Climate

Mount Polley and PolyMet: What happened in Canada must not happen here

By JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb and Libby Bent | 02/26/18

Final permit decisions on PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet Mining Project are approaching, and for all the celebration of the process by politicians and company promoters here in Minnesota, we have grave concerns. We bring this message from Duluth, where we live downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine.

Last week we welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to discuss their experience with a British Columbia copper sulfide mine upstream of their own communities. This is a group that has heard it all before: promises of safety from mining companies, claims of new technology that isn’t, guarantees of zero discharge, and assurances from government officials that it will all be fine.

Unfortunately, in 2014, the dam upstream of them collapsed, sending toxic water and tailings into nearby Quesnel Lake, effectively turning the pristine lake into a waste pit. The Mount Polley dam breach is the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history, and it is ongoing.

Local people who drank straight from the lake now drink bottled water out of fear of cancer, miscarriages, and neurological disorders. Indigenous communities are currently sitting out their fourth consecutive salmon season, a resource as important to them as wild rice is here. These downstream communities have seen no justice.

Troubling similarities

JT Haines

While this is a Canadian story, we are shaken by the similarities. The companies promised safety, but at every turn have promoted their bottom line over best practices and best technology. Government officials repeated assurances of a rigorous environmental process, but have granted continuous exceptions and variances to the company. Unbelievably, downstream communities, including indigenous communities, were not consulted on emergency response planning.

The Amnesty delegation urges us to avoid blind faith in regulatory regimes that are conflicted in mission, limited in scope, lax in enforcement, subject to regulatory capture, and which have yet to protect surrounding waters from this particularly toxic industry. British Columbians believed in their process, and that trust was shattered.

Bridget Holcomb

Here in Minnesota, PolyMet has said that the comparison between its proposal and Mount Polley is unfair, citing that the slope on its proposed tailings dam would be less steep. The Mount Polley dam failure, however, was not attributed to the steepness of the slope, but to an unstable foundation. If permitted, the PolyMet dam would be built on unstable taconite tailings on top of a wetland, at a height of nearly twice that of Mount Polley, with an upstream wet tailings design. DNR’s own consultants have pointed out the similarities. PolyMet officials either did not read the Mount Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Report, or they are trying to deceive Minnesotans.

Libby Bent

You might ask, where are our elected officials? Despite the clear importance to her city, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has so far declined to publicly assert our stake in this matter. (Notably, neighboring Carlton City passed a resolution last week expressing its stake and requesting a moratorium on sulfide mining in Minnesota until a 20-year record of safety is shown.) Gov. Mark Dayton has made baffling statements that oppose sulfide mining as too dangerous for the Boundary Waters but are generally supportive of it where Duluth and Lake Superior would be at risk. Our own Rep. Rick Nolan has promoted legislation that would force a land swap to allow mining on federal lands, limit environmental review of copper sulfide mine proposals, and stop scientific study of the cumulative effects of copper sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

For their part, the Minnesota Legislature and DNR seem unclear between them whose job it is to actually decide if this is a good or bad idea for Minnesota. Sadly, our own confidence in our elected officials and government is in jeopardy.

Driving a wedge between us

We appreciate that the boom and bust cycles on the Iron Range make the promise of new mining jobs attractive. PolyMet is capitalizing on this and dividing all of us who live in northern Minnesota by playing to emotions of trust and heritage. It is painful to see a foreign corporation drive a wedge between us, despite our shared values, and obscure the facts on which this decision should be based.

This is what PolyMet does not want us to know:

The record of sulfide mining is abysmal. Worldwide, the industry has failed and failed again to store its waste, and has left a legacy of rivers devoid of life from mining waste settling into riverbeds, ensuring that toxic heavy metals will continue to prevent life for centuries. While we may want to believe we have stronger oversight and regulations, performance in the US is horrid. According to the U.S. Forest Service 2016 study, 100 percent of sulfide mines have had spills, and 28 percent have, like Mount Polley, had outright dam failures. A 2017 U.N. report shows that catastrophic spills are actually increasing, as mining companies seek to lower costs and increase profits.

Glencore, PolyMet’s main investor, has a history of broken promises and abuse of union workers and communities across the globe. Worldwide this industry is replacing workers with robots. This is not how we continue Minnesota’s proud union tradition.

At the recent public hearing in Duluth, several PolyMet supporters borrowed a well-worn talking point and tried to shame opponents for using copper in cellphones and cars. Rarely included with such statements is the fact that we Americans throw away more copper every year than the proposed PolyMet mine would produce. To those who are truly concerned about how much copper is being used by consumers: Copper is infinitely recyclable and in abundant supply, and recycling creates jobs and reduces carbon emissions.

Our truly precious resource

The truly precious resource we have in northern Minnesota is our freshwater complex, which includes the headwaters of Lake Superior and 10 percent of the world’s supply of fresh surface water.

It is too late for Mount Polley, and we stand in solidarity with our Canadian friends as they fight for reparations for the unmeasurable harm caused to them.

It is not too late for us. It is not too late to protect northern Minnesota from a catastrophic, irreversible decision that does not have the consent of downstream communities.

The DNR is now accepting comments on the draft permit to mine for PolyMet. Please comment before March 6, and tell the DNR, elected officials, and candidates around the state that this proposal is simply too risky for Minnesota and for Lake Superior.

PolyMet has divided us for too long. It is time for Minnesota to act, and to identify a better option. We stand ready to support leadership that would unify us around true economic development that celebrates our history without risking our future.

JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb, and Libby Bent are residents of Duluth and members of the group Duluth for Clean Water, which welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to Duluth on Feb. 12 and 13.

This piece also appeared in MinnPost on February 23, 2018.

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What We Have In Common With Jeb

Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush (Image (c) The Atlantic 2015)

Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush (Image (c) The Atlantic 2015)

By JT Haines — July 15, 2015

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush says we should work more hours. Fortunately, “Jeb!” has been appropriately chastened, with many pointing out (among other things) that Americans already work a ton of hours and productivity gains have gone to the 1%.

But while inartful and misguided, Jeb’s comments also reflect a sacred goal that is actually shared by most in American politics, including those doing the chastening: Growth.

The examples are everywhere. Minneapolis’ Democratic Mayor Betsy Hodges — the same mayor who has recently been invited to the Vatican to discuss climate change — had this to say at her inaugural address last year:

“To grow our city, and make it more than great, means above all that we must grow a population where 500,000 people — no, 500,001 and more people — live and thrive in Minneapolis, with the greatest density along transit corridors.” [MinnPost]

The current population of Minneapolis is 400,000.

Twin Cities, MN, traffic. 5:08PM, today, July 14, 2015.

Twin Cities, MN, traffic. 5:08PM, July 14, 2015.

Of course, it’s not difficult to understand why mayors trumpet growth. The whole system relies on it, and Mayor Hodges still needs to show up for work in the morning.

But how does growth align with the real world in the broader sense? In addition to the increasing social pressures and infrastructure costs that accompany population growth — which seem to go under-appreciated by elected officials seeking to increase budgets — we are faced with a much larger problem as well.

By that I mean, it’s odd, to say the least, to receive the daily mythology about growth alongside the increasing number of articles about climate change, drought, and population overshoot.

The same day I read about Jeb’s comments, I also took note of Dahr Jamail’s article in Truthout entitled “Mass Extinction: It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” The article is about University of Arizona Ecology Professor Guy McPherson and his research on the possibility/likelihood of near term human extinction. (Sorry, say again?) Prof. McPherson says “we’re in serious population overshoot,” and that “our version of civilization is the least sustainable of them all.”

Yet, the received political debate is whether poorer Americans should work more to achieve an extra two percentage points of GDP growth (and accompanying emissions), not whether growth itself.

The usefulness of Jeb’s “work more” comment, while idiotic on several levels, is that it exposes a fundamental contraction which we all perpetrate: Hard facts about the planet and prescriptions about growth simply do not align.

Of course, what to do about that is the question, but at the very least it’s time to blow the idea door wide open. The New Economics Foundation has proposed a 20-hour work week. That’s an idea. Unless you’re one of the saintly and indispensable among us who work 1 on 1 with real human beings every day, we could probably actually use less of what you’re selling. In today’s context, these things are not radical (more likely radically insufficient), Jeb is.

So slow down if you can manage. Do something close to home with the family. And as always, don’t believe the hype.

This piece also appeared in MinnPost on July 20, 2015.

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Klein on Centrist Timidity / #BlackLivesMatter Demonstration at MOA Today

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 12.51.55 PM

By JT Haines, December 20, 2014

Great interview with Naomi Klein in Sierra Club’s magazine next month. Here are a couple excerpts:

Klein argues with passion and scholastic rigor that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.” Although the idea is neither new nor particularly shocking, Klein says she’s surprised by the number of environmentalists who shy away from it for fear of being branded as radicals.

“The real divide between liberals and radicals is how they feel about mass movements. Because mass movements are messy. You can have people with very similar goals, but if your model of social change is that it should come from a combination of smart leaders and technocratic policy options, maybe a little bit of lobbying” . . . some lawsuits . . .”Yeah, then you’re going to be threatened by the messiness of mass movements. Radicals tend to believe that change comes when you have these messy shifts from below, and those shifts make space for people to work in the center. I don’t think that enough credit is given.”

As usual, Klein is spot on. I’ve personally observed people working in “the center” be actually disparaging of the hard work taking place in the community and on the streets, and then a few years later claim credit for changes at the legislature that ultimately were the result. Perhaps you can think of some examples too.

In related news, #BlackLivesMatter MPLS is organizing a solidarity demonstration today at the Mall of America at 2PM– an action which is of course being met by significant hostility and misunderstanding (“why the shopping mall?”, “You’re inconveniencing people trying to get to work!” being two of the (tamer) reactions I’ve seen.) Information for the event can be found here. If you’re not able to make it (and aren’t too bothered by what strikes me as an unusually high online processing fee) you can join me in donating to #BlackLivesMatter to “help support efforts with bail, legal services and other supplies” here.

The full Sierra Club Naomi Klein interview is here: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-1-january-february/feature/capitalism-vs-planet

Unions Speak out Against Senate Rejection of KXL

By JT Haines, November 20, 2014

The Washington Examiner is reporting that certain of the major labor unions and leaders — including Laborers’ Int’l Union of North America, AFL-CIO Building and Trades, and Teamsters — have spoken out against the US Senate rejection of #KeystoneXL, with LIUNA calling it a “vote against all construction workers.” [Washington Examiner]

LIUNA’s position is similar to its position expressed last March in Minnesota in favor of a proposed Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline expansion, which pipeline terminates in the Duluth/Superior Twin Ports. (For excerpts from LIUNA’s spokesperson at that conference, see my post here. )

The stance is also similar to what we’ve seen from numerous, but not all, labor groups in Minnesota with regard to the PolyMet and Twin Metals sulfide mining proposals, which I’ve also written about on numerous occasions on this site.

Pipeline and copper mine proposals are obviously a huge deal in Minnesota right now, and organized labor is a vocal part of the conversation. I’m not an expert on internal union politics or the important differences between labor organizations on these issues, but as I wrote previously, my view of (certain aspects) of organized labor has taken a major hit as I observe what I consider to be a narrow, and often self-satisfied, outlook on some really complicated larger issues that affect us all. I think it’s time for unions to update their constituencies and long-term outlook. Ditch the old narrative and start work on a new one that once again considers society, not just “jobs.”

It will be interesting to see if unions can lead the way on environmental issues with a narrative that is fit for the times.

Post script — Just a quick reminder about what we’re up against, this from a facebook exchange I found myself in today about this issue: “One [the pipeline] has nothing to do with the other [climate change and toxicity]. The organic oil our Mother the Earth provides us with will be bought from the ground regardless of the pipeline. The organic oil our Mother the Earth provides us with will be used by mankind to improve it’s [sic] way of life. That will all happen regardless of the improved safety, improved connivance, improved employment and energy independence the pipeline will bring.” Hazaa.

Naomi Klein and Rethinking PolyMet

By JT Haines, September 24, 2014

“We need an entirely new economic model, and a new way of sharing this planet.” — Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate

There are lots of ways that conversations about copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota conclude, some of them less than pretty. But what about where they start?

If we start with the proposition — and I believe we should — that we all share a stake in the health of the air and the water, as well as the soil and trees and habitats, then isn’t it the case that profits taken, and damage caused, by corporations exploiting these resources is at our collective expense? In other words, isn’t that resource-based corporate welfare? (One might argue the entire economy relies on it.)

If so, shouldn’t it follow that subsidizing public institutions (transit, schools, health, etc) by taxing investors who enjoy these profits is not “giving money away to the undeserving poor,” but reimbursing us for our losses?

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

More to the point, when it comes to the public resources at issue in the current copper-sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota (PolyMet, TwinMetals), what if we owned 100% of profits, minus a reasonable fee for the work that produced it, rather than multinational corporations owning the profits and paying taxes on a portion of it? (Incidentally, Tony Hayward, of BP Deepwater Horizon infamy, is deeply invested in PolyMet. MinnPost) Would we not then be better able to invest those revenues back into Minnesota, including a sizable fund for any cleanup-related costs and an international fee for carbon-based pollution produced?

If such a narrative were part of our discussion, then perhaps it would be more possible to have a rational conversation about the wisdom of accepting risks to our waters of generations of pollution. Perhaps it would then also be possible to speak both about jobs and environment.

I haven’t heard it. And without such a narrative, the deal has seemed cooked in the company’s favor from the outset.

Naomi Klein in her new book, This Changes Everything, is right — now is the time to “think big, go deep, and move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health.” The PolyMet debate is an opportunity for us do our part by completely reconsidering how we think about public minerals and resources in Minnesota. According to a recent Star Tribune poll, support for the PolyMet proposal is declining. Perhaps we already are.