Public debate on the nonferrous mining issue in Minnesota is heated, and will continue to be. Speaking generally, proponents of the current Glencore/PolyMet proposal assert that the value of jobs and tax revenue from the project would be greater than costs. Opponents of the proposal believe that various impacts on Minnesota would outweigh predicted benefits. This is a massively important issue which goes to the very future of our state and economy. In other words, big stuff.
Of course, it’s not always easy to talk about big stuff. So, in the meantime, I find we’re often sorting through talking points, stuff that merely nips at the true weight of the moment, and much of it straight out of the proverbial brochure. So, I give you this Minnesotan’s Guide to PolyMet’s Top 10 Favorite Talking Points:
- “Calling it sulfide mining is misleading. It is copper-nickel mining that we are proposing.” First, a glossary of sorts for the uninitiated: It’s “copper-nickel” or “precious metal mining” if you want to emphasize the shiny stuff that would be sold into international markets. It’s “sulfide mining” if you want to emphasize the vast majority of material (sulfide ore) that would actually be mined, and left behind, in order to get the shiny stuff out of Minnesota. And it’s “nonferrous” mining if you want to avoid the whole conversation altogether. The term “nonferrous” mining does also helpfully highlight that this type of mining is different — and potentially far more dangerous – than the “ferrous” (iron ore) mining that has been taking place in Minnesota for over 100 years.
- “If it isn’t grown it’s mined”; there is copper in your car/phone/wind turbine. Tom Rukavina stood in front of the DNR public hearing in St. Paul last month with a brown paper bag and suggested that those opposed to PolyMet should turn over their keys and phones [MPR]. Easy political points of this sort may be available for Rukavina. But his suggestion that those who use metals (i.e., live in society) are disqualified from asserting political viewpoints as to how we should manage such public resources is flawed. If you use a stove you can oppose fracking. If you take baths, you can oppose the drying up of one of Hibbing’s three city wells by Hibbing Taconite [Strib]. Minnesotans understand that there are metals in consumer goods. But they also wonder, if that’s what this is about, then how much metal do we need?
- It’s 2014, technology is improved. There is a problem with this argument, and that is this: It’s true. In fact, at this juncture in history it’s almost a truism. Which makes the talking point all the more problematic, for it has also been true every single other time a mining company has put it forward from the beginning of time and assuredly into the future. There is a powerful incentive to believe that this time it will be OK. But there’s much hubris there too. Fool me twice?
- It is hypocrisy to oppose this project in Minnesota, because Third World. Evidently Glencore — international marauder Glencore [BBC] — now cares about Guatemalans, Namibians, and Indonesians. As a producer on the documentary film Gold Fever, I have spent significant time in a Guatemalan community that contains a Canadian nonferrous mine. From my interactions there, I believe that, yes, our governments and companies should be accountable for the harms they are perpetrating in Guatemala and elsewhere. And I believe that my friends in Guatemala would be saddened to learn that such unaccountability is being used to divide working-class brothers and sisters in Minnesota as well. Without appropriate nuance and context on this talking point — which in no way currently exists in our Minnesota conversation — we should be embarrassed to carry it forward on behalf of a borderless extractor. Or, better yet, let’s take up the issue of exploitation and oppression in the Global South in earnest.
- “Trust the agencies.” “You’re not an environmental engineer.” “Let the process work.” First, mining companies love to lean on the process with one hand while calling for respect of it with the other. They practically invented the strategy. (If you doubt it, ask the DNR or governor if they’ve received any pressure on this issue during the process, or observe the company’s many advertisements currently festooning the state high-school hockey tournament.) But in any event, I really hope it is obvious that farmers, librarians, native leaders, union reps, poets, and your grandma have a lot to say about this project on subjects that include but are very much not limited to science, whatever the current status of the SDEIS. The “trust the process” argument is strategic, meant to avail itself of the human tendency to succumb to inertia. So, if you oppose the project, don’t believe the hype. (Minor digression: Industry reps made a similar argument before the Minnesota Executive Council when mineral leases were up for approval, which was essentially this: “Don’t worry about this now, worry about it later at permitting.” And if and when we reach the permitting stage, look for the following favorite talking point to gain in prevalence …)
- “This has been in process for nearly 10 years; enough is enough!” The review process for a proposal like this one is lengthy. And many are, therefore, quite understandably, impatient. What does not follow, though, is that a company (or agency) at some point reaches a magic amount of time and money spent, at which point it becomes necessary to move it forward … because of time and money. Perhaps PolyMet’s significant time spent more appropriately reflects the volatility of the proposal and is therefore just as good a reason to scrap the whole thing. (Many issues remain regarding the current proposal, including concerning water modeling [Ely Timberjay].) Or, perhaps the amount of time spent is simply irrelevant. I’d be satisfied with that, and most reasonable proponents do seem to publicly agree. But, privately, the talking point persists.
- “Minnesota has the toughest regulations” (and therefore we should mine here). This is a variant of a few of the above. I haven’t really heard of anyone putting together some sort of research to actually back up the statement, but then again, who cares. If our regulations are tough, then good. Let us develop our tradition of protecting clean air and water in the face of pressure to sell. PolyMet’s goal isn’t to mine somewhere with tough regs; its goal is to mine (and undermine regs as it sees fit).
- People oppose this project because … canoes (and that’s not legitimate). Of course it’s not illegitimate to advocate in favor of natural spaces, although I understand why it’s easy to suggest that canoes are less important than people’s livelihoods. The canoe talking point, like many of the others, taps into a real tension involving legitimate and historical regional issues that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed. As such, it is effective if one’s goal is mainly to dampen a conversation, but otherwise it is mostly divisive. For many, “canoes” are not just about recreation; they represent greater connection to place. They help remind us of the beauty of our state, and I think help produce a better chance that we will manage our resources well. (I hesitate to throw around a word like “spiritual,” but yeah, man, it’s spiritual.) And it’s not just about lakes — wetlands, watersheds, habitats and the survival of species are also on the minds of the people to whom the “canoe” tag has been derisively attached.
- Project opponents are “environmentalists,” “antis,” “anti-mining,” “cidiots” and “metrocrats.” You know you’re in a healthy conversation when these start coming out. First of all, it’s pretty unfair to call people who disagree with you “environmentalists” – we all live here. We all have a legitimate stake. And as Bob Tammen has reasonably pointed out, attacks like these are regularly levied at the very “cidiots” who have been voting pro-worker for years. In any event, I’m not against this project because I’m anti-mining or because I currently live in the city. (For what it’s worth, I grew up down the street from Minntac in Mt Iron. My memories of the Range are fond ones of swimming in the pit and being awestruck at Ironworld.) I’m against this project because I’m anti-Glencore/PolyMet. And because I love Minnesota.
- If not this, then what? Are you going to care about the Range once this project goes away? So, fair point. We can’t request solidarity in the face of Glencore/PolyMet, and then abandon one another when it comes to finding better alternatives for much needed jobs. I am willing to own that. And, it’s a good segue.
Glencore/PolyMet’s goal isn’t a safe and clean environment. It isn’t to power wind turbines. It’s not to help Guatemalans. And its goal isn’t a sustainable future for the good communities of the Iron Range. It is to make massive amounts of short-term money — money for giant corporate stockholders who don’t live in Virginia, Hibbing or Hoyt Lakes. The project itself would be, in a regrettably limited sense, about jobs, but I think we would do well to cease with the suggestion that for the transnational corporation it’s about anything more than profit.
Meanwhile, the planet is warming, resources are under increasing duress, and species including our own are threatened. I truly believe that is the type of moment we’re in. (In other words, Glencore/PolyMet, your timing stinks.) So let’s have an authentic conversation about whether we actually need more copper than has already been mined, or whether using recycled or smaller amounts of copper and other materials is in order. Let’s discuss whether we need to own fewer cars and cell phones in Minnesota, or whether we really do need mining here in order to more safely power the future. And if we determine that we must mine, let’s do so as Minnesotans and decide for ourselves the when, where, how, and by whom.
While challenging perhaps beyond any of our experience, I believe these to be the conversations which stand the best chance of bringing Minnesotans back together. Not talking points from the corporate brochure.
This commentary was written by St. Paul-based writer, producer and attorney JT Haines, and originally published at Why the Attitude. Follow @JT_Haines.
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