Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Who are we racing to the bottom?

Recently, my (much) Better Half and I put a small ding in our carbon footprint by traveling north through several counties. We went to visit Minnesota tributaries to the St. Croix River, including the Willow and Little Willow, the Kettle and the Snake. Since we were in the area, we swung a bit further north and took a look at the scenic St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park.

the scenic St. Louis River
Photo by J. Harrington

I recalled that the St. Louis has been in the papers recently because of continuing (and growing?) concern about mercury levels in newborns in the Lake Superior basin (the St. Louis River drains to Lake Superior). According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one in ten Minnesota infants has methylmercury levels above a "Safe" level. but, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has pulled out of an effort to set maximum mercury levels so they can conduct more research on why fish are contaminated with mercury. The St. Louis River Alliance notes that there are mercury emission sources in the basin, without naming any sources or sectors. However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has studies on efforts to control mercury from taconite stack emissions and research on mercury methylation and sulfate cycling in NE Minnesota streams. I'm more than a little disappointed that Minnesota seems to be headed on water quality requirements on the same basis that climate change deniers maintain on Anthropogenic Climate Disruption. Peer reviewed science that leads to a 97% scientific consensus isn't enough if it gets in the way of the political or economic world view of major contributors or employers. Governor Dayton's recent claim that Minnesota's sulfate water quality standard is "outdated" has no basis in fact that I can find. It also seems to conveniently overlook the existing studies by both DNR and PCA and the obvious linkages of taconite mining as a noteworthy source of both sulfates and mercury. Minnesota deserves better. I hope that in 2016 Minnesota votes better. I wonder if the US EPA is going to let all this pass when they take a look at proposed discharge permits for taconite facilities, including any tailings basins similar to the one that recently failed in Canada or are we looking at a national campaign to subsidize industrial pollution by reducing standards that are meant to protect public health as well as wild rice?

does this really look canoeable?
does this really look canoeable?
Photo by J. Harrington

If my level of paranoia and cynicism seems even greater than usual, I've been reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. Ms. Klein makes what I consider a cogent argument that the political and economic systems that allegedly serve us don't really have our interests at heart. Watching the politics of mining versus the environment in Minnesota feeds into her arguments as far as I can see, especially since our political leadership seems more interested in protecting mining profits and executive salaries more than local jobs and Minnesotans' health. If there's a global slowdown in the steel industry, having Minnesota try to win an environmental race to the bottom isn't he answer. Getting rid of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization would be better steps. In the interim, let's keep in mind that the Water Quality section of Minnesota's Sustainability Framework notes such factors as:
"When sulfate- reducing bacteria are present in aquatic systems, they convert oxidized forms of mercury to methylmercury, which biomagnifies in food webs and which typically constitutes about 90% of the mercury in fish."
That suggests some potential strategies like starving those bacteria of sulfate as a way to reduce mercury problems. Let's not make any Faustian bargains with or for mining companies.

The Gatekeeper’s Children

By Philip Levine 
This is the house of the very rich.
You can tell because it’s taken all
The colors and left only the spaces
Between colors where the absence
Of rage and hunger survives. If you could
Get close you could touch the embers
Of red, the tiny beaks of yellow,
That jab back, the sacred blue that mimics
The color of heaven. Behind the house
The children digging in the flower beds
Have been out there since dawn waiting
To be called in for hot chocolate or tea
Or the remnants of meals. No one can see
Them, even though children are meant
To be seen, and these are good kids
Who go on working in silence.
They’re called the gatekeeper’s children,
Though there is no gate nor—of course—
Any gatekeeper, but if there were
These would be his, the seven of them,
Heads bowed, knifing the earth. Is that rain,
Snow, or what smearing their vision?
Remember, in the beginning they agreed
To accept a sky that answered nothing,
They agreed to lower their eyes, to accept
The gifts the hard ground hoarded.
Even though they were only children
They agreed to draw no more breath
Than fire requires and yet never to burn.


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