Monday, August 11, 2014

Minnesota's Water Wars: perpetual local battles?

DISCLAIMER: This posting isn't really about Minnesota, or about PolyMet and NorthMet. Countries, communities, and companies are struggling to find better ways to make a living and sustain life on our home planet. This is about several current instances of that struggle, what can happen if we get it wrong, and that we need better systems to get it right.

Remember that the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the PolyMet NorthMet project made reference to the need to capture and treat waste waters for 200 to 500 years or more (at what point does more than 500 years become in perpetuity?) Here's a link to PolyMet's corporate statements on what they believe the content of the SDEIS and the financial assurance models mean. After you've read, or at least skimmed, those statements that, as I read them, say we'll do what's legally required, please follow this link to today's Star Tribune story about the legal tussles between the United States Army -- Department of Defense and the City of New Brighton. Keep in mind, please, that the Army's responsibility for clean up was legally established some time ago.

Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior
Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior
Photo by J. Harrington

This leaves us, it seems, with a number of questions starting with why, if the US Government and the Department of the Army can and do behave as described in the linked article, would the State of Minnesota and the communities affected by the NorthMet project want to expose themselves to up to 500 years (or more) of legal battles with "corporate persons" to ensure that PolyMet's legal requirements are met in the future? World War II was notably less than 500 years ago. It was much less than even 200 years ago. At least New Brighton still is dealing with and can take back into court an entity that has financial resources. Do we have reasons to expect better behavior over the short and long term from "corporate persons," such as PolyMet, than we do from our own government? Is there any reason, in all of the thousands of pages of documentation produced thus far, to expect Minnesota won't be faced with the equivalent of what New Brighton faces, again and again for 200 to 500 years or more? If "corporate persons," through their management and board of directors, can increase profits by spending marginally less on legal fees than would be required for water treatment, aren't they under a fiduciary obligation to do so? Before you respond to that hypothetical question, check the Bloomberg Businessweek story containing this quote:
"PolyMet says the mine would bring 360 full-time jobs, a godsend for struggling towns such as Hoyt Lakes, Babbitt, and Ely. Cherry says those communities would have a vested interest in making sure the mine operates cleanly and sustainably.
“Honestly, I can’t think of any people in better position to ensure that we protect the environment,” he says. “They work here, they live here, they raise kids here. Mining is in their blood.”"

North Shore river flowing into Lake Superior
North Shore river flowing into Lake Superior
Photo by J. Harrington

Back already? Consider these questions: Is it possible that New Brighton today is in a better position to pursue their own vested interests against the Army than Hoyt Lakes, Babbitt, and Ely will be if they need to take legal action against a future PolyMet, or its successor, one that may have filed for bankruptcy because it couldn't afford pollution treatment costs without the mine's revenue stream? Once the mine is closed, and those jobs gone, what tax base will Hoyt Lakes, Babbitt and Ely have to pay any legal fees required to protect their vested interest? If Minnesota's water pollution and groundwater protection regulatory framework isn't solid enough to keep New Brighton out of court, what's in store for the Iron Range if PolyMet's NorthMet and the projects lined up behind it get approved? What will Minnesota's future political leaders think of the permit requirements that will be imposed if PolyMet's project is approved? Admittedly, PolyMet is not the same company whose tailing's pond recently breached in Canada. But as shown in a recent report, the mining sector hasn't been noted for environmental responsiveness. Furthermore, what assurance do Minnesotans have that some future administration won't put us in a situation similar to that in Canada in the years prior to the recent tailings pond breach, as reported in the Vancouver Observer?

"Lack of staff to enforce mining regulations?

Ferris, as well as other sources who wished to remain unnamed, argued that BC’s mining industry has had poor compliance and too little staff to enforce regulations around 1997, when Imperial Metals first opened Mount Polley mine. The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (MWLAP), for instance, suffered 40 per cent staff cutbacks during that time, which led to compromised capability to employ technicians to survey areas like mining sites.

A July 2011 BC Auditor General report found that for projects like dams and mines, "adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted." It added that "information currently being provided to the public is not sufficient to ensure accountability."

The structural safety of tailings ponds like the one at Mount Polley require engineers to inspect the site. Ferris claims the BC government now has a small handful of qualified full-time staff in Victoria “who are supposed to take care of the entire province, including currently open and closed mines,” and that the ministry must otherwise rely on industry contractors to report to the ministry’s regional offices. Although the Ministry's response is pending, the staff directory seems to suggest the number of geotechnical inspectors and tailings ponds experts is lacking for the province as a whole. "
Final question for today: Can we create a Minnesota framework that makes nonferrous metal mining environmentally acceptable over a long time span and substantially contributes to sustainable community development, one that follows the advice of a conservative, much beloved, pro business former president: Trust, but Verify?

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