News & Articles
Browse all content by date.
There is a case for full cost accounting. That is where you count pollution over the future, additional benefits and losses for a project, and this is figured into a project analysis. Although trained as an economist, I am not sure how to do it. That is because I cannot account for the spiritual and cultural impacts of everything. Some economists refer to this as unquantifiable. What is known is this: the proposed Polymet mine is a big project. The EIS on the Polymet Mine is limited to local impacts just around the proposed Glencore Project. The ripple of a mine of this size is larger—it is larger in a physical sense and it is larger in a spiritual sense. I don’t know how to put a price tag on it. I only know that I can try to tell a story. Here it is.
A long time ago, this place was known as the Place where the Spirits Dwell. The Tsisinstsistots lived here, and remembered it well. Their name means “the people” in their language; it always did. They remembered the great lake, the greatest of all, and the mountain on the shore. That mountain they remembered as a spirit mountain. It was, but it was so long ago that they no longer spoke Anishinaabe. They spoke differently. Almost all of the words were completely different, except one I remember, which was “Nako,” bear or mother. The old word in Anishinaabe is “Noka,” for grandmother as well, almost the same in both languages.
Meet the Northern Cheyenne. In their earliest times, they also came to Spirit Mountain for their sacred teachings. As Phillip White Man Jr., Northern Cheyenne Chief, Council of 44, explains, “The band of Cheyennes that came from ‘the place where spirits dwell’ are named Suhtai (pronounced Su-tah) meaning Buffalo people (they are Erect Horn’s people, the prophet that brought the Sacred Buffalo Hat, which the Cheyenne still have today).
The Suhtai traveled to ‘Where the Water comes to an End’ (near modern-day Duluth, MN). White Buffalo came out of the water and instructed them to come to this sacred land. Those instructions moved them away from Spirit Mountain, and away from their Algonquin-speaking relatives who remained, in the place where the food grows on the water.”
That was many generations ago. They traveled far to the west, to a homeland in the heart of the Powder River Basin, Rosebud Creek and eastern Montana. That is their chosen land, and they call themselves Tsisinstsistots, or human beings. They have a right to continue their existence as such.
Their determination and resilience is well known, and continues today. Despite massacres at Sand Creek (1864) and on the banks of the Washita (November 1868), they survived. But only to be incarcerated and made victims of the worst punishments by the hands of the U.S. military and the volunteer vigilantes. In the so-called Cheyenne Campaigns, a people who numbered thousands, with horses to match, were forced to move because of gold and greed. They were forced to relocate south to the Oklahoma. There they would die. So they decided to live, and a band of Northern Cheyenne fled back north in September 1878 under the leadership of Dull Knife and Little Wolf.
The U.S. Army intercepted part of the Northern Cheyenne and took a band of nearly 150 Cheyenne to Fort Robinson in Nebraska. This is where the Oglallas had been, when they had surrendered the previous year under the leadership of Crazy Horse. That was until his assassination in May of l877. In January of l879, after the Cheyenne refused an order to return to the south, the soldiers began to treat them more harshly to try to force them south: they were confined to barracks without rations or wood for heat. Most of the band escaped. In one of the most heroic stories of our known times, on January 9, 1879, the Cheyenne, led by Chief Dull Knife, fled their inhumane conditions at Ft. Robinson. Their homeland was four hundred miles away. As Phillip White Man Jr. explains, “When they fled they did not run the entire 400 miles immediately. The majority were killed, but the few that did make it (mostly Dull Knife’s family) were hid with Red Cloud’s (Oglalla) band. They eventually made it home to Powder River country. Little Wolf’s band also made it home.”
That is a land they have fought and died for. That is the center of their identity, along with Spirit Mountain. This past January 9, the Cheyenne remembered this escape. They remembered it as they have since 1996, with a run. It is called the Ft. Robinson Run, and every year, Phillip White Man Jr. and his wife Lynette Two Bulls sponsor this run. It’s a relay, and the Northern Cheyenne youth run the 400 miles in the most biting of winds and challenging of times. They do it for their ancestors, and they do it for those yet to come.
In the meantime, the Anishinaabeg remained at the Place where the Spirits Dwell, Spirit Mountain. Between 1785 and 1923, the U.S., England, and Canada entered into more than 40 treaties with the Anishinaabeg, the bases for some of the largest land transactions in world history.
Some of the first incursions onto Anishinaabeg land were to secure access to iron and copper deposits. These treaties covered both the Kewanee Penininsula and the Mesabe “Sleeping Giant” iron-ore belt in northern Minnesota.
By mid-century, more than 100 copper companies had been incorporated in (M W and M) Territories. As early as 1849, copper production at Keewenaw Peninsula led the world. Similarly, beginning in 1890, mining at northern Minnesota’s Mesabe accounted for 75 percent of all U.S. iron ore production. Many of today’s U.S.-based transnational mining companies were founded in this era and on the wealth of the Anishinaabeg. This includes, for instance, Kennecott and Anaconda Copper, and 3M. Mercantile capitalism at its best…
All’s gone on sort of swimmingly for the mining companies, except the decline and bust on the Iron Range. One could say that the mines of the north went into remission. That was until now.
Enter the dragon—the dragon of world trade agreements and agreements with China. Included in the not-much-discussed is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is on a contentious fast track with the Obama administration. That partnership will accelerate all of this trans-Pacific trade. And here, in the shadow of Lake Superior and Spirit Mountain, we can watch it happen. Or not, to our own land.
Glencore International, the $155 billion multi-national corporation that is PolyMet’s primary investor and joint venturer, owns the rights to all production from the PolyMet sulfide mine and plant for at least the first five years of operations. As a condition of its 2013 merger with the Xstrata mining company, Glencore must continue to supply China with copper concentrate for the next eight years. There is the dragon. In fact, most of what will be produced in the return mining boom to Anishinaabe Akiing, the Great Lakes, will end up in China.
And it’s going to need a lot of power to get it there. Not only the transport, but the extraction. It turns out metals mining is the most energy-intensive and wasteful mining system in the word. For instance, Polymet’s website says it estimates the NorthMet Project ore reserve at 694 million tons grading .074 copper equivalent. This is how that pans out, so to speak. Copper is the most inefficient product to recover from a big dig. In other words, you need to remove 1,000,000,000 tons of material to recover 1.6 tons of copper. The only substance with a lower recovery rate is gold. That means energy. Lots of it. The Department of Energy states, “….the average copper mine (600 million ton deposit handling 68,493 tons/day) consumes 4,701,000,000 Btu/day.” This suggests, according to Colin Cureton at the University of Minnesota, that the NorthMet Mine would consume 47.63 trillion Btu over the course of its lifetime. That is a lot of power and a lot of coal to extract a little bit of copper to send to China.
That new demand will be met by Minnesota Power, which already has the reigning coal-generating monopoly in northern Minnesota. Minnesota Power burns coal at its five coal-fired power plants: Boswell Energy Center, Laskin Energy Center, Hibbard Renewable Energy Center, Rapids Energy Center, and Taconite Harbor Energy Center. These coal-fired power plants installed their first units between the years 1917 and 1958, which makes the power plants 55 years and older. One of them is older than my mother, and she’s 81. That power now goes to all of the region, but the nine largest industrial customers include six mining companies. Coal consumption in 2012 for electric generation at Minnesota Power’s coal-fired generating stations was approximately 4.6 million tons, with $20 billion spent annually for that coal. (In economic terms, we won’t even talk about the “opportunity forgone costs” of if we invested that money into something else, like wind—$20 billion a year times, well, forty years or so.)
And that coal comes from the Powder River Basin by train. Minnesota Power will need a lot more coal to power the most inefficient mine in Minnesota, plus all the rest of the proposed inefficient mines. So it is, that all of this is about to get much worse—that is, if Minnesota Power, Arch Coal, the Tongue River Railroad, and Polymet get their way.
Last year, Minnesota Power’s vice president Allen Rudnick Jr. wrote a poignant letter to the chairman of the Surface and Transportation Board about an obscure rail project. That project is the Tongue River Railroad Project. The project’s sole intent is to bring coal to both Minnesota markets, and to western ports for Chinese markets. That project is in Cheyenne territory. So it is that the new residents of the land near Spirit Mountain came back to the Northern Cheyenne.
The Cheyenne Homeland and the Otter Creek Mine
The Northern Cheyenne homeland, a reservation of 225,000 acres, is in the midst of the Powder River Basin, and the Cheyenne have billions of tons of coal underneath their land. It turns out that the Cheyenne do not want their homeland strip mined. For the past forty years, the Northern Cheyenne have fought off almost every major coal company in the world to keep their coal. “Since I was in high school, I’ve been involved in my tribe’s fight to protect our reservation and the environment of southeastern Montana,” Gail Small, director of Native Action, tells me. “…in the early 1970s, the Cheyenne people heard… that our federal trustee, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had leased over one-half of our reservation to the coal companies for strip mining… The fight was on, and every resource our small tribe had was committed to this battle. I was 21 years old, the youngest on my committee and the only one with a college degree.”
That was just the beginning. The Northern Cheyenne fought off the Amax Coal company and led a revolt against illegal mineral leasing by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It helped, but still, four of the ten largest coal strip mines in the country are on Indian reservations, the Navajo and Crow at the center of it. The problem is that there is no way back once the “overburden” of an ecosystem is removed for mining. The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1973, “…surface mining destroys the existing natural communities completely and dramatically. Indeed the restoration of a landscape disturbed by surface mining… is impossible.” This is a problem if you are on a reservation. There is no new land.
Enter Arch Coal. The St. Louis-based company is the second largest coal supplier in the nation. They want land that is adjacent to the (diminished) Northern Cheyenne reservation, but within their homelands and allotments. That proposal would pay the state of Montana $86 million plus future royalties, for the largest proposed coal mine in the lower 48 states: 1.3 billion tons of coal. At hearings, l70 Cheyen e came out to oppose the mine and the railroad.
“We believe our community will bear the brunt of the negative impacts from the Otter Creek mine. Sacrificing the land, water, animal and plant life for mining and money is not worth what our ancestors fought and gave their life,” Tom Mexican Cheyenne explained in the testimony. “[We are] worried about the crime, accidents, drugs and other social issues that come along with boomtowns that our Tribe is not equipped to handle. We are being asked to deal with this so that a transnational corporation can make billions of dollars shipping coal to Asia.”
“This destruction you companies call opportunity will devastate my homelands that my ancestors fought and died for,” Vanessa Braided Hair explained. “I will not stand by and let you Army Corps of Engineers further destroy and pollute the water, air, land, and future of the Cheyenne people…. These coal mines will be built on my family’s original homestead. I do not want our country to be the sacrificial lamb for China. Consider alternative energies. Let’s go beyond coal, and stop the destruction of Mother Earth.” The company is pressuring the Cheyenne, however hard, and Minnesota Power is key in the pressure.
In a letter to the Surface and Transportation Board, Allen Rudnick Jr., a vice president at Minnesota Power, wrote, “The Tongue River Railroad… is the only viable transportation alternative that would allow access to the significant reserve of Otter Creek…. Minnesota Power urges the Board to seriously consider the positive merits of the Tongue River Railroad…” He stated that “…the rail construction project is the only viable… alternative… for the transportation of Otter Creek and Ashland area coal to our facilities.”
What is additionally ironic about this is how inefficient and old school, in the dysfunctional sense, the whole equation is. Not only is coal the dirtiest of fossil fuels (excepting perhaps tar sands oils), adding significantly to climate change and impacts, but there have been no new coal plants built in the U.S. for three decades. The Minnesota Power plants are, well, dinosaurs. Coal plant operators are planning to retire 175 coal-fired generators, or 8.5 percent of the total coal-fired capacity in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. A record number of 57 generators were shut down in 2012, representing 9 gigawatts of electrical capacity, according to EIA. In 2015, nearly 10 gigawatts of capacity from 61 coal-fired generators will be retired. Massive energy development in PRB contributes more than 14 percent of the total U.S. carbon pollution. And yet, Minnesota Power is clinging to those plants. The coal from this proposed Otter Creek Mine would release 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Basically, a carbon bomb.
So there it is. Some of a story about how a people remember a sacred place, and now are being summoned back, at least their land and homeland, chunk by chunk. None of this will qualify for discussion in a broad Environmental Impact Statement according to federal regulations, but somehow, there is more than meets the eye. In a newly released memorandum in the Environmental Protection Agency, Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the EPA, wrote to all regional administrators, “…treaties are the law, equal in statutes to federal laws under the U.S. constitution, and… the U.S. has the responsibility to honor the rights and resources protected by the treaties. While treaties do not expand the authorities granted by the EPA’s underlying statutes, our programs should be implemented to protect treaty-covered resources where we have the discretion to do so.” It would appear that the EPA has a broader scope than it has been taking, with essentially a very silo-like EIS process for the Polymet mine.
In another bureaucracy in early February, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe admonished the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for “ecological ignorance,” wherein the PCA seems to be trying to re-designate some of the waters where wild rice is found so that those waters can have diminished water quality. In short, Norman Deschampe said in a letter to John Linc Stine, Minnesota PCA commissioner, “ …waters used for the production of wild rice… must remain on the wild rice waters lists for regulatory purposes. They cannot be pulled off and dropped instead onto the proposed watch list, in effect delisting them as class 4 status of the state with the stroke of a pen.”
So it seems that the state of Minnesota might have been trying to pull a fast one on the tribes, and it doesn’t look like it worked. The MCT leadership has pointed out that this sort of regulatory scheme would violate federal law, namely the Clean Water Act—sort of a big one. Besides that, wild rice is the only grain specifically protected in treaty.
So the papers move back and forth, between the desks of agencies, bureaucrats, and corporate offices. There are a lot of numbers, but there are also a lot of stories that do not appear in those numbers. And what happens here will feed or not feed dragons elsewhere, and create more questions about power choices, efficiency, consumption, and economics.
Full Cost Accounting. That is what I have heard it called. I prefer Indigenous economics. I prefer the idea that not all has a price tag, and that stories of place stay alive with that place and those people. This past fall, I was able, with the help of the Fond du Lac Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, to place a sturgeon into the St. Louis River. That is an old fish species, and it will, if allowed to, live a hundred and fifty years. That is far longer than a mine proposal. And older than the EPA, or Minnesota Power. That is also unquantifiable. All I know is some of the story, and that for sure, the spirits of that mountain still watch.