twin metals

Twin Ports Banker Weighs in on USFS Lease Renewal Question

By JT Haines — July 31, 2016

Brian Waldoch is a banker in the Twin Ports area of Minnesota and Wisconsin. He recently attended the US Forest Service listening session in Duluth on July 13, on the question of whether or not the USFS should renew federal mineral leases currently held by Twin Metals. (Twin Metals Minnesota LLC is a wholly owned operating subsidiary of the Chilean company Antofagasta PLC, “one of the top 10 copper producers in the world.” The leases concern land in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, and would be required for a proposed copper/sulfide mining project to move forward.)

After the session, Waldoch submitted his own comment to the USFS, published here with permission, edited for length.

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The famous economist Adam Smith said that we are all motivated by self interest.

I attended the public comment session held at the DECC in Duluth earlier this month and the arguments I heard boiled down to: 1.) The BWCA is a special place and we should do everything we can to protect it, and the region’s drinking water is at risk. 2.) The Range is struggling economically and we should support the people, families and their way of life. Both have merit, both are important. We could debate which one is more important until we are blue in the face but that isn’t what this is about.

This is about the likelihood of outcomes. On one end, there is the possibility that the mine returns economic stability to the Range for generations and the technologies used to develop the mine do not pollute the BWCA or Lake Superior. On the other, the mine brings jobs for one generation and does irreparable damage do the BWCA, ruining the ecosystem and polluting Lake Superior to the point that it is undrinkable. The likely outcome lies somewhere in between.

“The self interest is the same as for all companies: Profit.”

If you, like Adam Smith, believe that people and corporations are motivated by self interest, it is clear that it is more likely than not that the BWCA will end up damaged and Lake Superior polluted. We are very familiar with the interests of the people who live here. But what of the company?

At the session, I did not hear anyone representing Twin Metals that would speak about the self interest of the company. This is concerning to me because they have the most to gain from this proposal and completely control the outcome. I think it is safe to assume what their self interest is, it is the same as for all companies: Profit. Quick, painless profit. The flashiest presentation we’ve ever seen won’t change this basic reality.

What does this mean for us and the likelihood of outcomes?  What it means is that the company’s interest is to build a mine and strip it of all of its resources as fast as possible, and as cheaply as possible. That’s how their shareholders reward them. That is how they determine how successful the mine is. Sure they will boast that they did it environmentally “safe,” but really what they mean to say is “we complied with the law.” But the law doesn’t have billions of dollars studying the outcomes and does not know the true environmental impacts until it is too late.

“If there is a corner to be cut in the name of profit that sacrifices the environment, rest assured, it will be cut.”

What is perhaps the most alarming to me about this whole situation is that the Twin Metals’ self-interest is directly opposed to the miner’s self interest. The miners believe that this mine will bring economic stability for generations, when really the mine is motivated to keep it open for a short as possible. This just kicks the can down the road so that our children can have this debate 20 years from now. Twin Metals’ self interest is to pay as little as possible for a short as possible. The mine will only keep the BWCA and Lake Superior as clean and quiet as it legally has to. If there is a corner to be cut in the name of profit that sacrifices the environment, rest assured, it will be cut.

“We carry all the risk and little reward.”

All this boils down to this: if we approve this mine, we are placing our trust in a global corporation’s self interest to make the best decisions for our people and our environment. They have all reward and little risk. We carry all the risk and little reward.

All we need to do to validate Adam Smith’s assumptions is to look around the world in countries where there are fewer environmental laws — it is obvious, the mine companies’ self interest is alive and well and environmentally friendly and economically stable mines are not.

We only have one opportunity to not mess this up. Please make the right decision and do not renew the mineral leases.

Thank you,

Brian Waldoch

Brian Waldoch lives in Duluth with his spouse and works in Superior. He is an avid hunter, fisher, and camper, and a lifelong resident of the state. Reader note: Brian and I are friends; he attended the listening session at my invitation. The comment and decision to submit are his.
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Observations from the House Hearing on Nonferrous Mining

House Committee on Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy, Feb 3, 2015

House Committee on Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy, Feb 3, 2015

By JT Haines — February 4, 2015

The new House Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee of the MN legislature held an “informational hearing” yesterday on nonferrous mining, with presentations from Mining Minnesota, PolyMet, and Twin Metals, and then some limited public testimony. I was in attendance. Some brief observations:

1. Firstly, Aaron Brown was pretty much spot on with his advance prediction in MinnesotaBrown:

I expect something of a dog and pony show in the mining and outdoor recreation committee today. There could be valuable nuggets of information and intrigue, but one would have to invest a lot of time removing a significant amount of political overburden before processing the raw ore of knowledge.

Yeah, that’s right. Regarding those few nuggets of information and intrigue:

2. Rep. Tom Anzelc had the closest thing to a “wow” moment at the hearing when he went on a mini and somewhat oddly timed rant about the MiningTruth billboard on I35. Evidently he really doesn’t like the dern thing. Says it’s political. (Not mentioning, I’d add, the loads of industry advertisements across our state, including at the state h.s. hockey tournament, which are inherently political of course. More on that soon.) @FriendsBWCAW tweeted the following response: “We’re glad to hear that Rep. Anzelc has noticed our billboard on Hwy 35. He should check out the website.”

3. The points of view of various committee members are fairly well known and were on display as well. Range reps Melin and Metsa were cozy as ever, at one point enjoying a note passing with Anzelc during the Twin Metals presentation. Big smiles; the moment stood out. Chairman Hackbarth limited public testimony following the industry presentations to 34 minutes, explicitly excluding Q&A time which had been provided for the industry reps. The moment drew an audible reaction from the audience, who also didn’t fail to notice that much of those 34 minutes were then consumed by pro-industry testimony and chit chat from committee members. The first three testifiers were pro-industry. The hearing was adjourned at the scheduled time of 4:30.

4. Rep. Yarusso lobbed in a few questions (necessary minimum?) about industry testimony, including the oft-discussed question about water modeling, which question was ultimately punted to the regulators. Yarusso may be the lone voice on the committee willing to subject industry claims to any real scrutiny. Remains to be seen.

5. No major surprises in any of the above. That said, there is a development which took further shape yesterday meriting a mention. The Laurentian Divide — the north/south continental water divide which runs through N. MN —  appears to be increasing in political significance in a way that could have a meaningful impact on this issue. A good amount of the testimony yesterday was from the Ely area and focused on Twin Metals and/or the BWCA. The PolyMet operation, as I understand it, would primarily be in the Lake Superior watershed, i.e., south of the divide. We’ll see whether and to what degree “north of the divide” groups are willing to throw broader clean water interests under the bus. Folks are of course welcome to their own financial and strategic decisions, but I for one think a divide here is the wrong strategy for all those concerned about sulfide mining in Minnesota, and a long-term loser. Dividing and conquering isn’t exactly a new idea. And as we saw yesterday, opportunities for clean water advocates to testify publicly are at a premium. Public testimony which distances itself from the PolyMet part of the issue is not a zero sum proposition.

6. Regarding more broadly applicable testimony, Betsy Daub’s (Friends of the BWCA) was exceptional. She was the first to raise last summer’s Mt. Polley sulfide mine tailings dam disaster in Canada. And given the numerous claims from industry reps about safety, perhaps Mt. Polley should have been raised earlier. The committee, however and to its credit, did agree Mt. Polley requires further investigation.

To conclude, any “divide” which may develop along geographic lines is in my opinion the most important thing to watch coming out of yesterday’s hearing. Most of the other tunes in the room didn’t change a note. View the full hearing here.

[Thanks to Greg Seitz and the Wilderness News Blog for the mention in his “Top Tweets from the Hearing list, which you can find here.]

UPDATE: I received a call from Becky Rom at Sustainable Ely this afternoon in response to this piece. She assured me that, as far as she is concerned, no geographic divide is taking place and that yesterday’s hearing testimony was coordinated among advocacy groups to the greatest degree possible, including with Friends of the Boundary Waters. She added “we have to fight all sulfide mining” in Minnesota.

I also received the following note from Tony Yarusso, Rep. Yarusso’s son: “From the maps I’ve seen, the entirety of the (open pit) PolyMet proposal would be in the Lake Superior watershed, or at a minimum all of the storage and processing. For the (underground) Twin Metals proposal, mining would be in the Hudson Bay watershed, but materials would be transported to the PolyMet facility location for processing. The location of processing and underground vs. open pit is significant (and good) for the BWCA portion of the equation, but it’s not like water in the southern watershed doesn’t matter obviously. Most significantly, Lake Superior has a commercially important lake trout fishery that has only recently rebounded from overfishing and sea lamprey problems, and the St. Louis River (the sub-watershed the mine would be in) has just had its first evidence of sturgeon reproduction after many years of work restoring both habitat and water quality from past impacts there.”

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.

Water is the New…Water

By JT Haines, August 7, 2013
Re-published in MinnPost August 8, 2013

NoCal and SoCal are grappling about piping water southward (LA Times), the Colorado River is “severely threatened by human overuse” (MIT), and Waukesha Wisconsin wants to draw 9 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan because of “a depleted aquifer and rising concentrations of carcinogenic radium in the water” (Triple Pundit). These are just a few results of a brief and obviously non-comprehensive internet search regarding the ways in which our water sources may be threatened. That water is currently flowing from your faucet does not alter the basic reality that our most precious of resources is simply not unlimited nor invulnerable.

Meanwhile, in my beloved Minnesota, the foreign-owned Polymet Mining Corp wants to operate a new type of mine which will threaten the Lake Superior Watershed with toxins. According to MiningTruth.org: “To date, mining companies are unable to point to a sulfide mine that has ever been developed, operated and closed without producing polluted drainage from its operations. Yet studies show that the companies and state agencies reviewing mine plans consistently predict no pollution will occur during the planning and permitting process.” (More from me on the subject here.)

Sulfide mining is not the only activity threatening our water, but it is a new and serious one, and it is as good a starting place as any for the pivot that needs to happen. Water is the new water, friends, and I’m afraid we just can’t take it for granted anymore. Whether through observation or research or even intuition, it’s time to accept that there’s a problem.

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South Kawishiwi River, Photo Credit Bound Hound Joe Krekeler