Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Would IRMA ban mining in BWCA?

If you read yesterday's posting, you probably remember that IRMA is the acronym for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which is developing a Standard for Responsible Mining. (Even if you didn't read yesterday's posting, you now know what IRMA is an acronym for.) A draft of Version 2.0 of the Standard was released today for public comment. By reference the Standard incorporates a world-wide database of areas protected from mining, which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as a site classified IUCN Category Ib. One of the relevant elements of the Standard in the Environmental Responsibility section addresses such Highly Protected Areas. It notes, inter alia: Mining-related activities shall not take place in the following Highly Protected Areas (HPA):...
  • IUCN category I -III protected areas

Sawtooth Mountains, northern Minnesota
Sawtooth Mountains, northern Minnesota
Photo by J. Harrington

I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that a site listed and categorized as Ib most likely falls somewhere between category I and category III and therefore "mining-related activities shall not take place" there. Governor Dayton's and, hopefully, the federal government's, rejection of the Twin Metals proposed project looks to me as if it's consistent with and supported by this part of the Standard. In fact, a quick skim of the Protected Areas section seems to make it pretty clear that mining should not even be allowed in a "buffer area" next to the BWCA.

What is much less clear to me is whether any of Minnesota's environmental, mining or mine permitting agencies are even discussing the potential relevance of IRMA's draft Standards to mining decisions and activities in Minnesota. What I think I've seen so far has been very much a "throw it all at the wall and see what sticks" strategy from both the pro- and anti- mining advocates. On the other hand, each week many more in the business sector are recognizing the benefits of "green building" and "greening supply chains" and "sustainable business" and "Corporate Social Responsibility." As I see it, Minnesotans can continue to battle the old battles in a win-lose framework that will shift with political power, or we can use new systems approaches to build a new economy for Minnesota by making our supply sources more sustainable. I've found no indication that Mining Minnesota is even aware of IRMA, despite claims to environmentally responsible mining. The Tiffany Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to Minnesota Environmental Partnership back in 2012, for "Support to create and promote a model for responsible, non-polluting sulfide mining in Minnesota." I'm trying to learn if there were productive results from that effort. Again, I see no hopeful signs.

Let me be clear, I'm appalled at mining's environmental and social track record. I don't believe that existing systems offer us much assurance that environmental disasters from mining activities can be avoided. See Brazil and Mt. Polley for recent examples. I doubt very much that we're going to successfully recycle enough rare earths and strategic metals to continue to support our dependence on electronic trinkets and useful gadgets such as the one I'm typing this on. So I've reached the working conclusion we need to change our practices and values to optimize the environmental and social benefits of an essentially damaging activity. We won't get there if we do all our talking through lawyers. IRMA's Standards seem to offer a reasonable alternative starting place for more productive talks. Why aren't more Minnesotans talking about them?

To answer the question that started this post, remembering INAL (I'm not a lawyer), I believe IRMA would ban mining in the BWCA. I also believe Minnesota could be dismally laggard for not requiring all future mining permits to reference whatever is the current version of the Standard as a permit requirement.

The Dependencies

By Howard Nemerov

This morning, between two branches of a tree   
Beside the door, epeira once again
Has spun and signed his tapestry and trap.   
I test his early-warning system and
It works, he scrambles forth in sable with   
The yellow hieroglyph that no one knows   
The meaning of. And I remember now
How yesterday at dusk the nighthawks came   
Back as they do about this time each year,
Grey squadrons with the slashes white on wings   
Cruising for bugs beneath the bellied cloud.   
Now soon the monarchs will be drifting south,   
And then the geese will go, and then one day   
The little garden birds will not be here.   
See how many leaves already have
Withered and turned; a few have fallen, too.   
Change is continuous on the seamless web,   
Yet moments come like this one, when you feel   
Upon your heart a signal to attend
The definite announcement of an end
Where one thing ceases and another starts;   
When like the spider waiting on the web   
You know the intricate dependencies   
Spreading in secret through the fabric vast   
Of heaven and earth, sending their messages   
Ciphered in chemistry to all the kinds,
The whisper down the bloodstream: it is time.

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