Sunday, March 16, 2014

Regulatory ragtime

Today's StarTribune has a story about the regulatory regrets arising from "lax chemical oversight" in the Como neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Thirty years ago, state regulators let General Mills leave a swimming pool’s worth of chemicals beneath the Como neighborhood of southeast Minneapolis.

They soon came to regret it.
As I read the article, it escaped me how the Como neighborhood / General Mills pollution fiasco is any different than the "solution" proposed for the PolyMet / NorthMet pollution. I can guarantee that none of today's regulators will be around 500 years from now. I doubt that any will still be here 200 years from now, although some may still be here in 30 years to do their own handwringing about "if we knew then what we know now."

Superior's rocky shore      © harrington

I might not be as perturbed by all of this were it not for a Winona LaDuke article I recently read on the Twin Cities Daily Planet, in which she wrote, regarding tribal treaty rights:
Enter the Environmental Protection Agency. In late January, I paid a visit to Region 5 EPA, sort of like an individual tribal citizen would. I came to ask a few questions of the EPA, which, in my mind was the one branch of the federal government which would protect the environment. After all, that’s its name. The conversation I had was disturbing. First, I asked why the proposed PolyMet copper Mine had been given an “F” rating, rare as that may be, in their 2009 Environmental Impact Statement and if there was any way to not fail with that project.

After all, a study of modern sulfide mines in the U.S. found that 100 percent of open pit mines in climates similar to northeastern Minnesota violated water quality standards. In the U.S. as a whole, 84 percent violated water quality standards; of these only 16 percent had predicted a high potential for contaminant leaching. Among sulfide mines predicting low acid mine drainage potential, 89 percent in fact resulted in on site acid mine drainage. The hard rock mining industry is the largest source of Superfund liability to taxpayers, costing more than $2.6 billion so far. The EPA estimated the cost of remediating existing pollution at hard rock mining facilities is between $20 and $54 billion. It would seem like these facts would not change.

In PolyMet Northmet proposal, the EPA, gave the PolyMet project a failing grade. The EPA gave this low a rating to less than one percent of similar projects. Undaunted, mining proponents spent over $20 million to reissue a supplemental draft of their environmental impact study.

So I asked the EPA, “What could PolyMet ever do to not fail the regulatory process?” I asked this, because water quality impacts, like the sulfuric acid which would come from the proposed mine would peak, say 500 years from now. And, I wasn’t really sure, which junior Canadian mining company was going to be around to take care of that. I was told by one of the EPA reviewers that I should be thinking about mitigation, basically, not preventing. This has bothered me ever since. Then, perhaps more bothersome was the lead officer there telling me that the EPA was really the “Environmental Pollution Permitting Agency.” That was their job nowadays. I basically said, “Say it ain’t true … after all, this is my agency.” So, what is this to say? In my opinion, it is to say that the EPA may have lost its way and need a bit of encouragement to protect some of those federal laws like the Clean Water Act.
I used to believe that the only worthwhile thought to come out of the Reagan administration was to "Trust, but verify." Now I'm leaning toward an assessment that there were a total of two valuable thoughts during those eight years, the second one being "Just say no!" not just to drugs, to all those corporations and regulatory agencies who promise "we'll take care of it." Perhaps the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce cares enough about all those "high paying mining jobs" that they will start a fund among their members to guarantee no pollution offsite for the PolyMet or other sulfide mining projects. Or, they could use a mesh of broken promises to capture what escapes.

Superior, near Grand Portage
Superior, near Grand Portage     © harrington

Iphigenia: Politics

By Thomas James Merton 
The stairs lead to the room as bleak as glass   
Where fancy turns the statues.
The empty chairs are dreaming of a protocol,   
The tables, of a treaty;   
And the world has become a museum.

(The girl is gone,
Fled from the broken altar by the beach,
From the unholy sacrifice when calms became a trade-wind.)

The palaces stare out from their uncurtained trouble,   
And windows weep in the weak sun.
The women fear the empty upper rooms
More than the streets as grey as guns
Or the swordlight of the wide unfriendly esplanade.

Thoughts turn to salt among those shrouded chairs   
Where, with knives no crueller than pens, or promises,   
Took place the painless slaying of the leader’s daughter.

O, humbler than the truth she bowed her head,   
And scarcely seemed, to us, to die.
But after she was killed she fled, alive, like a surprise,   
Out of the glass world, to Diana’s Tauris.

Then wind cheered like a hero in the tackle of the standing ships
And hurled them bravely on the swords and lances of the wintry sea—
While wisdom turned to salt upon the broken piers.

This is the way the ministers have killed the truth,   
       our daughter,
Steps lead back into the rooms we fear to enter;   
Our minds are bleaker than the hall of mirrors:

And the world has become a museum.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.