaching federal bureaucrats and the area’s indigenous community; and it pretends to discover a dark conspiracy, in which these groups meet “surreptitiously,” write “sarcastically” about mining interests, and collude to block economic development. In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether the arguments and evidence assembled in this complaint are meant to serve as legal fodder or support political posturing. So I thought I would try to sort through them in a short series of posts on the CR 595 lawsuit.

There is the tiresome pretense throughout the complaint that CR 595 would serve as something other than a haul route from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill, and that the road will benefit the public as much as the mining company. While the mining company says it is committed to making do with current infrastructure, the public clearly deserves some relief: trucks hauling ore on a makeshift route from Eagle have already been involved in a few scary accidents, and it remains a question whether cars can safely share the same road, especially an icy winter road, with ore trucks trying to beat the clock. People are understandably concerned, too, about big trucks loaded with sulfide ore barreling through the city of Marquette.

The public has another cause for grievance, and it makes for some angry foot stomping in the complaint: the MCRC spent millions to prepare for EPA reviews of the CR 595 application and failed repeatedly to win approval. Both time and money were wasted, the complaint says, not due to incompetence, stubbornness or denial, but because the EPA was never going to give the Road Commission a fair hearing. It’s in this connection that the complaint tries to lay out an “anti-mining” conspiracy between the EPA and environmental activists and the indigenous community in the Great Lakes Basin, and where the arguments become specious and contorted.

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the ways MCRC v. EPA constructs this anti-mining strawman in order to mount a political offensive; and throughout this series, I’m going to be asking whether the “anti-mining” label correctly characterizes the evidence brought by the MCRC. I think it’s fair to say from the outset that it does not accurately represent the priorities and commitments of people and groups concerned about the construction of CR 595. It’s reductive, and turns road skeptics into industry opponents. To be against this particular haul road — or hold its planners to the letter of the law — is not necessarily to pit yourself against the entire mining industry.

The anti-mining label deliberately confuses haul-road opposition with opposition to the mining industry in order to coerce people into going along with the haul road or risk losing their livelihood, or at least the jobs and economic prosperity promised when mining projects are pitched. The MCRC complaint goes even further: it conflates mining with economic development — or reduces all economic development in the region to mining — and so runs roughshod over the thoughtful arguments of people like Thomas M. Power, who has studied the ways mining can restrict and quash sustainable economic development.

The anti-mining label fences ordinary people in, distorts and exaggerates their legitimate concerns, and does not recognize that people might come to the CR 595 discussion from all different places. Most don’t arrive as members of some anti-industry coalition; they are fishermen, residents, property owners, teachers, hunters, parents, hikers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, loggers, parishioners, kayakers, merchants, and so on. Some are many of these things all at once.

The label is fundamentally disrespectful: it refuses to meet people on their own terms and fails to ask what any of the people who oppose CR 595 actually stand for. What do they want for the area? What do they value and love? What do they envision for the future? Where do they have shared interests? Where do they have real differences? How can we work together? The anti-mining label forecloses all those questions. Instead, people are divided. The label demands that everybody take one side or the other (and, as I learned in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre, in the Upper Peninsula that demand has deep historical roots in the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century; but, no worries, in this series of posts I’ll try to stay focused on the present).

I have always had trouble with the idea that “anti-” and “pro-” mining positions should govern the way we talk about the environmental regulation of mining. I myself can easily slip into this way of talking. But as I tried to explain in an exchange on this blog with Dan Blondeau of Eagle Mine, that way of thinking impedes and short-circuits important conversations about the ethics of mining. Playing the anti-mining card reduces the questions of whether and how mining can be done responsibly — in this place, by that company, at this time — to mere pro and contra. It’s a dangerous ruse: instead of identifying risks and addressing responsibilities, it generates social conflict.

A Liturgy of Loss and Hope

I was supposed to travel to Lake Superior at the end of this month. I’d hoped to visit some of the spots R. B. Roosevelt mentions in Superior Fishing, talk to some people along the way, and see for myself the Eagle Mine, the Humboldt Mill and the haul route from mine to mill.

Then I found out that today the Concerned Clergy of Marquette would be offering a community benediction — “a liturgy of loss and hope,” as they describe it, to “mourn” the changes the new mining has already brought to the area, and to invite people to “recommit to preserving what remains of our beloved land and her people.” (You can find out more about today’s two-part event here.) liturgy

The “quiet reverent time” promised by the benediction superseded what plans I had. I changed my ticket and flew to Marquette yesterday.

On the way here I reflected a little on the idea that rituals of mourning (like funerals) are for the living, not the dead. Mourning, which nowadays we so often do in private, can be a powerful social act. Funerals have stirred rebellions; mourning rites can also give communities a chance to heal and atone.

Today’s liturgy on the Yellow Dog Plains was a quiet reckoning, but a reckoning all the same. People spoke from the heart. There were prayers, poems and songs. A fire burned at the center of the circle. Snow graced the ceremony’s end.

A North American Oceanus (1865)

EasternWatershed3

In the northern part of Minnesota is the greatest elevation of what geologists denominate the eastern water-shed of our continent; lying almost exactly in the centre of North America, here the streams that flow to the north, east, and south, find their source. Lake Superior, that adjoins this section on the east, is the chief of those magnificent lakes that empty from one another into the St. Lawrence, and finally wash the coast of Labrador. The Mississippi, taking its rise in the same region and but a few miles away, flows southward with ever increasing volume to the Gulf of Mexico, and then sweeping around Florida and through the Atlantic, rejoins the waters of Lake Superior off Newfoundland; while the Red River of the North, pursuing a contrary course, empties into Hudson’s Bay and thence into the Northern Ocean. These waters, starting from little rills and springs scarcely more than a few steps apart, after wandering thousands of miles asunder come together and commingle in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

I keep coming back to this short passage about the eastern watershed in Robert B. Roosevelt‘s Superior Fishing — the perspective it sets out, the way it locates the “source” of the eastern waters at the continent’s “centre,” the divergent flows and courses it maps, and the idea of Northern Atlantic confluence and commingling at which it repeatedly arrives.

Roosevelt starts out pretending to be scientific, dealing with “what geologists denominate,” but soon we have left geology behind. Or, at least, there is something beyond scientific naming, or something unnamed at work here as well, a story that exceeds the scientific bounds of geology, geography and cartography.

The passage describes a North American Oceanus — an ocean stream that encircles the eastern portion of the continent. The eastern stream originates in the elevated northeastern corner of Minnesota, near Grand Portage and in the rills and springs of the Boundary Waters; it divides, separates and flows north, east, and south, until its waters meet again off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roosevelt returns to his last point — about the confluence of the eastern waters — three times in the course of this single short paragraph, tracing three divergent courses from Lake Superior to the north Atlantic and the coast of Eastern Canada. If Superior is situated at the source and origin of the watershed, Labrador and Newfoundland reliably mark its destination and point of confluence. There, in the north Atlantic, the waters rejoin and are returned to themselves.

It’s hard to say what to make of this recursive pattern, or how much to make of it. Is it anything more than a tic? The territory bounded by the waters is vast, and comprises (in 1865) the defeated Confederacy, the Union, and Eastern Canada — still, at that time, a British colony. As a Tammany Hall politician, Roosevelt would have been privy if not party to the political shenanigans that would eventually result in the Annexation Bill of 1866. The Bill was never intended to be anything more than a sop thrown to the Fenians and their Irish-American supporters. But it claimed much of the territory described by the eastern watershed — Labrador, Newfoundland, and northern Ontario — as a new territory of the United States: Canada East.  What geologists denominate the eastern watershed of our continent also encompassed, at the time, a political geography.

 

The Big Drain on the Yellow Dog Plains

One of the more compelling themes of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has to do with what she calls our “Faustian restlessness,” the irrepressible, ambitious intelligence that made it possible for human beings to venture forth and multiply in the first place, and which now appears likely to be our undoing. We have launched a thousand kinds of ships, built bridges and towers and televisions, blasted mountaintops, traveled to the North Pole, dammed rivers, bored tunnels, felled whole forests to ease our way and launched rockets to the moon. Brilliant engineers, intrepid voyagers, seekers and conquerors, we’ve remade the world in our image and likeness, or at least to our liking, and in the process significantly rearranged and unalterably damaged the biosphere. In the course of our short time here on earth, we’ve managed to paint our way into what looks very much like a suicidal corner.

“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it,” she writes, “which…is also the capacity to destroy it.”

Kolbert doesn’t mention mining except in passing — and then only twice, both times to talk about mining (along with logging and other extractive industries) as a threat to biodiversity. But I was reminded of her discussion of human restlessness and recklessness in The Sixth Extinction as I read mining engineer Jack Parker’s Letter to The Editor in the April 21st Marquette Mining Journal.

Parker’s “basic contention” when he first studied the Eagle Mine in 2006 is one he still maintains: “the design data for the mine had been fudged, and that can be proved easily, provided that the regulating agency and their courts do not collude in the fraud.” Unfortunately, he charges, to date the Michigan DEQ and courts have so colluded. For reasons that are not too hard to surmise, the mining companies, from Rio Tinto to Kennecott to Lundin, have “studiously ignored” his finding: it is simply unsafe to mine at Eagle. “The prognosis for the Eagle, if mined as planned, is for sudden, unexpected collapse and flooding.”

Parker has been the Cassandra of the Eagle Mine for nearly a decade. The successive owners of the Eagle Mine have tried to refute him with their own geological data, but the current plan “to handle the situation by mining upward, assessing conditions as they go, and stopping if conditions so indicate” is tantamount to an admission of concern that Parker may be right. Unfortunately, he writes, they “refuse to learn from case histories” like the overnight collapse of an 1800 foot thick crown pillar at the Athens mine near Negaunee in 1932. As Parker describes it, the plan to mitigate risk at Eagle amounts to nothing more than a whole lot of lies and denial mixed with reckless determination.

In other words, even if the bid for Eagle Mine’s nickel is not the con game Parker alleges it is, it may turn out to be a Faustian bargain of the kind Kolbert describes — a hubristic feat, a  confidently-engineered ecological disaster.

A collapse at Eagle Mine of the sort Parker predicts from his study of the area’s geology would be far more serious than the Athens cave-in, even if there were no worker injuries or fatalities, and even more disastrous than the big slide at Bingham Canyon. One big reason is water. A sentence in Parker’s letter drives this point home: “A sudden collapse of the mine structure would drain the wetlands, the aquifers and the Salmon Trout River very, very quickly.”

Take a moment to picture that.

The big drain on the Yellow Dog Plains would wreck the place for a long time to come.

It would extinguish life in the Salmon Trout River and the surrounding watershed. It would kill indiscriminately. Among its victims would be the Coaster brook trout, whose numbers on this side of the Canadian border have dwindled into the mere hundreds.

The contours of the Coaster story are hauntingly familiar: it could have been lifted right out of The Sixth Extinction. Overfishing began around the 1840s, when European settlers first arrived in the region. Subsistence fishing soon gave way to sportfishing. Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle R.B. fished for brook trout in the 1860s, and in his 1865 monograph Superior Fishing he recommends putting just “a pinch of salt” in the brook trout’s mouth, “roll him up in a few folds of newspaper, dip the swaddled darling in the water, light a fire, and place him in the embers. When the paper chars, take him out and eat him at once, rejecting the entrails.”

But even before R. B. Roosevelt was spitting trout entrails, as early as the 1850s, the habitat of the Coaster brook trout was heading for trouble. As Donald R. Schreiner of the Minnesota DNR et al. note in an article in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, “logging and pollution from industry in rapidly expanding communities” had already begun “degrading stream habitat and further reducing brook trout abundance.” Mining was especially destructive. Schreiner and his colleagues cite the work of Charles Kerfoot (who appears briefly at the end of my film 1913 Massacre to describe the toxic legacy of the last round of Lake Superior mining):  “In the 1900s, mining activity impacted thousands of acres in the Lake Superior watershed and discharged more than 1 [billion*] tons of tailings along Lake Superior shorelines….Many streams have been impounded over the last 150 years, altering the hydrology and affecting brook trout migration and spawning and general habitat availability.”

Of the four or five hundred adult Coaster brook trout left in U.S. waters, about half swim and breed in the Salmon Trout River; most of the rest live in freshwater streams on nearby Isle Royale. (There are, however, reports of Coasters in the Baptism River and in other parts of northern Minnesota; at the moment, while the jury is still out on the Polymet project, it’s unclear whether those areas will be spared the coming mining boom). Despite their rapidly declining population, in 2009 the US Fish and Wildlife service denied a petition by the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club to have the Coaster declared an endangered species. It came down to a technical discussion of whether the potamodromous (or fresh-water migrating) Coaster met the “distinct population segment” provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is trying to establish a self-sustaining population of Coasters in northern Wisconsin, and a Minneapolis-based group called the Greater Lake Superior Foundation has set up and funded a Coaster Brook Trout Research Unit; but it’s unclear that these well-meaning efforts could make up for the devastation of the Salmon Trout River.

Parker has inquired about insurance in the event of a big collapse, but, he writes, “I haven’t heard from the insurance people yet”; and I have yet to find anything like a disaster-mitigation plan for the Yellow Dog Plains.

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.

The Big Slide at Bingham Canyon

Bingham Canyon slide

“This is something that we had anticipated,” said Rio Tinto-Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett, when asked about the huge landslide that shut down the Bingham Canyon Mine last week.

If we are to believe the Rio Tinto press release, it was nobody’s doing. The Canyon Mine simply “experienced a slide along a geotechnical fault line.” The mining company saw this trouble coming since February, we’re told, and once the movement “accelerated…pre-emptive measures were taken.”

Still, the enormity of the slide took Ted Himebaugh, Kennecott’s general manager of operation readiness, by surprise: he told the Deseret News that “he had seen nothing like it in his 36 years with the company.” A black swan event, then — a wonder. Who could have foreseen this?

It’s telling and a little disturbing that the statements the Rio Tinto issued after this disaster (and disaster is the right word here) make no mention of what was going on prior to the slide at Bingham Canyon, which is — it’s hard to believe this needs saying — a whole lot of mining and a whole lot of earth disturbing in close proximity to a geotechnical fault line. In fact, the Bingham Canyon operation is the world’s largest man-made excavation.

Rio Tinto has been very careful to sidestep any acknowledgement of its role, any connection of the mining operation with the slide, any accountability or responsibility for the slide: the Canyon experienced something; Rio Tinto watched. It’s as if some greater powers were at work in the Canyon — as if the earth in Bingham Canyon moved entirely on its own. The company of course moved everyone to safety, and now plans to get the mine up and running again, to “provide not only the jobs for the people but money to the state of Utah and economy.” The only thing that might hold things up is if they can’t resume operations safely: “we will not take a risk.”

I suppose that’s meant to be reassuring. It makes me shudder. What’s missing here is any deeper appreciation of just how risky these industrial mining operations always already are, even when things are running perfectly and according to plan. People concerned about the dangers of subsidence posed by the Eagle Mine operation on the Yellow Dog Watershed (another Rio Tinto /Kennecott project, which I’ve blogged about before — here and here, for instance) might want to have a good look at this Bingham Canyon slide and think about the risks they’re about to run. But it goes beyond — way beyond — the very serious risks of spawning streams collapsing, acid mine drainage, or other kinds of environmental degradation. Industrial mining operations put everything at risk: peace, agriculture, and social stability in many parts of the world, environmental sustainability everywhere mining is done.

That doesn’t mean mining shouldn’t be done at all. It means that when it is done, and done at this scale, people, communities, companies and investors need to understand fully how mining will affect them, what it will require of them, what it will involve, what it will bring and what it will leave behind. Company- and industry-sponsored community outreach and corporate responsibility efforts are insufficient; they are created to conceal the real risks and the true costs of mining.

“Mining is the material basis for life, making it difficult to exaggerate its significance. George Orwell called it part of the ‘metabolism’ of civilization,” Shefa Siegel writes; and yet “the ethics of mining are nowhere to be found.” His essay is a must-read, especially this week, in the wake of Bingham Canyon and the run up to the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting.

One outcome of mining’s omission from environmental and development ethics is that as other disciplines and sectors gradually integrated concerns about sustainability into their knowledge communities, mining engineering, mineral economics and processing, geochemistry, and other sub-disciplines associated with mining have remained static. As a result, there is less experience with the study and practice of sustainable mining than, say, forestry, agronomy, or soil ecology. There is no mining equivalent, for example, of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. And while there is much anxiety about the failure to enact the ethics of climate change or environmental health, mining does not even have an ethical roadmap that we do not follow. With climate change there is broad agreement that exceeding a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature breaks the planet. Pollution experts know to a microgram the tolerable level of exposure to mercury, lead, and arsenic. But what is expected of a mine?

Only in the last decade has vocal public discourse about global resource policy emerged. The effort to build an ethics of sustainable extraction is structured around two principal concepts: transparency and corporate social responsibility. While transparency initiatives concentrate on exposing revenue transactions between the private and public sectors in extractive industry projects, corporate responsibility efforts focus on the improvement of relations between companies and communities. The transparency movement has sparked advocacy and legislative activity in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada—the host markets for much of the world’s trading of mining shares. Meanwhile, companies are dedicating more staff and resources to ensure the benefits of mine development reach communities in the form of improved services, infrastructure, and education. These twin concepts are intended to transform resource extraction from a winner-takes-all model to one in which all parties benefit.

The problem is that neither corporate responsibility nor transparency speaks to the reconciliation of extraction with ecological limits, or to the fact that we have entered a period of resource scarcity that necessitates nothing short of monopolization to make the business of industrial mining profitable. This order of magnitude leaves no room for multiple uses of land and resources, especially the smallholder farming and mining economies upon which people depend in mineralized places. Endemic poverty, conflict, and ecological collapse in these regions are rooted in the inequitable allocation of resources. In such cases, win-win solutions are an illusion.

I’ll be live-tweeting the Rio Tinto meeting on Thursday.

Why the Whining in Virginia Matters in Michigan

I heard conflicting reports about uranium mining when I was last in the Upper Peninsula.

Some people said the prospect of uranium mining next to Lake Superior was imminent — and that was their worst nightmare. Others dismissed it as nothing more than a rumor, or a “scare tactic” by environmentalists to put the kibosh on other kinds of mining.

Just to be clear, there has been uranium exploration in the Upper Peninsula since the 1950s. The map of active mining, mineral exploration and leases put together by the Lake Superior ad hoc Committee, which I mentioned in a previous post, shows active exploration right now at two sites in the Lake Superior region. One is near the Crystal Falls State Forest area, southwest of Marquette, in the vicinity of the Michigamme Reservoir. There is also active uranium exploration on the Canadian side, just north of the St. Mary’s River, between Sault Sainte Marie and Lake Superior Provincial Park.

If either of those sites turns out to be significant, pressure will build quickly to mine. An article in today’s Times about uranium exploration in Virginia suggests the lengths to which mining interests will go in order to exploit these valuable deposits. The Times reports that Virginia Uranium has spent more than $600,000 on campaign contributions and lobbying since 2008. They expect a haul worth $7 billion. They’ve flown Virginia lawmakers to France “to visit a tailings storage site,” and do whatever else politicians do when on an all expenses paid junket to France. And that’s only the start of the lobbying effort, the payola and the pitch to local communities.

Some of it is subtle. Virginia Uranium positions uranium mining as a national security issue and itself as “a leader in environmental stewardship.” The first claim is dubious and the second is an utterly meaningless statement when you are out to mine uranium, but it’s one I’ve heard echoed by mining companies and mining proponents operating in the Upper Peninsula.

There are other telling echoes here as well: in Virginia there are roadside signs saying “Stop Whining Start Mining,” according to the Times. The same signs started to appear in the Upper Peninsula once the new mining got underway. Maybe the rhyme comes easily to those with a big appetite for mineral extraction and a low tolerance for all this mewling about the environment. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, and at least worth noting, that the slogan also appears on bumper-stickers for sale on the website of the Acert Group — a “coalition of concerned private citizens” working “together with uranium exploration and mining companies.”

Stop the Whining Start the Mining Bumpersticker

From what I have been able to learn so far about the Acert Group, they are usually busy advocating uranium mining in Arizona. But now it appears that their concern, or at least their sloganeering, might extend to other parts of the country as well.

Update (1 Feb 2013)

Yesterday, the Virginia legislature abandoned a proposal to establish state regulations for uranium mining (which would have been tantamount to lifting the moratorium). State Senator John Watkins, a mining proponent, has now asked Governor Bob McDonnell to take executive action and ask state agencies to draw up the new regulations (which would be tantamount to lifting the moratorium).

Watkins is said to be “reviewing the request”. Still, Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center calls this setback for Virginia Uranium “a resounding victory.”

“This is not just environmentalists,” Jaffe said. “This is small business owners in Southside, it’s farmers, it’s parents of small children, it’s community leaders, it’s physicians — all these disparate voices coming together.”

Apparently the “whining” in Virginia has become a chorus of voices. The question is whether Governor McDonnell is listening, or does Virginia Uranium have his ear?

All Clear for the Mining Boom in Michigan’s UP, Unclear What That Portends

Just before the holidays I wrote a short post about the one-two punch that Michigan legislators delivered during the 2012 lame duck session. They rushed through legislation to make Michigan a “right to work” state despite widespread protests and they passed Emergency Manager Legislation in defiance of voters.

Most of the news coverage of these bills focused on the action in Lansing and effects this legislation might have in the Detroit auto industry. I wondered aloud (or at least on Twitter) what implications these bills might carry for towns and working people in the Upper Peninsula.

There’s a new mining boom underway in the region, with global giants like Rio Tinto and Orvana exploring, leasing, and re-opening old mines.

This map [pdf], put together by the Lake Superior ad hoc Mining Committee, shows all mines, mineral exploration and mineral leases in the Lake Superior Watershed as of 2010.

Mining-Activity-Lake-Superior-2011

The map merits some careful study. As you can see, there is already significant activity in the Upper Peninsula. On the Canadian side, especially around Thunder Bay and further north, there’s been a leasing boom. Lots of gold on the eastern shore; copper and nickel as you move further west. They’re also exploring for uranium in at least two places.

The new mining is going to put enormous pressure on the Lake Superior basin. There are the usual environmental hazards associated with mining — subsidence, toxic runoff, acid mine drainage. Mining puts the waterways – the Lake and the streams and rivers that feed it – at risk. And then there is the infrastructure that’s going to be built to support all those mines. Access roads and haul roads, like the proposed CR 595 in Big Bay, roads to get to those roads, gas stations to fuel the vehicles that run along those roads, housing to shelter the people who drive on those roads to get to work and haul the ore from the mines, and so on.

Governor Snyder and his cronies in the Michigan legislature are doing everything they can to encourage this new activity. Just before the holidays, the Governor signed a third lame-duck bill, addressing the taxes that mining companies operating in Michigan will pay. The new bill, brought by outgoing Republican representative Matt Huuki, relieves mining companies of up front costs.  Indeed, they will pay no taxes at all until they start pulling minerals from the ground. Even then, companies will pay only 2.75 percent on gross value of the minerals they extract. So a million dollar sale of Michigan’s mineral wealth on the copper exchange will yield the state a paltry $27,500 in taxes.

35 percent of these so-called severance taxes will go to a “rural development fund to support long-term economic development opportunities.”

A number of things aren’t clear to me. What, exactly, is meant by “economic development” here? What’s the best course of development for a rural region, and for the Lake Superior region? How will fueling the boom benefit the region over the long term? How much if any of this money will go to alleviating the environmental impact that all this new mining is bound to have? How is it possible to talk about rural development without taking responsible stewardship of the environment into account?

It’s also unclear what sort of working conditions in the new mines the “right to work” legislation might allow, and whether the Emergency Manager bill could be used to limit community oversight.

For now, at least, it looks like the big mining companies are running the show in the UP, and the vague promise of economic development — whatever that means — has trumped all else.