Thursday, January 23, 2014

Forewarnings: Poison and Atrophy (does it have to be this way?)

Last night my friend and I went to the hearing in Duluth, a first of three around Minnesota, about the proposal to let a big mining conglomerate, Polymet, leak sulfuric acid and a mess of other toxic overflow into the Lake Superior watershed in order to get at the copper, nickel, platinum and other mineral wealth that underlies this area our hearts draw sustenance from. She said we were witnessing a piece of history. It's left me with the same feeling I think I remember from when I first heard on TV that people are warming up earth's climate, or when as a girl I first heard my dad say the builders were coming sooner or later to put apartments in the pasture. Selfish, said one of the men who testified at the hearing last night, critiquing the motive of everybody taking a stand on whichever side of the debate , but I mostly disagree; I think everyone who takes a stand in a public controversy feels like a representative for some group of others who aren't vocal or privileged enough to be there. The others can be people or they can be manifold living things with whom we don't share a language.

The non-profit organization WaterLegacy in a brief emailed review of the hearing pointed out that about two thirds of the testimony given was from opponents of the mine, and that while many opponents cited specific flaws or gaps in Polymet's supplemental draft environmental impact statement, the supporters just called on their faith or intuition that the review, the future mining technology or the industry in its great professionalism could be trusted. I was glad of the evidence that somebody else had been keeping track of opinions for and against the project, since I had been keeping my own tally on paper during the testimonies my friend and I heard from about 7 p.m. till nearly 10:00. For most of the evening I found that the opponents led by nearly two to one, but as the room emptied it seemed more and more the boosters for local mining were the people remaining.

At the crux of the proposed mining scheme is that the various metals termed sulfides, including copper, gold, nickel and platinum become toxic, turning to sulfuric acid, when exposed to air and water after being dug from the open pit mines. I say mines because Polymet's proposed mine located near the Embarrass and Partridge Rivers, which would wash the pollution into the St. Louis River and thence Lake Superior, is not the only proposed sulfide mine. Twin Metals is a joint venture between a Canadian and a Chilean company that wants to dig another mine barely three miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area near Ely, Minnesota. Yet-to-be-named venture capitalists are and will be watching. To them, sulfuric acid is a risk factor, an abstract liability in a bright-eyed betting game.

Not vinyl, not clay, not metal set in the ground to hold the drainage in storage ponds or divert run-off from towering piles of dug-up rock, wood rubble and dried-out peat will keep the acid waste water from where we don't want it to go. The soils are largely sand and peat, boulder and gravel. The questions are when, how soon and how much effluent will make its way where-all and how far. No company, whatever formal arrangements it puts on record, will retain squadrons of river guardians or pit watch personnel past its own dissolution, or past all caring once the blue coldwater lakes of legend or the fishing streams are discolored or pretty well devoid of healthy aquatic life.

Arguments made by citizens in favor of mining are that we need the copper that the region has, that no other mining region of the world has the robust environmental oversight found among Minnesota agencies and that we have to at least let Polymet give it a first try, ostensibly to see how well they do protecting the rest of our resources. Unfortunately, and most persuasively, there is the loudly proclaimed and very real need for paying jobs in northern Minnesota. The first point is moot; copper mines crowd the southern two thirds of Arizona, and are also found in New Mexico, Utah, Montana and Michigan. As for oversight, in any area of the world, whatever underlies a mine pit is more or less permeable by water, and no matter what is practiced in the westerly copper mining districts, a place like Minnesota, girded underneath by sands and the soft stuff making up peat bogs, and abundantly snowed-on many winters, creating vast movements of water, is hugely vulnerable to the transfer and pooling up of chemical toxins.

Where resources, whether renewable or finite, material or abstract are concerned, we're all or most of us traditionalists, basing our hopes and expectations on some version of the best conditions we have ever known. Lots of us extend our best hopes from our imagining of what could be. In any case, conditions surrounding the whole planet Earth are changing, with cataclysmic potential for systemic failures in our world. The outcome, translated as flood-related and drought-related shock and privations, sooner rather than later will toss aside ever larger sectors of our day to day industry.

A recent news item in the New York Times says that global carbon emissions, at a record high in 2011, are predicted to jump once measured for 2012 and 2013 since coal is still such a heavily relied upon fuel at too many electric power plants around the world. As carbon emissions escalate and we fail to meet the international goal in which global warming stops at 3.6 degrees F, disruptions in our living, our commerce, our food production and the whole economy are liable to make everything we do on a grand scale falter. Corporate enterprises like mining, smelting, shipping and manufacturing in their own due time will become haphazard or stop. What if closures due to major market slowdown happened within the lifetime of Polymet and/or Twin Metals? Polymet's own estimate for their mine's lifetime has been 20 years, with the capacity to employ 300 people.  Meantime, during and after the inevitable bust cycle that follows in the northland, as inhabitants in their degrees of hunger and desperation forage fish, hunt and forage from the land, what if the few fish left are full of mercury, another  pollutant released by sulfide mining--or arsenic, or both?

And what about carbon emissions from the heavy equipment and land disturbances normal to mining? One source, an Anishinaabe native people's on line tract titled Protect Our Manoomin (wild rice,) says sulfide mining will have an annual carbon footprint of 767,648 metric tons annually. Credit for the facts and figures is given to sources including WaterLegacy, Friends of the BWCA, and Lake Superior Mining News.

Indications along with carbon-induced climate change--the drawdown of water tables on all six inhabited continents, the ever more rapid rate of extinctions, the depletion of arable soils where farming has been longest and most intensive--are that the earth is weary of our self-justified domination. Excuses that we need to grow all our industry for the good of everyone will hold up less and less, except as the bases for ecological havoc. What would sustain us in a bid for survival, even prosperity, along the ages to come would be containment of our growth and of our urge to modify more and more of what's under our feet or over our heads to our use. A hopeful thought in my mind is that a goodly majority of my fellow human beings don't want to rob the earth and infest it with more, always more synthetic structures inhospitable to all but ourselves, they just tolerate it or resent it happening around them.

I'm afraid that society as I know it in the wider world will refuse the chance remaining to leave the raw material in the ground that it's a part of, because our kind of people just doesn't agree to leave things well enough alone where financial wealth is at stake. The ones who can will amplify their rationale for going and getting, and they persuade enough of the others that life will be better for them too as a result. This is how one more big patch of Earth full of places with virgin thickets and swamps, rivers and lakes that still keep their historic complement of fishes and frogs, birds and wild fur bearers risks becoming another piece of everywhere else, with tired water and particulate-blown air.

If I could, I would like to shout the mystique of the snow country in all of its seasons so as to chase away all planning to tear it open and bleed out its by products in how ever controlled or uncontrolled a series of processes. I would like to show the industrialists the little plants that would die into even greater obscurity than they have, in the awareness of industry tycoons and those they've brainwashed, when streamlets and springs carry sulfuric acid through the adjacent soils. If hand-drawn visual art of our wild heritage could help to reverse the schemes for destroying the haunts of wolves, pine martens and spruce grouse, I would give all my time to it and barter my work for all I need to live on.
  Butterwort, a carnivorous plant, on Lake Superior Cliff, watered by surf spray

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