By U. S. Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Menominee)
WASHINGTON, D. C. -- It is difficult to think of northern Michigan without also thinking about the Great Lakes. These waters are vital to our economy and are relied upon by 45 million people for drinking water, fishing, recreation, agriculture, industry and shipping.
That is why, in 2005, I fought to pass a federal ban on oil and gas drilling in and under our Great Lakes. As we are witnessing right now in the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills know no boundaries. Without a federal policy, all of the Great Lakes states could have different laws on drilling in our shared waters, putting us all at risk. As the tragedy in the Gulf unfolds, the importance of this ban on drilling in the Great Lakes takes on a greater significance.
In my investigations as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, we have uncovered thousands of pages of documents showing BP was willing to cut corners on safety in order to save time and money -- this despite the fact that BP’s own engineers described the well as a "nightmare well."
This mismanagement has continued in BP’s response to contain the leak and clean up the spilled oil. The latest report estimates 35,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil are leaking into the Gulf daily -- up to 12 times more than BP’s original estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. Even BP admits the earliest the spill will be stopped is August when drilling of relief wells is completed. In the meantime oil continues to flow, contaminating marshlands and beaches and killing the fish and seafood that much of the Gulf’s economy depends on.
While drilling for oil and gas is banned in the Great Lakes, other actions still threaten our waters. Mining has been done safely to the benefit of the Upper Peninsula economy for generations, but the sulfide mine proposed in Marquette County by the Kennecott Minerals Company raises concerns that have yet to be adequately addressed.
Both BP and Kennecott’s parent company, London-based Rio Tinto, have earned reputations for their willingness to cut corners on safety and environmental safeguards to improve their bottom lines.
BP reached an agreement with the President to set up an independent escrow fund to ensure the residents of the Gulf receive the claims they deserve in a timely manner. I remain concerned that Kennecott’s $17 million assurance bond does not provide nearly enough funding to address potential contamination that may continue years after Kennecott leaves the U.P. Like BP, Kennecott -- not the taxpayers -- should be responsible for the cost of cleaning up any pollution they create.
Unfortunately Michigan’s mining laws fall short of holding Kennecott accountable. State permits were approved without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement and without independent baseline hydrological and geological studies. Because there is no evidence of the environment’s condition before Kennecott starts mining, there is no way to prove what damage they cause.
We should heed the lessons we have learned from the Gulf spill. Weak state regulations in place for sulfide mining are worthless without proper enforcement. Given Michigan’s continuing budget problems, it seems unlikely the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment will have adequate resources to ensure Kennecott is complying with safety and environmental standards. Kennecott should be responsible for providing the state with the funding needed for these inspectors.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will announce by the end of the month whether federal permits are necessary for the mine to move forward. Kennecott deserves a timely answer from the EPA just as the people of Michigan deserve stronger safeguards and greater financial assurances from Kennecott.
Oil companies have been engaged in deepwater drilling for 30 years, yet they have been completely unprepared to handle a worst-case scenario. Sulfide mining has never been done -- much less done safely -- in our region. I have little confidence that the proper precautions and contingency plans are in place to prevent contamination of our streams, rivers and the Great Lakes. The financial protections put in place for taxpayers are symbolic at best. As we have seen in the Gulf spill, if we wait until a problem occurs to find a solution it is already too late.