Sunday, January 18, 2015

Can Minnesota make "green" mining work?

If one pokes about the Internet long enough, some fascinating information can be uncovered. This morning I was doing some poking trying to learn more about the relationship between mining and rural economic and community development. I keep reading that Minnesota's Iron Range needs taconite mining and, probably, sulfide mining to provide jobs. I also agree with Aaron Brown's perspective that the Iron Range economy needs diversification.

northern Minnesota
northern Minnesota
Photo by J. Harrington

Before we get to the potentially good news, let's see if we can establish the following as framing the issues:
  1. At some point, all economically viable minerals will have been extracted from available ore. Mining jobs will then be nonexistant.
  2. Minnesota has been unsuccessful at developing much in the way of value-added mining employment (see Essar steel). 
  3. The value of ore and the availability of employment is dependent on global markets and the international economy, both of which suffer boom and bust cycles.
  4. If Minnesota's environmental regulations make metals produced in Minnesota economically non-competitive, mines and jobs are unlikely to be forthcoming.
  5. Iron Rangers are unlikely to all move away and international mining corporations are unlikely to forgo resources available in Minnesota.
  6. Mining in northern Minnesota has done little so far to help create a diversified economy.
Other countries and other places in the United States face similar issues when it comes to mining's contributions to development of local economies. (Remember a famous quotation about "that sucking sound you hear?" It's the jobs leaving when the resource is depleted.) So, are there potential solutions? Based on what I found this morning, I'd venture a definite Maybe. Here are leads to what I think are two pieces of the puzzle that have thus far been missing.

Core principles for CDA development

I also think Minnesota should, if we haven't already, give strong consideration to augmenting our financial assurance requirements with specific criteria that any mining licensee have an appropriate to the risk minimum net worth as a condition of issuance and renewal of a mining license. This might help reduce problems from underfunded or undercapitalized mining corporations doing business in Minnesota. (Although, in a world where Catholic Archdioceses file for bankruptcy, it's hard to envision anything that looks like real long term financial assurance.)

There's an old saying to the effect that "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." I think Minnesotans are absolutely right to be extremely concerned about the potential environmental devastation mining may deliver to the northern part of the state, with little in the way of long term benefits. I also think that we have not yet used all the tools available to address that issue (those issues), nor have we put mining in Minnesota in a proper 21st century regulatory and economic framework to protect and enhance our environment, economy and long term sustainability. Today would be the second best time to start. It's already too late to start at what would have been the best time. Will Minnesota take this opportunity to become an international leader in "green" mining?

My Geology

Sheila Packa

I excavate these words from a vein of iron
from stones broken
beneath old growth
from the open pit – lit by dynamite
by men whose lives are punctuated by midnights
who drive new cars to the plant,
to the Crusher and Agglomerator,
and later suffer mesothelioma.
I drive in acid rain
my compass gone awry
over Proterozoic layers with four wheel drive.
These words are test drills and core samples
from the Boundary Waters.
These words are wrung from the whistles
and wheels that turn.
These words have never been projected
into board rooms.
I have yet to wield these powers or capitalize.
I have yet to see the returns.
I claim my words from the broken
English, damaged roots,
Finnish syntax and geomagnetic fields,
from Eminent Domain
and small print, unreadable clauses.
I find my vowels
from labor contracts and mine dumps
factories and invisible contamination.
My words, in the run off
in open streams – oxidize
form like tree rings
in industrial circles
heat in the smelters, pour like lava into steel
form these rails that carry the trains
these trains that carry this freight.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.