Friday, March 4, 2016

PolyMet permits, betting against the odds

As Governor Dayton and his administration contemplate appropriate permit conditions for the proposed PolyMet NorthMet mine project, we wonder what type of risk analysis framework they intend to use. The other day we asserted that no corporation has existed for 500 years. We weren't entirely correct, but are close. According to this list from USA Today, there are only 4 public companies that are 100 or more years old. Bloomberg Businessweek informs us that "The average life expectancy of a multinational corporation-Fortune 500 or its equivalent-is between 40 and 50 years."

"pristine" Lake Superior
"pristine" Lake Superior
Photo by J. Harrington

The same article notes that "A full one-third of the companies listed in the 1970 Fortune 500, for instance, had vanished by 1983-acquired, merged, or broken to pieces.1" To further emphasize what treating pollution for 200 to 500 years implies, consider this quote from the Businessweek story:
"Even the big, solid companies, the pillars of the society we live in, seem to hold out for not much longer than an aver-age of 40 years. And that 40-year figure, short though it seems, represents the life expectancy of companies of a considerable size. These companies have already survived their first 10 years, a period of high corporate "infant mortality." In some countries, 40 percent of all newly created companies last less than 10 years. A recent study by Ellen de Rooij of the Stratix Group in Amsterdam indicates that the average life expectancy of all firms, regardless of size, measured in Japan and much of Europe, is only 12.5 years.2"
We see daily in Minnesota that, despite the historical funding and the additional resources brought by the Legacy amendment, Minnesota may never attain fishable-swimmable standards for its waters. It costs too much to clean polluted water. We can look at this situation in two or more ways. We can say things are so screwed up that it doesn't matter if we pollute more, or we can decide to stop adding to existing pollution until we've learned how to, and can afford to, clean up after ourselves.

Governor Dayton, you've already held a Water Summit and are planning a Water Action Week. You've noted that Minnesota is facing major water issues. Have you also considered that, based on the available evidence from the mining industry, it's most likely a matter of when, not if, any PolyMet mine would result in major environmental damage? What will it do to your "water legacy" if it's tarnished, severely tarnished, by the issuance of permits that have no reasonable basis for providing compliance for several hundred years. This isn't a question of groundwater models or financial assurance amounts. Based on historical corporate longevity, there is no precedent for what Minnesotans are being asked to accept. PolyMet, and/or whoever buys them out, are most likely to be long gone, profits already in someone's pockets, and future Minnesota taxpayers left with the cost of cleanup and rehab.

Let's go back to the Businessweek article for a moment and consider the four conditions the author claims lead to longevity of a corporation. Then ask yourself if the mining industry, not just PolyMet, but the whole industry, has shown a tendency to meet these conditions:
  1. Long-lived companies were sensitive to their environment. [Here are some of MIT's thoughts on mining and the environment]
  2. Long-lived companies were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity. [Mining is so fragmented there are Classifications of mining participants]
  3. Long-lived companies were tolerant. [PolyMet seems to have already failed once at this.]
  4. Long-lived companies were conservative in financing. [If mining were conservative, would there be such "boom and bust" mining cycles or such segmentation of the industry?]
Governor Dayton, you have the authority and foresight to keep PolyMet (or Twin Metals) from becoming the next Reserve Mining in Minnesota. Please do so.

On the Gallows Once

Kofi Awoonor, 1935 - 2013

I crossed quite a few
of your rivers, my gods,
into this plain where thirst reigns
I heard the cry of mourners
the long cooing of the African wren at dusk
the laughter of the children at dawn
had long ceased

night comes fast in our land

where indeed are the promised vistas
the open fields, blue skies, the singing birds
and abiding love?

History records acts
of heroism, barbarism
of some who had power
and abused it massively
of some whose progenitors
planned for them
the secure state of madness
from which no storm can shake them;
of some who took the last ships
disembarked on some far-off shores and forgot
of some who simply laid down the load
and went home to the ancestors


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