Friday, November 30, 2018

Environmental and human health threats from poorly regulated mining in Michigan's UP continue to multiply; DNR to hold meeting on Highland Copper's lease request Dec. 4

Click on map for slightly larger version showing mineral lease requests. (Map courtesy Steve Garske and Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition)

[ANNOUNCEMENT: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Minerals Management will hold an informational public meeting on a metallic minerals lease request by UPX Minerals Inc., a division of Highland Copper, from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday, Dec. 4, in the Charcoal Room at the University Center on the campus of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. DNR officials will give a brief overview of the metallic mineral lease request submitted by UPX Minerals, Inc., and will provide the audience with the opportunity to ask questions. Questions will be answered as time allows. The following article, by Steve Garske, is a slightly updated version of his article that appeared recently in UP Environment, the Fall 2018 newsletter of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC). It is published here with permission.]

By Steve Garske*

On May 30, 2017, Highland Copper Company Inc. acquired approximately 447,842 acres (700 square miles) of mineral properties in the central UP (the "UPX Properties") from the Rio Tinto Group. Then this spring Highland/UPX Minerals requested some 3900 acres (over 6.1 square miles) of mineral leases from the state.

Unlike previous lease requests, which targeted primarily state and commercial forest lands, these potential leases include a state natural area (Rocking Chair Lakes), the Noquemanon Trail Network in the Forestville Trailhead area, and the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy's Vielmetti-Peters Conservation Reserve near Marquette. They also include lakes, wetlands, streams and rivers, camps, homesteads and residential areas. Affected landowners are understandably upset with the possibility of mineral exploration under their lands and even their homes.

Highland's lease request follows on the heels of the Michigan DNR's handing mineral leases for 15,300 acres (23.9 square miles) of mostly public and private forest land in Baraga, Houghton, Iron and Marquette Counties to Eagle Mine/Lundin LLC in 2017. Soon afterwards, Lundin requested a lease for state mineral rights under Haystack Mountain in Houghton County, which the state gladly handed them earlier this year. Haystack Mountain is a unique geologic feature, an ancient 100-foot high "volcanic plug" that straddles Ottawa National Forest and private land.

Except for Highland's lease request, which is still "under consideration," the Michigan DNR has handed over leases to every square inch of mineral rights that mining companies have requested. Why? It certainly can't be the state royalties. As stated by the state's Metallic Minerals Lease Agreement, "Rental for the first (1st) through fifth (5th) year shall be paid at the rate of $3.00 per acre per lease year, and for the sixth (6th) through tenth (10th) year at the rate of $6.00 per acre per lease year." Lease royalties don't kick in until the 11th year, when rates go to $10.00/acre and up. (See https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/PR4340MetallicMineralLease_197342_7.pdf)

Topping off the state's willingness to please the mining industry was the decision by DEQ director Heidi Grether to overrule her professional staff and hand Aquila Resources Inc. a wetland destruction permit for their "Back 40" mine, even though the company's application failed to meet the requirements of state and federal law.

Sixty Islands section of the Menominee River, riparian wetlands located approximately 200 feet from the proposed Project Boundary of the Aquila Back Forty Mine site. (Jan. 9, 2018, photo by Kathleen Heideman, UPEC's Mining Action Group.)

The willingness of the DNR and DEQ to freely hand out exploration and mining permits can be blamed in large part on a phenomenon known as "regulatory capture." Wikipedia (2018) defines regulatory capture as "... a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating." A University of Chicago School of Business blogger defines it as "...the tendency of regulators, politicians, and bureaucrats to cater to the interests of special interest groups that are highly informed and not to the interests of the general public" (Rolnik 2017). Regulatory capture can also occur when industry is the only source of technical expertise needed to understand production processes and what might go wrong (Cohen 2018).

Cohen goes on to describe a new form of regulatory capture: the willful rejection of science in setting environmental policy. This form of regulatory capture is based on fantasy and a disregard for expertise. In June Governor Snyder institutionalized regulatory capture in Michigan by passing the "Fox in the Henhouse" bills (Senate Bills 662-654), which let the governor appoint a panel of mostly industry representatives with the power to veto regulations written by the DEQ's environmental and health professionals.

The wild U.P. that many of us know and love is under threat like never before. The government agencies that are supposed to protect it are in large part working for the industries they are supposed to be regulating. It's going to be up to the rest of us to save the wild U.P.

Sources:

Wikipedia. 2018. "Regulatory capture." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_capture.

Rolnik, Guy. April 17, 2017. "When We Are Less Interested in the Truth, Capture Thrives." ProMarket: the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. https://promarket.org/less-interested-truth-capture-thrives/.

Cohen, Steve. April 16, 2018. "Scott Pruitt, Andrew Wheeler, and regulatory capture at the EPA." https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/04/16/pruitt-wheeler-regulatory-capture-epa/.

Editor's Notes:

* Guest author Steve Garske is a botanist and a member of UPEC's Mining Action Group.

** Click here to see detailed maps of the mineral lease requests.

*** See our Feb. 2, 2018, article, "DEQ hearing on Back 40 wetlands permit attracts nearly 500; Menominee Tribe lawsuit seeks federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction."

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