Monday, January 27, 2014

Just trust us!

What are you doing tomorrow night? Will you be at the last public hearing for the (current version) of the PolyMet / NorthMet SEIS? Today's Star Tribune has a commentary in favor of proceeding with the project, written by the usual suspects, the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The authors argue that "We trust the multiple state and federal agencies that have been involved in developing this document. We trust the DNR to read and listen to all public comments and to remain transparent throughout this process. We are confident in our state’s ability to pursue new opportunities in an industry — mining — that we have worked in for more than a century. It is time to let these projects move forward."

northern Minnesota tamaracks
northern Minnesota tamaracks    © harrington

I'm fascinated to see their reference to the DNR "remaining transparent," especially since the United States is not yet signatory to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. If you're concerned about both jobs and the environment, you might want to follow the link above and see what the EITI is all about. It involves government, industry and civil society in an oversight process. If you want an executive summary, here's a link to a four page fact sheet, perhaps it will suggest some comments if you go tomorrow night. The reason I mention EITI is that I believe that the contentiousness of the mining/jobs issue isn't about technology, it's about trust. Extractive industries such as mining (remember Reserve Mining) have a long record of creating problems and opposing most environmental regulations. 
Most, I suspect all but haven't checked, corporations involved in the extractive industries, have a fiduciary (legal) obligation to maximize shareholder value or, as we measure that in this country, short term profitability. Think about BP and the Deepwater Horizon, or the current question of whether the water in West Virginia's capital is safe to drink. A claim of proprietary trade secret for a second chemical leaking into the Elk River sure doesn't seem very transparent to me, nor does it seem to me to be the kind of response likely to instill confidence in the governmental framework within which many extractive industries work. We're not only interested in jobs and protecting Minnesota's natural environment, we're also interested in protecting Minnesota's citizens' health. Transparency goes a long way to helping to ensure all three of the outcomes we want.

Today's MinnPost has two stories that might seem unrelated. I don't think they are. One is by Rolf Westgard, who claims that "Well-regulated sulfide mining can be done effectively." He concludes "Many NorthMet Project opponents raise the question of whether the mining companies can be trusted to safeguard Minnesota’s environment. A better question could be: 'Can we regulate them?' I suggest that we can." I agree with Mr. Westgard that we can regulate them. I question whether we have the political will and adequate resources and the appropriate framework to regulate them. Here's why.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior                   © harrington

How many tank cars hauling North Dakota oil or tar sands from Canada have been involved in recent "Incidents?" Will we finally follow recommendations for improved tank car safety? Do federal, state and local taxes pay for enough government personnel to look for oil spills along the Louisiana coast or do we have to rely on volunteers? These are only some of the instances in which it would seem that, as a society, we fail to do what we can do because it might cost too much, be politically unpopular, make us "uncompetitive" or we have other priorities, plus it's not in our back yard.

This all brings me to the second MinnPost story today, this one about Kent Nerburn's latest book. Toward the end of a well written interview with Nerburn, Amy Goetzman quotes him as saying"...I do want to help get the message out about these people [Native Americans], what they have been through, and what they have to teach us, especially about the land. The idea of a spiritual quality in the land is something we need to accept and embrace, or we’re all going to end up in a very bad place.” Can we mine copper and nickel in northern Minnesota and still protect the spiritual quality of the land, that's what I think those concerned with the PolyMet NorthMet project impacts are trying to ask. I don't think any of us want to see our environment or our citizens end up in "a very bad place." I'd like to feel the way Thomas R. Smith captures. I can't, just yet, at least about extractive industries or government. I need transparency to ...

Trust

By Thomas R. Smith 

It’s like so many other things in life   
to which you must say no or yes.                                    
So you take your car to the new mechanic.   
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.   

The package left with the disreputable-looking   
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,   
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—   
all show up at their intended destinations.   

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.   
Wind finally gets where it was going   
through the snowy trees, and the river, even               
when frozen, arrives at the right place.                        

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life   
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

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