Tag Archives: wetlands

Mozambique, Michigan, and the SEC Complaint Against Rio Tinto

Chinde_Rusting_boats

Rusting boats at the port of Chinde, where Rio Tinto proposed to barge Riversdale coal via the Zambezi River.

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a complaint in New York City against Rio Tinto, charging Tom Albanese, the former CEO of Rio Tinto, and Guy Elliott, his Chief Financial Officer, with fraud. According to the complaint, Albanese and Elliott actively misled the Rio Tinto board, audit committee, auditors, and the investing public about their acquisition of the Riversdale coal business in Mozambique in 2011.

The fraud that Albanese and Elliott are accused of perpetrating looks awfully familiar to those who have followed the development of Eagle Mine and the controversy over County Road 595. Having noticed the parallel between Mozambique and Michigan back in 2013, when Tom Albanese was forced to step down, I now have to wonder whether prosecutors will take the company’s representations around the Eagle Mine into account when building their case.

In Mozambique, they told investors, coal would be transported by barge to the Indian Ocean port of Chinde. Although their technical advisors “highlighted the ‘showstopping’ risks” associated with the barging proposals before the acquisition, Albanese and Elliott blundered recklessly ahead. Then eight months later, the Mozambique government denied Rio Tinto a permit to transport the coal by barge down the Zambezi River. Suddenly, the coal business they had acquired for $3.7 billion appeared to be worth a negative $680 million. According to the SEC’s complaint, Albanese and Elliott “concealed and glossed over” the fact that they had no viable haul route for the 30 million tons per year they projected in their business plans, and misled investors as they raised $5.5 billion in US debt offerings.

In that very same period, Rio Tinto was also promoting Eagle Mine to investors and promising economic renewal in the Upper Peninsula, though they had not yet secured a transportation route — a haul route — for Eagle’s sulfide ore. In Michigan, it appears, the company took the same cavalier attitude toward planning and risk that the SEC complaint says got them into trouble in Mozambique.

Way back in 2005, John Cherry, who was then a Kennecott Minerals project manager and is now President and CEO of the Polymet project in Minnesota, characterized Eagle as a “direct ship” operation, “meaning that the rock would not be processed on site, thereby avoiding the storage of highly toxic debris left over, called tailings.” Presumably this is what Michigan DEQ’s Robert McCann had in mind in 2007, when he told The Blade that Kennecott’s permit “would require them to keep the ores underground, put them in covered rail cars, and ship them to Ontario for processing”; the Marquette Monthly told roughly the same story that year, only now there were trucks in the picture: “ore would be transported by truck and rail to a processing site in Ontario.” This seems to have been nothing more than a cover story.

Everything changed in 2008, when Rio Tinto bought the Humboldt Mill. Those permit requirements the DEQ’s McCann touted back in 2005? They were quickly abandoned. Covered rail cars come into the picture only after the ore is crushed, ground into a slurry, floated and rendered into concentrate at Humboldt Mill. A glossy 2010 company publication promoting Eagle Mine includes not a single word about how Rio Tinto and Kennecott plan to travel the 30 kilometers from mine to mill: “Happily, processing of the nickel and copper can take place in Humboldt, around 30 kilometres [sic] away, at a previously abandoned iron ore plant.” By 2011, the company had “considered more than a half dozen transportation routes” from mine to mill, according to a Marquette Mining Journal article by John Pepin published in February of that year, but they still had no viable haul route.

A good prosecutor with a rigorous and thorough discovery process would probably be able to determine whether the evasions and misrepresentations perpetuated on the public over the Eagle Mine haul route also amounted to fraud, or were part of a larger pattern of deliberately misleading statements. It’s clear Rio Tinto never came clean — and perhaps never really had a firm plan — on mine to mill transport at Eagle before it sold the works to Lundin Mining in June of 2013 and decamped. As long as regulators in Michigan continued to be more accommodating than those in Mozambique, the company seems to have been content to let the people of Marquette County fight out the haul route issue among themselves.

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.

Update, 24 August 2017: New briefs recently filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals show the Road Commission asking to present oral arguments in this case.

The case turns on three points: whether EPA objections constitute “final agency action” and are therefore subject to judicial review (a claim I explored here); failing that first condition, judicial review might be warranted under Leedom v. Kyne (which provides an exception to the final agency action rule when an agency’s conduct is “a readily-observable usurpation of power,” but the court has already ruled that the Leedom exception does not apply in this case); failing on those scores, the Road Commission wants to invoke a “futility exception” in order to bring the case under judicial review: the Army Corps of Engineers, they say, had already decided against County Road 595, and there was no point in returning to the permit process. But as the EPA notes in its 8 August response, this is speculative on the part of the Road Commission.

The larger issue here — which helps put the MCRC case in context — is that this ongoing litigation concerns a provision of the Clean Water Act, Section 404, which covers permits issued to discharge dredged or fill materials into the waters of the United States. Since stepping into his role at EPA, Scott Pruitt has been leading the charge to rescind the Obama-era definition those waters, revert to an earlier (pre-2015) definition, and make enforcement of the Clean Water Act more favorable to industries like mining.  If MCRC v. EPA continues to make its way through the courts, the case could easily become caught up in the toxic politics of Pruitt’s tenure at EPA.

Update, 17 October 2017: Oral argument is now scheduled for Tuesday, 5 December, before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 15 October Detroit News op-ed, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Mark Miller argues EPA should “immediately” retreat, to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises and “send a signal to the EPA bureaucrats.” It would appear that the Marquette County Road Commission is being enlisted in what a recent episode of Frontline calls the “War on the EPA” and the larger political project to dismantle the administrative state.

The Political Project of MCRC v. EPA, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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