Copper, nickel, platinum, silver and titanium: Another Faustian bargain with the Devil for the wild beauty and health of Minnesota?

May 13th, 2014, 7pm

Yes, I confess as I begin, I have an iPhone in my pocket and an iPad on my lap. ( probably not the places for them if I still planned on having children) which require copper, nickel, platinum, silver, palladium, and titanium. Yes, I also confess as I write of another Faustian bargain for the soul of Lake Superior that I need iron and steel for my car, to reinforce the floor, walls and ceiling of the apartment in which I live and the majestic structure of the bridge which enables easy access to this island on which I live. Yes, but!

The second world war had about exhausted Minnesota’s natural iron ore. Local leaders saw an economy collapsing, miners a future fading and corporations a resource-profits disappearing. A university professor, Dr. E.W. Davis„ dreamed of bringing jobs to miners, restore an economy, and turn a vast amount of worthless rock into valuable iron ore. Crush the flinty rock to a dust like talcum powder. Extract the 25% which is iron with powerful magnets. Cinter the iron with a bit of clay into marble sized pellets and you have a resource more valuable than natural ore. Oh, and dump the waste rock slurry, harmless as sand they said, into a deep trench in Lake Superior - 47 tons per minute.

Everything about this was huge: the mines, the rock shattering blasting, the mamoth trucks, 1000 foot long ships to bring the pellets to market and the hubristic audacity of polluting Lake Superior (done with a State of Minnesota permit.)

Soon the pristine waters of the Lake clouded. Cities began to worry about the purity of their drinking water drawn from the Lake. The herring fishery collapsed. Closer inspection discovered the ‘harmless’ waste contained asbestos like particles. At first a judge put testimony of the presence if asbestos under order of secrecy to spare the public panic about their health, I suppose. Quickly word leaked out and the EPA issued an asbestos warning.

The Department of Justice brought suit to stop the dumping of tailings into Lake Superior. The mining company maintained it was impossible to dump the tailings on land (although they had already studied a plan to do it). When asked by the judge to voluntarily move the dumping on land, the company refused calling the waste rock harmless, declaring it was responsible for nothing and proclaiming it would dump on land only when the government paid for it.

An infuriated judge shut down the plant. It reopened but kept dumping the waste slurry into the lake ‘only’ until it had built the on land disposal site 6 six years later.

The battle pitted neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. It even galvanized politicians! Most of those who benefited from Reserve Minings jobs defended the mining company; many others defended the Lake.

A Faustian bargain implies a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve some value, usually power and success, for a limited time.

We need to build in and fund robust protections up front. If Wall Street is not willing or able to share the profits to totally pay costs up front for protection and mitigation then delay mining until they are.

Again today, mining companies request permits to mine and crush millions (actually billions) of tons of low sulfur rock to extract the 0.30 percent of metals present. The precious metals make possible our cars and cell phones. The low sulfur rock weathers into sulfuric acid which can pollute water and ruin ecosystems. Big trucks and big mines certainly degrade wilderness. The mining companies promise they will mitigate the harm and make the waste produced as harmless, well, as sand. Rather than hearing promises I insist on seeing cash.

I’d like to believe them but I fear the inevitable because as we saw with Mr. Verity, once chairman of Reserve Mining Company, eventually company boards tend to hire Fausts.

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Ken Jackson

An avid outdoors man. Retired and retiring, living on the shore of Lake Superior

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