“Eco-consciousness” and “green living” are centrepieces of product branding for the Toyota Prius. But that feel-good packaging has rapidly worn thin for members of the Algonquin Nation and residents of Kipawa, Quebec, who are now fighting to protect traditional Algonquin territory from devastation in the name of hybrid car battery production.
In 2011, after nearly two years of negotiations, Matamec Explorations, a Quebec-based junior mining exploration company, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Toyotsu Rare Earth Canada (TRECan), a Canadian subsidiary of Japan-based Toyota Tsusho Corporation. The memorandum confirmed Matamec’s intention to become “one of the first heavy rare earths producers outside of China.” In pursuit of this role, the company plans to build an open-pit Heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREE) mine directly next to Kipawa Lake, the geographical, ecological, and cultural centre of Kipawa.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements found in the earth’s crust. They are used to produce electronics for cell phones, wind turbines, and car batteries. Rare earths are notorious for their environmentally costly extraction process, with over 90 per cent of the mined raw materials classified as waste.
Toyota has guaranteed purchase of 100 per cent of rare earths extracted from the proposed Kipawa mine, for use in their hybrid car batteries, replacing a portion of Toyota’s supply currently sourced out of China.
Over the last seven years, China has reduced the scale of its rare earths exports via a series of annual tonnage export caps and taxes, allegedly out of concern for high cancer rates, contaminated water supply, and significant environmental degradation. Despite China’s stated intention to encourage manufacturers to reduce their rare earths consumption, the US, the EU and Japan have challenged China’s export caps through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and are seeking new deposits elsewhere for exploitation. Toyota and Matamec are seeking to make Kipawa part of this shift.
Kipawa is a municipality located on traditional Algonquin territory approximately 80 kilometres northeast of North Bay, Ontario, in what is now known as western Quebec. The primarily Indigenous municipality is home to approximately 500 people, including members of Eagle Village First Nation and Wolf Lake First Nation, of the Anishinaabeg Algonquin Nation. The town of Kipawa lies within the large Ottawa River Watershed, a wide-branching network of lakes, rivers and wetlands. Lake Kipawa is at the heart of the Kipawa region.
Lifelong Kipawa resident and Eagle Village First Nation member Jamie Lee McKenzie told The Dominion that the lake is of “huge” importance to the people of Kipawa. “We drink it, for one….Everyone has camps on the lake [and] we use it on basically a daily basis.” This water network nourishes the richly forested surroundings that make up the traditional hunting and trapping grounds of the local Algonquin peoples.
“Where the proposed mine site is, it’s my husband’s [ancestral] trapping grounds,” said Eagle Village organizer Mary McKenzie, in a phone interview with The Dominion. “This is where we hunt, we fish, I pick berries….We just want to keep our water.” Jamie Lee and Mary McKenzie also emphasized the role of lake-based tourism in Kipawa’s economy.
The Kipawa HREE project would blast out an open-pit mine 1.5 kilometres wide and 110 meters deep, from the summit of a large lakeside hill. It would also establish a nearby waste dump with a 13.3 megatonne capacity. Rock containing the heavy rare earth elements dysprosium and terbium would be extracted from the pit via drilling and explosives, processed at an on-site grinding and magnetic separation plant, and then transported by truck to a hydrometallurgical facility 50 kilometers away for refining.
Matamec confirmed in its Preliminary Economic Assessment Study that some effluence caused by evaporation and precipitation is inevitable, especially during the snowmelt period. A community-led presentation argued that this could create acid mine drainage, acidifying the lake and poisoning the fish.
“There’s going to be five [truckloads of sulfuric acid transported from pit to refinery] a day….[I]n a 15-year span, that’s 27,300 truckloads of sulfuric acid,” said Mary McKenzie. “We’re worried about spills and the environment….They’re talking about neutralizing [the acid], when a spill does occur, with lime. I have [sources that say] lime is also a danger to the environment.”
In a 2013 presentation in Kipawa, Matamec stated that while “some radioactivity [due to the presence of uranium and thorium in waste rock] will be present in the rare earth processing chain,” its effects will be negligible. Yet these reassurances ring hollow for some, who point to cancer spikes observed in communities near rare earths projects in China. In the project’s economic assessment, Matamec itself indicated that waste rock is too dangerous for use in concrete and dikes.
“Whatever goes up in the air [from blasting and evaporation] comes down….A lot of those particles are radioactive,” said Mary McKenzie. “Our animals eat this [plant matter potentially affected by the mine]….We depend on our moose, we depend on our fish, so that’s a scary situation.” The refining process also uses strong acids and bases.
While Matamec stated in the Assessment that “most” of the water used in processing will be recycled, a portion of the post-processing solution will be directed into the lake or tailings ponds. The mine is intended to be operational for 13 years, but tailings ponds would require maintenance for generations, and leaching is always possible. Adding to this risk, Matamec has “assumed that [certain] tailings will not be acid generating or leachable” and will therefore only use watertight geomembrane for a portion of the tailings ponds.
With the approval process being accelerated by both public and private factors, production could begin as early as 2015. Quebec’s regulations call for provincial environmental impact assessments only when projects have a daily metal ore production capacity that is considerably higher than the national standard—7,000 metric tons per day versus 3,000 in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. What’s more, by categorizing HREE in the same regulatory group as other metals, these tonnage minimums fail to reflect the higher toxicity and environmental costs of heavy rare earths extraction.
Because of this, the Kipawa project does not trigger a provincial-level assessment. It only requires clearance from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and a certificate of authorization granted by the provincial Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks.
On the private side, the assessment process has been fast-tracked by a series of multimillion-dollar payments from TRECan to Matamec ($16M as of April 2013). According to Matamec president André Gauthier in a July 2012 press release, this makes Matamec “the only rare earth exploration company to have received funds to accelerate and complete a feasibility study and an environmental and social impact assessment study of a HREE deposit.”
The chiefs of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake First Nations have been demanding a consent-based consultation and review process since the project was quietly made public in 2011—one that exceeds “stakeholder” consultation standards and acknowledges the traditional relationship of the Algonquin people to the land. Residents only became widely aware of Matamec’s plans following the company’s community consultation session in April 2013.
Jamie Lee McKenzie has not been impressed by Matamec’s consultations. “They come in and they have a meeting…and they tell us all the good things about the mine,” McKenzie told The Dominion. “[They say,] ‘It will give you jobs. We need this to make batteries for green living,’ but that’s it.”
Local organizers told The Dominion that a Matamec-chaired community focus group had been cancelled during the early summer after one local participant asked that her critical questions be included in the group’s minutes. Following what many residents see as the failure of Matamec and provincial assessment agencies to meaningfully engage with Kipawa residents, the community has taken matters into their own hands.
In the summer of 2013, Kipawa residents began to organize, with the leadership of Eagle Village and Wolf Lake members. Petitions containing over 2,500 signatures were sent to provincial ministers, demanding a provincial environmental assessment as well as “public hearings to review the Mining Act…to strengthen rare earth environmental monitoring.” As of late November, there had been no official responses to the petitions, and no positive response to letter-writing campaigns directed at the office of the federal Minister of Environment. (Quebec adopted a new Mining Act in early December, as this article went to print.)
But demands have grown beyond calls for review. “We’re not okay with the BAPE [provincial assessment]; we’re not okay with the mine,” said Mary McKenzie. “We’re against the [project] 100 per cent.” In September, McKenzie helped organize a 100-person anti-mine protest on the shores of Kipawa Lake. In November, the resistance network formalized their association as the Lake Kipawa Protection Society, committed to stopping the mine through regional education, local solidarity, and creative resistance strategies like a “Tarnish Toyota” day of action.
The Kipawa HREE project, if approved, would open doors for the numerous other companies exploring the watershed—such as Globex, Fieldex, Aurizon, and Hinterland Metals—as well as for heavy rare earths mining in the rest of Canada.
“We have mining companies all over in our area here,” said Mary McKenzie. “Matamec is the most advanced, but it’s not just Matamec: we want all the mining out of our region.”
The mine is not the only project on the fast-track: Algonquin and local resistance efforts are picking up momentum, and backing down on protecting the water and land is not on the agenda.
“This is ancestral ground,” McKenzie stressed. “We can fight this.”
Claire Stewart-Kanigan is a student, Settler, and visitor on Haudenosaunee territory.
A criminal slips a police officer a handful of bills and walks free. A businessman buys a politician with a briefcase full of cash. We often think of bribery and corruption in these blatant terms, and as something that happens in poor countries, elsewhere.
But corruption often looks different.
In the United States, where I live, corruption is common. It’s also mostly legal.
In fact, dirty money has become part of the political fabric of our nation. It has become normalized, institutionalized, and even regulated. And yet, the effects of this corruption are just as insidious and destructive as blatant payoffs. Corruption is a rot in our political system, and it is spreading.
This article is about American corruption, but the story will be told by looking at one particular Canadian mining company called Lithium Americas, which is working in the United States through a wholly-owned U.S.-based subsidiary, Lithium Nevada Corporation.
For two and a half years, I’ve been fighting Lithium Nevada to stop them from destroying Thacker Pass — a biodiversity hotspot and Native American sacred site known Peehee Mu’huh in the Paiute language that is in northern Nevada, just shy of the Oregon border. Lithium Nevada, as you have probably guessed, wants to turn this place into an open-pit lithium mine.
This is a special place. Thacker Pass is home to dwindling sage-grouse, Pronghorn, mule deer, and golden eagles. It’s a migratory corridor and climate change refuge. It’s the watershed for local communities, and the site of two massacres of Paiute people, including one on September 12, 1865 in which US Army soldiers killed between 30 and 50 men, women, children, and elders in a surprise attack at dawn. It’s been recognized by the Federal Government as a “Traditional Cultural District,” a landscape of outstanding importance to Native American history and cultural identity.
And right now, as you read this, it is being destroyed by a corrupt corporation and a corrupt government. Bulldozers are rolling and centuries-old sagebrush, millennia-old artifacts, and the lives of precious desert creatures are being crushed under metal treads.
How is this possible? How, in a democracy where people have the right to protest, to speak out, to comment, to petition, to file lawsuits, how is it possible to have such a miscarriage of justice? And more broadly, how is it possible that our governmental system is failing to address the ecological catastrophe we are facing: the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth?
Part of the answer is corruption, which we can break down into five categories: lobbying, writing laws, the revolving door, campaign contributions, and community bribery. Let’s look at each in turn, using Lithium Americas and Thacker Pass as an example.
Lobbying: How Corporations Gain Disproportionate Access
Lobbying is based on a simple principle: that government officials should listen to their constituents.
Transparency International defines lobbying as “Any activity carried out to influence a government or institution’s policies and decisions in favor of a specific cause or outcome.”
“Even when allowed by law,” they say, “these acts can become distortive [harmful to democracy and justice] if disproportionate levels of influence exist — by companies, associations, organizations and individuals.”
Today’s lobbying is not the simple practice of people talking to their elected officials. Instead, it’s a tightly regulated $3.73 billion industry dominated by political insiders and major corporations, rife with corrupt “revolving doors,” and matched by at least $3-4 billion in “shadow lobbying” that isn’t regulated or disclosed to the public in any way.
The regulation of lobbying is essential to its proper functioning as a method of corruption. As Ben Price, National Organizing Director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, puts it, “regulation is not so much a way to curb corruption, but more to the point, regulations legalize the corruption by defining the limits to it that will be disallowed.”
“In doing so,” he continues, “the principle effect of regulations is to shield bribery from legal liability by legalizing enough of it to serve the purpose of the corporate legislative influencers.”
Like advertising, corporations use lobbying because it works.
Studies have found that spending more money on lobbying and campaign contributions results in direct reductions in federal taxes, state taxes, and more federal contracts. One analysis looking at only the nation’s 200 most “politically active” corporations found they spent $58 billion on lobbying the federal government and “campaign contributions”[i] between 2007 and 2012, but received $4.4 trillion in federal subsidies, contracts, and other support during the same time period. That’s a 7,580% return on investment.
Another study found even bigger returns: “on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government” — a 76,000% payout.
Corporations are Writing Our Laws
Corporations use lobbyists because their wealth allows them disproportionate access to the government, meaning that they can build relationships with politicians and staffers, influence policy, share ideas, and even draft legislation. They can also bribe judges, as the recent Clarence Thomas corruption scandal shows. But it goes further. As one report in NPR notes, “It’s taken for granted that lobbyists influence legislation. But perhaps less obvious is that they often write the actual bills — even word for word.”
Our laws are being written by corporations.
And this isn’t just a federal problem. A 2019 USA Today investigation found more than 10,000 bills introduced to legislatures in all 50 states over an 8-year period were “almost entirely copied from bills written by special interests.” The report also notes that their investigation detected these bills using automated techniques, and “the real number is probably far higher.”
Our politicians rarely write laws. Instead, corporations and lobbyists write laws; congress sells the laws to the public; then lobbyists pay their congresspeople in campaign contributions, Super PAC funding, and revolving-door job opportunities – topics we will look at next.
The Revolving Door
Another way that corruption has become endemic inside the government of the United States is through what’s known as the “revolving door.”
The revolving door refers to the common practice of corporate employees quitting their jobs and going to work in the government, and vice versa. It’s quite common for government employees and elected officials to quit or end their terms and immediately get jobs in the industries they were supposedly regulating.
This is a sort of “retroactive bribery” where government officials do what corporations want, then get paid off afterwards. And it’s completely legal.
Occasionally there will be stories of lobbyists who stray into outright bribery — Jack Abramoff, notably — but these stories are rare, not because corruption is uncommon, but becauseyou don’t really need to break the law as a corporation: you wrote the laws. And you did it deliberately to make your bribery and influence campaigns legal.
As of 2016, about half of retiring senators and a third of retiring House Representatives register as lobbyists to collect their checks. This is equally common among Democrats and Republicans.
Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Lobbying Activities (the ones we know about)
Harbinger is “a leading federal government and political affairs firm” that was founded by and employs former high-level Republican congressional aides and political operatives. They have been listed as among the top lobbyists in Washington D.C. and made a total of $10.9 million in 2021 from a client list which includes the airline industry, major banks and investment firms, mining companies, biotech, the military-industrial complex, Facebook, electric utilities, General Electric, and the oil and gas industry.
“We leverage our experience as former senior staff to the Congressional Leadership and the Executive Branch to position clients for a seat at the decision-making table,” they write on their website. They continue: “[Harbinger is] founded on the belief that every client deserves partner-level legislative expertise” — a “boutique model” — that they use “for one simple reason: it gets results.”
In the state of Nevada, Lithium Nevada Corporation has hired at least 4 lobbyists since 2017 from two businesses: Argentum Partners, “a full-service strategic communications firm… with a hungry, energetic, and experienced team of lobbyists,” and Ferrato Corporation, “a full service bi-partisan public affairs firm.”
Notably, Lithium Nevada’s Argentum lobbyists included Mike Draper, who “helmed the media relations and public affairs for the planning, permitting, construction and opening of the Ruby Pipeline, the largest natural gas pipeline in North America.” The Ruby Pipeline was fought vehemently by environmentalists and Tribes in 2009 and 2010.
Another technique of legalized corruption is “campaign contributions,” also known as donations to politicians.
Many countries in the world place strict limits on the amount of money that people can donate to political candidates, or even have political campaigns funded by the government, removing the influence of money almost entirely. The United States is not one of those countries.
Elected officials in the United States are desperate for money. The average U.S. senator has to rase $14,000 a day just to stay in office — and that’s once they’re already elected. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans, which is why corporations, both directly and through their lobbyists and employees, tend to play both sides by donating to both political parties.
For example, Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas Corporation, donated at least $10,250 to political candidates between 2021 and 2022 including Catherine Cortez Mastow (Democratic Senator from Nevada) and Mark Amodei (Nevada’s Republican Governor). George Ireland, Board President of Lithium Americas, has donated at least $19,800 to candidates since 2011, including $500 to the Trump campaign and $6,600 to John Hickenlooper. Data from OpenSecrets.org shows that 7 other Lithium Americas employees, Board members, and associated parties gave at least another $10,819 to political candidates between 2018 and 2022.
These amounts don’t include the MUCH larger political contributions given by employees and family members of Harbinger Strategies, who gave $392,842 to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle alone.
Many of these people donated up to the legal limit, implying that if the limit were higher, they would give more money — and perhaps that they would seek ways to circumvent contribution limits via so-called “Super PACs” and other dark money techniques.
Keep in mind that less than 1.5% of Americans donate more than $200 to political candidates or parties in any given year. This is the domain of the wealthy.
Lithium Americas money is well-spent.
In what appears to be a quid pro quo for their lobbying and campaign contributions, Lithium Americas Corporation has been granted a total of $8,637,357 in tax abatements from the State of Nevada, including a partial sales tax abatement worth $5 million, a $3.3 million property tax abatement and about $225,000 in payroll tax abatements. That money is unavailable for schools, healthcare, social services, small business assistance, environmental programs, etc.
From the Federal Government, Lithium Americas has received a loan from the Department of Energy’s “Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program” (ATVM) which is likely to cover “up to 75% of the Thacker Pass’ total capital costs for construction.”
This loan program offers highly favorable terms that amount to a significant subsidy of as much as $3 billion USD.
Based on a very conservative estimate for Lithium Americas Corporation lobbying and employee campaign contribution of, say, $400,000, they’re looking at a return on investment of 2,100% — and that’s before including the massive financial value of the ATVM loan.
Corruption in politics is often matched with corruption at a local level.
Lithium Americas’ plans to destroy Thacker Pass have created serious community opposition among farmers and ranchers from the rural areas closest to Thacker Pass, among local citizens in the nearby town of Winnemucca, among environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife, plants, air, and water, and among Native American tribes concerned about their sacred and culturally important sites, animals, and medicines.
The response has been predictable. Anti-mining activist Joan Kuyek’s book Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community From The Mining Industry describes the myths repeated incessantly by Lithium Americas and almost every mining company:
“The mine will create hundreds of jobs and enrich governments.”
The mine can make community members rich and solve all of their social and economic problems.”
“Modern engineering will ensure that the mine doesn’t damage the water, air, or the wildlife.”
When these myths are exposedasfalse, they resort to legalized bribery. At Thacker Pass, that takes the form of Lithium Americas Corporation paying for a new school for the community of Orovada, and signing an agreement with one local Tribal Councilwoman for construction of a cultural center. One tribal member, my friend Shelley Harjo, wrote in response: “A few promised buildings and a cultural center do not supersede the responsibility we have to our ancestors before us nor our obligation to our unborn after.” Another Tribal leader in the region says of the mining companies, “They take advantage of our poverty.”
That poverty gives the mining companies serious leverage. Among community members at Fort McDermitt, rumors of bribery are common.
Lithium Americas’ Involvement in Human Rights Abuses Overseas
Lithium Americas has deep business links and personnel overlaps with Chinese state-owned mining corporation Ganfeng Lithium (the largest lithium company in the world). In fact, Ganfeng and Lithium Americas are co-owners of an Argentinian lithium mining company known as Minera Exar.
The Minera Exar mining project is located in the Andean highlands in the so-called “lithium triangle,” an arid region near the borders of Chile and Bolivia. Over the years that Minera Exar has been active in the region, they — like other lithium mining companies in the area — have come under criticism for serious environmental and human rights abuses.
“Mining companies have for years been extracting billions of dollars of lithium from the Atacama region… But the impoverished Atacamas have seen little of the riches… one lithium company, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar, struck deals with six aboriginal communities for a new mine here. The operation is expected to generate about $250 million a year in sales while each community will receive an annual payment — ranging from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for extensive surface and water rights.
The exposé continues:
“Yolanda Cruz, one of the leaders of the village in Argentina, said she signed the [community benefits agreement with Minera Exar] but now regrets it. At the time she valued the opportunity to create jobs for her village. But she now worries, ‘we are going to be left with nothing.’ she said. ‘The thing is the companies are lying to us —that’s the reality. And we sometimes just keep our mouths shut,’ she said. ‘We don’t say anything and then we are the affected ones when the time goes by.’”
Meanwhile, Ganfeng Lithium recently announced plans to mine for battery metals in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese Government has detained and imprisoned Uyghyrs and other Muslim groups in forced labor and indoctrination camps.
Waste of Government Funds
We are being told the main goal of lithium mining at Thacker Pass is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is another lie, a new type of corporate greenwashing which is becoming increasingly common. In fact, many analyses actually find that the emissions reductions from switching to electric vehicles are relatively minor.
Producing a single electric car releases greenhouse gas emissions—about 9 tons on average. This average is rising as the size of electric cars is going up substantially. The more electric cars are produced, the more greenhouse gases are released. And so while EVs reduce emissions compared to gasoline vehicles, bigger EVs don’t reduce them much. Analysis from the Center For Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice says that electrification of cars in the United States will reduce national emissions by only 6 percent.
Further, producing lithium at Thacker Pass would require 700,000 tons per year of oil refining byproducts — sulfur, perhaps largely sourced from the Alberta Tar sands. While Thacker Pass receives billions in subsidies from the government, carbon emissions are continuing to rise.
Environmental activist Paul Hawken, as another example, doesn’t put electric cars in his top 10 climate solutions. In fact, it’s number 24 on his list, with almost ten times less impact than reducing food waste, nearly six times less impact than eliminating the use of refrigerants which are powerful greenhouse gases, and behind solutions like tropical rainforest restoration (about 5 times as effective at reducing emissions as is switching to EVs) and peatland protection (more than twice as effective).
Corruption and waste go hand-in-hand. The data makes it clear that if reducing greenhouse gases is your goal, subsidizing the Thacker Pass lithium mine is not a good use of government funds. It’s wasteful.
If you actually want to allocate government funds to effectively halt global warming, giving money to extractive industries is the exact wrong thing to do.
Instead, start with women’s rights, educating girls, and making contraception and family planning widely available. Start with economic relocalization initiatives. Start with insulating homes properly, which may have the biggest immediate carbon impact per dollar spent. Start with demand-reduction initiatives.
Stop wasting taxpayer money on subsidies to Earth-destroying corporations, and start taking actions that really matter.
The Banality of Evil
Lithium Americas’ corruption reminds me of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil.” Writing of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, Arendt explains that Eichmann felt no guilt; indeed, he never even considered that what he was doing might be wrong: “He did his ‘duty’…; he not only obeyed ‘orders’, he also obeyed the ‘law’.”
As one article states, “[Eichmann] performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.”
Lithium Americas is not killing people en masse, nor are they even among the “worst” mining companies. They may even be acting completely within the boundaries of the law. And yet they are complicit in cultural genocide, in ecological destruction for personal gain, and in what may be an even bigger crime against the future: greenwashing their destruction as positive and thus creating more financial and political incentives for more of this madness.
They believe that what they are doing is right and they are “following the rules.”
The corruption at Thacker Pass is not unique. Lobbying, campaign contributions, greenwashing, and community bribery is common in the United States and across much of the world. I believe there is likely much more corruption that we are not aware of. Perhaps there really are briefcases full of cash being exchanged. We can only speculate. And, this article has not even begun to discuss the government complicity in lawbreaking, corruption, and ethical violations at Thacker Pass — a story that is, in some ways, even more sordid.
All of which is part of why academic analyses of the United States tend to show “economic-elite domination” rather than true electoral democracy or pluralism. The wealthy are running our country (and indeed, the world) Our government is corrupt, corporations are running rampant, and our world is being destroyed.
For many, the situation we find ourselves in is paralyzing. What can do in the face of this?
When I first came out to begin protecting Thacker Pass and setup a protest camp on the planned mine site in the depths of winter 2021, I had no illusions. I knew that the courts weren’t likely to save us. Remember, the laws were written by corporations. I knew that public commenting wasn’t going to work; the regulations are written to favor corporate interests. I knew that the government wasn’t going to help, since the politicians are mostly bought and paid for. I even knew that standard methods of protest would likely be ineffective, given the repression tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies that have been honed over centuries by corporations and colonizers.
As a society, we find ourselves in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event, a global climate catastrophe, and seemingly terminal overshoot. And as an environmental movement, despite our brave and inspired action, it has not been enough.
Whether you agree that this is needed or not, we can all agree that what we are doing isn’t working. I don’t have all the answers. But what I do know is that it’s time to go further.
This article was originally published on Earth Day 2023. Since then, there have been developments in Thacker Pass. Direct action has been able to halt mine construction for the moment. Read more about it here.
Featured image: Resistance in Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert
Editor’s note: The US military is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution in the world. It is through the allocation of over half the federal government budget that this is made possible. So when companies say that the destruction of the environment must be done to save the planet, this fact is never mentioned. We are in fact in an existential situation and yet ending the war machine is never on the table. The evil empire will do what it has always done, which is to extract the wealth of the land to the determinant of those that live there. And this will not end until it collapses. If we are to have anything left before this happens we must fight to save it.
In early summer, Vale BLM (Bureau of Land Management) held a Resource Advisory Council meeting in McDermitt, ground zero for the critical minerals rush on public lands. Lithium driller Jindalee HiTech got to talk about the company’s horrifying new exploration drillingproposal for 267 more drill holes, wastewater sumps, and 30 miles of new “temporary” roads. The project would tear rip apart irreplaceable Sage-grouse Focal habitat, as a prelude to open pit strip mining for lower grade lithium. The BLM geologist showed a video, How Critical Minerals are Vital to the Climate Fight, that had appeared on ABC news.
One narrator, Reed Blakemore, was from the Atlantic Council think tank known for never seeing a War or US-backed coup it wouldn’t propagandize and cheerlead for. The other narrator works for an organization called SAFE. Their mission appears to be strident propaganda shaping policies, perceptions and practices and support for wresting control of critical minerals and energy, no matter how unsafe it makes the world or how much environmental damage is caused. The two harangue viewers about the need to get “shovels in the ground”. It includes a clip of Biden bragging about the Defense Production Act.
SAFE’s Website boasts about working with retired 4 star generals. A scroll through their Twitter account shows them pushing for streamlining environmental analysis–like the type of NEPA and tribal consultation short-cuts which contributed to the Thacker Pass (Peehee mu’huh) controversy that rages on. SAFE screeches about mineral laundering by China, adores high voltage transmission lines, and my favorite: “SAFE believes the Biden admin must take an aggressive approach that raises strong walls around foreign entities of concern while lowering drawbridges for our allies, like South Korea”. And hurl pots of burning oil down on the enemies of Fortress America from the castle keep?
This energy transition and critical minerals crusade on public lands is very much about retaining a corporate iron grip on energy, and increasingly seems to be about feeding the Military Industrial Complex. Watching the video, it belatedly dawned on me that critical minerals and green energy Neocons are driving much of the agenda. It’s certainly neocolonialist, but with the added twist of the Neocon global control freaks, and no dissent is allowed. We’ll grab what we want, anywhere, no matter if we break it all apart, no restraints tolerated, and we and our friends will make a fortune. The McDermitt caldera encapsulates the clash between supposed clean energy and the dirty reality for public land, water, communities, biodiversity, and a sane path to sustainability and energy change.
The EV “revolution” is being carried out with the same mindset, hubris, lies, greed, propaganda and war mongering that plunged us ever deeper into the fossil fuels mess and Forever Wars. The public is being propagandized by the Atlantic Council, SAFE, and others to blindly accept the sacrifice of any place, anywhere – under claims of saving us from climate change (as we continue to guzzle energy without limits). It’s also about domination and empire. Just like with oil, they won’t be content with a “domestic supply”, and instead seek to control all of it. Leadership of big green groups often appears captured by these critical minerals and energy Neocons – witness those dead serious Sierra Club outreach e-mails with a tangle of high voltage transmission lines portraying NEPA short-cuts as a good thing.
War Contractor Bechtel Selected to Build the Thacker Pass Mine, Mine Costs Double
Environews provides a whirlwind summary of some 2023 Thacker Pass events. Lithium Americas contracted with Bechtel Mining and Metals for engineering, procurement and execution of the mine. Bechtel is an industrial contractor and war profiteer who reaped massive government contracts during our Forever Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve already signed a reconstruction agreement with Ukraine, a tad prematurely. They go way back, having built Hoover Dam and infrastructure for the Manhattan atomic bomb project at Hanford and elsewhere. Hanford plutonium was used in the nuclear bomb the US dropped on the people of Nagasaki Japan. To this day, Bechtel is involved in Forever Clean Up at nuclear facilities, including the most toxic place in America, and helping work on new nukes, keeping the gravy train going. The International Committee for Investigative Journalists summarized:
“Bechtel has been heavily involved in both commercial and military nuclear activities. These have included some of the most notable nuclear mishaps in U.S. history, from California’s San Onofre reactor installed backwards, to the botched clean up of Three Mile Island … Bechtel is finding ways to profit from the radioactive mess its projects have created.”
Regarding Bechtel’s endless Hanford work and profiteering Joshua Frank describes “they have a really bad track record and are well known for reaping the spoils of U.S. military ventures all over the globe. In October they had a test facility up and running that was going to do a run of vitrification for low-level radioactive waste. They basically had a ribbon cutting for this big machine and it ran for a week, then overheated, and they had to shut it down”.
Tribes consider this land to be a Traditional Cultural Property. Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Tribe submitted a Traditional Cultural Property Eligibility Statement, (Peehee mu’huh: A Living Monument to Numu History and Culture District. September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre Site) to the BLM. It seeks official Interior Department recognition. Now it’s reported that BLM is sitting on the document, and never transmitted it to the National Park Service who oversees National Historic Register sites. Meanwhile, site integrity is being obliterated. Time after time – in local, national and international media – elders and tribal members have said that lithium mining desecration and destruction at Thacker Pass is like digging up Arlington Cemetery.
A recent deluge of news articles, many appeared planted, hyped a geological study that largely rehashes long known geological information. This helps fuel speculation and increase political pressure on agencies to rubberstamp projects. Following weeks of media gushing about the overblown study, the Nevada Currentexposes what’s going on:
“The study was funded by Lithium Americas, and includes research from Lithium Americas employee and shareholder, Thomas Benson”. He was the lead author, but most media stories skipped right over that inconvenient fact.
“John Hadder, the director of the Great Basin Resource Watch … said while the study may be helpful in pitching mining in the area, his organization has heard claims of “largest lithium deposit” from places around the world.
“I am concerned that this report will be used to advance more lithium mining in the region, and pressure the frontline peoples to accept mine plans,” said Hadder. “Regardless of how much lithium may be extractable, the sloppy permitting process that led to the Thacker Pass mine must not be duplicated. Indigenous ancestral lands that have cultural values must be protected, and Indigenous communities should have the right to say no”.
The publicity also bumped up Lithium Americas stock that had sagged a bit. And it seems there was another purpose, too. Lithium Americas is angling for a $1 billion DOE (Department of Energy) loan handout, the largest amount ever. The same outlets that hyped the geological paper are all agog, casting this as “an historic 1 billion”. Reuters now reports“Lithium Americas had raised its budget for the first phase of the Thacker Pass project to $2.27 billion, from $1.06 billion, reflecting changes to its production plans”. The loan is claimed to be 50 to 75% of the mine cost. Is this price explosion due to estimates of production linked to the hyped study, or is there a huge mine cost over-run right out of the starting gate? Lithium Americas did choose a contractor with long experience profiting off the US’s trillion-dollar foreign misadventures and nuclear mess. If the lithium mine gets this obscene DOE handout, will dollars evaporate, like four Hanford whistleblowers exposed:
“It is stunning that, for a decade, Bechtel and AECOM chose to line their corporate pockets by diverting important taxpayer funds from this critically essential effort,” Assistant US Attorney Joseph Harrington said in a news release …The case started after four whistleblowers came forward in 2016, telling federal prosecutors about alleged time-card fraud in which the companies billed the U. S. Department of Energy for work that was never completed. The companies hired hundreds of electricians, millwrights, pipefitters … to build the plant … and then over-charged for the workers even when those workers had no duties to perform …”.
The Department of Justice Press release on the Hanford deception is here. The time-card fraud involved DOE funds. Now DOE appears on the verge of lavishing a billion-dollar loan on Lithium Americas who uses this same contractor.
GM Thacker Pass Lithium in Ultium Batteries, GM and War Machines
GM is now implicated as a major player in Caldera lithium mania. In January 2023, GM announced it would invest $650 million in Lithium Americas and use Thacker Pass lithium for its Ultium batteries:
“Lithium carbonate from Thacker Pass will be used in GM’s proprietary Ultium battery cells. … GM is launching a broad portfolio of trucks, SUVs, luxury vehicles and light commercial vehicles using the Ultium Platform, including the GMC HUMMER EV Pickup and SUV, GMC Sierra EV, Cadillac LYRIQ, Cadillac CELESTIQ, Chevrolet Silverado EV, Chevrolet Blazer EV, Chevrolet Equinox EV, BrightDrop Zevo 400 and BrightDrop Zevo 600”.
But these aren’t the only GM vehicles using Ultium batteries. Clean Technica headlined, “The US military is buying Ultium Battery Packs from GM Defense”. Get ready for the Green Wars, folks, including the Green Wars for Green Minerals. Are wild and sacred places of the McDermitt Caldera going to be destroyed not only for bloated GM pick-ups, street Hummers and virtue signaling about the climate crisis, but also for War machines too — gutting the West for critical minerals so we can waste untold amounts of energy and minerals on more Forever Wars?
GM Defense proclaims it’s driving the future of military mobility, with a five-passenger All-Electric Military Concept Vehicle, and working on energy storage for the tactical warfighter. Ultium batteries are also used in armored diplomatic vehicles that look like a sure hit with narco kingpins. Other monstrosities like this tactical truck, don’t yet appear to have EV batteries, but GM does promise they’re fuel efficient. How long until US troops de-stabilizing South American countries to gain control of their lithium, or maneuvering to grab foreign oil, are cruising around in EVs? At the end of a Reno KTVN Channel 2 video full of land destruction images and lithium company spin, the reporter says “lithium is a hot commodity”. The lithium company’s spokesman replies “it’s essential for national security”. Note that lithium is also used in designs of some nuclear reactors and in the nuclear weapons industry.
GM Greenwashing, Thacker Pass Lithium, Social Injustice
A Mighty Earth report, GM Wants ‘Everybody In’ on Greenwashing, tells how GM’s human rights policy conflicts with its investment in Thacker Pass, how they’re building hulks while smaller cars sold may largely be from China, a continuing dirty supply chain, a poor score in indigenous rights protection, and how often GM makes commitments but doesn’t follow through. In the report, the People of Red Mountain Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu explain that “the entire landscape of the McDermitt caldera is sacred to Nevada, California and Oregon tribal nations”
The brutal 1865 US cavalry massacre of a Paiute camp at Thacker Pass was part of the memory-holed Snake War of Extermination. The massacre was not revealed by BLM in the mine EIS. During litigation, Tribes presented resounding evidence – US surveyor records, contemporaneous newspaper stories, and survivor Ox Sam’s own account from Big Bill Haywood’s Autobiography. The Biden-Haaland BLM brushed it all aside, to the anger and dismay of Tribes and many other people. The stalled Traditional Cultural Property document contains the records. Perhaps doling out a $1 billion loan for the destruction of an officially recognized massacre site might be a bridge too far, even for Jennifer Granholm’s DOE.
In spring 2023, the Ox Sam women’s protest camp was set up at Thacker Pass by a gaping water pipeline trench the company had ripped past sacred Sentinel Rock. The camp was raided after a protest action. Now Ox Sam descendants and white activists associated with the camp are being sued in a vile SLAPP suit: After getting hammered with lawsuits aimed at halting development of a lithium mine at Northern Nevada’s Thacker Pass, a Canadian-based mining company has turned the tables and is suing the mine’s protesters … the protesters and an attorney representing them counter that the lawsuit is similar to a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), aimed at intimidating and silencing their free speech”.
How’s that for upholding ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) principles, and the other social responsibility jargon Lithium Americas and the mob of Caldera miners use to lull investors?
Aurora Schemes of Yellowcake and Green Uranium
Aurora Energy Metals is trying to resurrect a uranium project long thought dead. Promotion videos show Greg Cochran, an Australian “uranium veteran” leading the Aurora charge. Before alighting in the Caldera, Cochran had been with Australian uranium miner Deep Yellow. Here’s Friends of the Earth Melbourne on Deep Yellow, “The Mulga Rock uranium project east of Kalgoorlie is now under the leadership of a team with a track record of over-promising, under-performing and literally blowing up cultural sites”. And this from the Conservation Council of WA (West Australia),“We’ve gone from the inexperienced and cash-poor Vimy Resources to Deep Yellow who are led by a team with a track record that highlights why uranium mining does not have a social license”.
Aurora drilled a few exploration holes in fall 2022 extended a bit of drilling into a winter exclusion period. Now they seek to expand drilling under a NEPA-less, no public comment Notice, which is how the Jindalee sagebrush killing drilling to date has been done.
Aurora’s mining scheme, where some lower grade lithium overlays uranium deposits, is explained in a Proactive Investors video. Cochran envisions the mine of the future with a conveyor belt or pipeline jetting lithium or uranium slurry or crushed rock from Oregon across the state line down onto private land in Nevada, where a processing plant and waste heaps would be located. The video interviewer asks: “Tell me more about this property you bought in Nevada”. Cochran replies:
“Yeah, we kept that under wraps for quite a while because we wanted to make sure that nobody else kind of gazumped us. … We had this strategy of identifying suitable locations within Nevada for the processing plant … because… we know that they understand mining a lot better than Oregon … Nothing is a free pass, but it would allow us, we believe, to permit quicker. Private land to boot is even more attractive. … We discovered that one of the landowners was looking to sell. So, right place, right time. I’m already … envisioning … the mine of the future. Where you develop this mine. You’ve got a crusher, you run a very fancy overland conveyor – or pipeline for that matter – across to Nevada which as the crow flies it’s only 8 or 9 k’s – so there’s no tracking, no footprint … negligible CO2 emissions …’.
He says the Aurora project would be ticking all the boxes in terms of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) approval – right after detailing a plan to evade Oregon regulations on uranium pollution by moving the hot rocks across the state line. Apparently, radioactive material infiltrating air, groundwater, plants, wildlife, and contaminating the community, doesn’t count when you’re ticking ESG boxes. The same plan is repeated in a Mining Network video here, with Cochran talking about Nevada land enabling Aurora to “permit a quarry in Oregon”, which he describes as fairly straightforward, while siting the processing plant and waste heaps in Nevada. In a Thacker Pass state permitting meeting, Nevada Department of Environmental Quality staff admitted they couldn’t recall not permitting a mine.
Aurora’s Nevada land is around 4 miles west of town, right by the state line south of where the Disaster Peak county road starts. In an Australian publication, Aurora, described as a “shining light”, says that because there’s some hydropower at the site “we have the potential to deliver green uranium”, in a “uranium friendly mining jurisdiction”. Welcome to Nevada – the Uranium Waste Heap State. No Rocks Too Hot to Handle. You can already envision more billboards sprouting up on Highway 95.
A past effort to wrest uranium from Caldera earth fizzled when Fukushima grayed up the miner’s blue sky on uranium. Back then, Oregon mining activist Larry Tuttle warned in Read the Dirt about yellowcake production, water use, the toxic waste stream, tailings ponds and Oregon’s very own Lucky Lass superfund site experience near Lakeview:
“Sulfuric acid in the tailings also dissolves and leaches heavy metals – mercury, molybdenum, arsenic, lead, manganese, and cadmium – as well as uranium. (The Aurora site has already been extensively mined for mercury, which pose additional health perils; sulfuric acid easily bonds with and transports mercury to waterways.) Residual uranium elements in the tailings decay and release radon; heavy metals also continue to interact within tailings and other wastes.
For communities as diverse as Moab, Utah, and Jeffrey City, Wyoming (often called yellowcake towns), the effects of uranium mining on public services and resources; ground and surface water; and, air quality are serious and dramatic”.
The Moab Times just reported on resistance to uranium mining and processing at the La Sal Complex near Moab and the Pinyon Plain mine near the Grand Canyon, in “Ute Mountain Utes march against White Mesa as Energy Fuels prepares to reopen uranium mines”:
“Some White Mesa residents have long been concerned that the mill, which lies four miles north of the community, is contaminating nearby groundwater, air and wildlife with radon that allegedly blows and seeps off the mill’s tailings impoundments”.
While uranium miners attempt to tamp down dangers, Ute tribal members monitoring past mining effects have measured whopping levels of uranium in spring water, there’s a sulfur odor in the air with re-processing taking place, and animals are disappearing from the mesa. For the record, uranium was recently shifted from the critical minerals list, and is now a fuel mineral with friends in Congress. Caldera uranium is found in uraninite and coffinite ore. No, someone didn’t have a morbid sense of humor, it’s said to be named after a geologist.
Trying to track the serial land destroyers and speculators who’ve descended on the Caldera is quite confusing. It’s unclear who now controls FMS claims. On-line sources show conflicting information. An Aurora prospectus said they control Oregon FMS “CALD” claims. A company named Chariot now appears involved with Oregon and Nevada FMS claims – all located in terrible places for wildlife. Lithium Americas holds a north-south block of claims in extremely sensitive wildlife habitat up in the Montana Mountains. They repeatedly told the public during the Thacker Pass EIS process that the project was sited to avoid those Sage-grouse conflicts, and that they wouldn’t mine up there because wildlife values were so high.
Puzzlingly, a 2016 SEC Report map shows Lithium Americas then controlling much of the current Jindalee claims block in “Miller” [Malheur] county. Why would they let go of Oregon claims while gearing up for Thacker? FMS Nevada claims lie in critical sagebrush by the east face of the Montanas. LiVE, another company, also has some Nevada claims. This month, there were mining press articles and a video about Jindalee drilling again this November. I contacted Vale BLM, and BLM says No. If you’re out in the Caldera, keep your eyes on what’s going on.
Jim Jeffress, a retired NDOW biologist (so he can speak his mind) describes how ideal for Sage-grouse Caldera lands are. He says what happens in the Montana Mountains with key sage grouse habitat “will define the resolve of the state of Nevada and BLM in the recovery of Sage-grouse in Nevada”. He extols the high bird abundance, the ideal habitat configuration, calls the Montanas exceptionally important, the gold standard for Sage-grouse, and a critical bridge between populations, writing:
“My primary concern is focused on ANY mine site or extraction areas on top of the Montana Mountains in the area commonly referred to as Lone Willow, now or in the future. That concern extends into Jordan Meadows in the east that serves as wintering grounds for the Montana Mountains sage-grouse population and those in southern Oregon”.
The Caldera is a unique inter-connected ecosystem, spanning Nevada and Oregon, with irreplaceable habitat for Sage-grouse and other wildlife. It must be protected from a mad, rapacious minerals rush.
Environmental Advocates and Groups To Protest Latest Proposed Algonquin Pipeline Expansion Near Shuttered Indian Point Nuclear Plant
On Tuesday, activists will rally outside the shuttered Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan in protest of the latest proposed Algonquin Pipeline Expansion in the area. The protest will occur blocks from where, in 2016, three activists were arrested for blocking the last Algonquin Pipeline expansion of an added 42-inch high-pressure pipeline. In addition, two older 32-inch and 23-inch pipelines run underneath the plant. Decommissioning at Indian Point houses over 2,000 tons of irradiated fuel rods in addition to other radioactive waste.
Protestors will call on Governor Hochul to stop pipeline owner Enbridge’s latest “Project Maple” proposal. Project Maple was noticed by Enbridge HERE.
WHAT: Rally calling on Governor Hochul to stop Enbridge’s “Project Maple” fracked gas pipeline expansion
WHEN: Tuesday, November 14 at 4:30pm ET
WHERE: Outside the shuttered Indian Point nuclear plant on the corner of Bleakley Ave & Broadway in Buchanan, NY
WHO: Activists representing Food & Water Watch, United for Clean Energy, Safe Energy Rights Group, and more
“Project Maple” would significantly expand the amount of gas transmitted through the Algonquin Pipeline which runs from the Hudson Valley through Connecticut to Massachusetts. Enbridge anticipates its proposal to come on line as soon as November 2029.
The proposal to expand fracked gas in the region comes despite New York’s Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act which mandates greenhouse gas emissions reductions of at least 85 percent by 2050 and the state’s nation leading ban on fossil fuels in new buildings, which will go into effect in 2026.
Editor’s Note: The following is a summary of the proposed copper mining site Copperwood. Like any other mining, the proposed mine will have dire impacts on the ecology, health and human rights of the area, in this case, the Porcupine mountains and Lake Superior. The following text is compiled from the website Protect the Porkies.
Protect The Porkies is a grassroots campaign dedicated to resisting the development of a metallic sulfide mine in extreme proximity to Lake Superior, Porcupine Mountains State Park, and the North Country Trail. There has never been a metallic sulfide mine which did not contaminate water; Copperwood would be the closest such mine to Lake Superior in history; Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake on the planet, representing 10% of the world’s surface freshwater.
It’s not hard to piece these facts together to see why the proposed mine is an atrocious and criminal idea. In a world which is getting hotter and drier, in which many cities must import water from hundreds of miles away, protecting freshwater is THE battle of our time.
All of the images on this piece were taken from Protect the Porkies.
Metallic sulfite mine would poison Lake Superior
Canadian company Highland Copper Inc. wants to drill under the Presque Isle River to seize minerals from directly beneath Porcupine Mountains State Park, the largest tract of mixed old growth forest remaining in the Midwest.
Unlike the White Pine North Mine (closed 1997 due to environmental concerns) which consisted of ore graded at 20% purity, Copperwood’s ore grade is estimated at only 1.5%, meaning that nearly 99% of mined material will be stored as 50+ million tons of heavy-metal laden waste rock on topography that slopes towards Lake Superior. Toxins of concern include mercury, arsenic, selenium, and lead. The data show that more than a third of tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble, and there are already multiple instances of serious failures.
Canadian company Highland Copper is a junior exploration company with zero experience opening and operating a mine, which already has a track record of violating permits and degrading wetlands. But they aren’t letting that slow them down: even though they lack key permits related to stream alterations and engineering of their tailings disposal facility, they have already begun their “summer site prep” of clearcutting and wetlands destruction.
97% of Earth’s water is salt water and thus not potable. Of the remaining 3%, the majority is frozen in the ice caps and thus not accessible. Of what remains, Lake Superior represents a full 10% of the world’s surface freshwater.
There has never been a metallic sulfide mine which did not contaminate local water. The Chopperwood Mine would erect a tailings disposal facility holding 50+ million tons of heavy-metal laden waste-rock on topography sloping towards Lake Superior.
Even if the tailings dam holds, acid mine drainage is a certainty: sulfides will combine with water and air to create sulfuric acid — a.k.a. battery acid — which then steeps over waste-rock and river sediment to leach heavy metals into the environment.
The last old-growth forest
98% of this planet’s old growth forest have been cut. The 35,000 acres in Porcupine Mountains State Park represent the largest tract of mixed old growth remaining in the Midwest.
Let’s be clear: Porcupine Mountains State Park is not just any park. In 2022, the Porkies were ranked by users of Yelp.com as the “most beautiful State Park in America.” But company maps suggest Highland Copper seeks to drill beneath the Presque Isle River and extract minerals from directly under old-growth forest on Park property.
The mine would subject the area to heavy metal dust spewed up from hundreds of meters underground, to catch and carry on the wind for miles in all directions; twice-daily subterranean blasts which are known to disrupt the reproductive cycles of aquatic life; noise pollution and light pollution which will further impact the mating rituals and calls of wildlife. And it’s unlikely that acid mine drainage will turn around upon reaching the Park entrance, only a 15 second drive from the mine entrance road.
Clearcutting enables wildfires
Already Highland Copper has clearcut hundreds of acres of so-called “secondary” forest in preparation for the Chopperwood Mine. But there’s nothing secondary about the importance of such woods— in addition to existing for their own sake and providing homes for countless organisms, forest which is allowed to mature becomes a barrier against wildfires. As trees grow old, they develop thick fire-resistant bark and shed their lower limbs, thus creating a diverse canopy which is difficult to burn. In the dense shade below, mosses, lichens, and liverworts move in, and the ground grows into a moist sponge.
At a time when wildfires are ravaging so many parts of the world, we should be doing everything we can to help our secondary forests mature, not replace them with a desert.
No more dark night skies
On the bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, the Presque Isle Campground at Porcupine Mountains State Park is one of the most popular in the Midwest. As a rustic campground, there is no electricity and no sewage dump. In just a short walk, visitors may reach three stunning waterfalls on the Presque Isle River or go fishing or swimming at the lakeshore.
Unfortunately, the Chopperwood Mine — in addition to subjecting the area to subterranean blasts, air pollution, and noise pollution — would be lit up like a casino all night long, effectively eliminating a clear view of the starry sky not just for the Presque Isle Area, but for miles around, potentially as far as Black River Harbor, another area of outstanding beauty.
In the 21st century, is there anything scarcer than a good view of the stars?
Home of wolf packs and fish
The 1500 acres encompassed by the mine site fall smack in the middle of a wolf pack’s territory, specifically the pack which travels between Black River Harbor and Presque Isle. It is one of only three wolf packs in the region.
A healthy, happy wolf pack is far scarcer than copper, and more valuable too. It is well known that large deer populations may over-browse riverbanks and bluffs around lakes. By keeping the deer population in check, wolves effectively prevent erosion— quite the opposite of Highland Copper, which is actively annihilating wetlands and rerouting streams.
The Anishinaabe Indians — also known as the Ojibwe — have fished the Presque Isle River and Lake Superior for hundreds of years and always been well-nourished. Unfortunately, fish are bio-accumulators of heavy metals, just like the kind which would be spewed from Chopperwood’s exhaust vents and leached from river sediment via acid mine drainage.
Redside Dace — an endangered species
In the 2009 biological monitoring report, populations of Redside Dace were found in both Namebinag and Unnamed Creek — two streams passing through the mine site which are planned to be rerouted. The Redside Dace is an Endangered Species in Michigan, and the Fishbeck, Carr, and Thompson report clearly states:
“Populations of Redside Dace within the Copperwood site should be protected from human-related impacts.”
Reishi provides medicine
Among the inhabitants of the ecosystem directly adjacent to the mine site is the Northern Reishi Mushroom (ganoderma tsugae). Prized for thousands of years in Chinese and Japanese medicine as “the Mushroom of Immortality,” the Reishi grows exclusively on Eastern Hemlock trees. Given that the Porkies hold the largest remaining tract of old growth Eastern Hemlocks — which have been all but eradicated in the East by the woolly adelgid — it is thus host to the largest and purest population of medicinal Reishi mushrooms in the country.
Unfortunately, like fish, mushrooms are bio-accumulators of heavy metals. One day, will mushroom foragers stop picking the Reishi for fear that a medicine has become a poison?
The last wild coastline
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was industrial sprawl. First you build a network of roads, then you build a mine, then you build parking lots for your 100 or so employees, then those employees want to live nearby so they buy up land and build houses, before you know it there’s a sewage system, an electrical grid, and a proposal to connect the Presque Isle Scenic Area to Black River Harbor via highway, right along some of the last wild coastline remaining, and though such a thing was once inconceivable, it now strikes us as perfectly reasonable, because the mine and its infrastructure have already paved the way.
You may think this scenario sounds like fear-mongering, but just look around you and the proof is everywhere: roads already press against the North Shore in Minnesota and Canada and along all the other Great Lakes. None of it happened overnight: such development unfolds not at the pace of a Hollywood action film, but at an ooze over the course of years, decades, lifetimes. Ecologists refer to this as the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. If we don’t draw a line in the sand now, soon there will be nothing left to draw a line in front of.
A temple in hell
As we moderns come to spend our time increasingly immersed in artificial environments — staring at screens and slogging through traffic — pilgrimages into the peace of Nature fulfill a crucial role: walking along the Presque Isle River, breathing deep the conifer-filtered air while listening to the hush of waterfalls— such experiences are sacred to many. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, atheists and animists too — all are welcome in the Universal Church of Nature.
By threatening this thriving outdoor recreation area with rock grinding, heavy metal exhaust, light pollution, industrial traffic, and acid mine drainage, Highland Copper might as well be burning a temple.
The operation would likely lead to audible rock grinding and subterranean blasts using toxic ammonium nitrate which would be felt for miles around, both on the North Country Trail and in the Presque Isle Scenic Area of the State Park, and possibly even at Black River Harbor. As with the development of Eagle Mine in Marquette County, we can expect non-stop industrial traffic on County Road 519, heavy metal-laden dust from exhaust vents which travels far from its source on the wind. Given that the Copperwood is a metallic sulfide mine, there remain concerns regarding acid mine drainage — irreversible contamination of wetlands and waterways.
Nawadaha, Manido, and Manabezho— these are the three waterfalls of the Presque Isle Scenic Area, which still bear the names of Anishinaabemanitous.
Long before Michigan, long before the arrival of Europeans, the Anishinaabe fished and foraged these lands. There was a nomadic settlement at the mouth of the Presque Isle River. Later, at that same beach, the Anishinaabe met to trade with French trappers. To this day, park-goers find arrowheads and other artifacts on the shore.
What tribute do we pay to this fine history by allowing a foreign company to contaminate these waters, spew heavy metal dust on the wind, and potentially even drill beneath the River, beneath the old growth, even beneath Lake Superior?
Though the situation may seem dire, there is still time to build opposition:
Highland Copper will not decide whether or not to greenlight construction until 2024, and they are still lacking $250 million required to initiate their project. But in the meantime, they are already clearcutting forest, rerouting streams, and destroying wetlands, so there is no time to lose.
If we as a society do not draw a line in front of protecting freshwater seas and old growth forest, then it means we won’t draw a line anywhere, and that is a very scary place to be as a species. So please, join the campaign today by taking action:
Sign thepetitionand pass it on to others; in 2024, we plan to bring the petition off the Internet and into the real world by hand-delivering it to the Governor’s office.
Reach out to Michigan’s politicians; even if you are not a resident, tell them that the outdoor recreation industry in Michigan is over 10 times the size of mining, and no state which entertains such an atrocious project will receive a single dollar of your tourist money.
And remember, Protect The Porkies is not an organization— we are a movement, and everyone is invited to be a part. We won’t win by following their playbook, but by using our creativity to come up with our own.
DGR conducted its annual fundraiser on Ecology of Spirit. If you have missed it, you can view it here. You can also visit our auction for paintings, books, brownies and conversations. The auction will remain open till October 31.
Editor’s Note: We are witnessing the results of a culture in overshoot. Having extracted everything that is easily accessible on land, corporations are turning to the remote depths of the ocean in search of profitable metals. The fact that deep sea mining is being considered is proof that this way of life can’t last. Industrial mining will, of course, come to an end. And the world will be far better off if the mining is stopped before it destroys the ocean rather than after.
While the fight against deep sea mining has largely focused on areas beyond national jurisdiction, there are many national projects, like the one in Norway, that require opposition.
A living ocean is far more valuable than the metals that can be extracted from it.
Norway is moving forward with plans to mine its continental shelf to procure minerals critical for renewable energy technologies. However, some scientists, members of civil society and even industry leaders have raised concerns about Norway’s proposal, arguing that deep sea mining in this part of the ocean could cause widespread environmental harm.
The nation’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy has proposed opening up a 329,000-square-kilometer (127,000-square-mile) portion of the Norwegian Sea to deep sea mining, an area nearly the size of Germany. The region overlaps with many marine areas previously flagged by Norwegian research institutes and government agencies as vulnerable or valuable. A study by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD), a government agency responsible for regulating petroleum resources, found that this area holds significant quantities of minerals such as magnesium, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare-earth metals. Investigators found these minerals on manganese crusts on seamounts and sulfide deposits on active, inactive or extinct hydrothermal vents at depths of 700-4,000 meters (2,296-13,123 feet).
A sliver of this proposed mining area is within Norway’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The rest falls across the adjoining continental shelf — the gently sloping seabed stretching out from Norway’s mainland into the ocean — in international waters beyond Norway’s jurisdiction. However, Norway gained access to the continental shelf that borders its EEZ in 2009 after filing an application with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a U.N. body that manages extended access to the nations’ continental shelves. Norway’s access applies only to the seabed, not the water column or surface waters above the continental shelf.
In 2021, the Norwegian government began working on a mining impact assessment and released it for public consultation in October 2022. It received more than 1,000 responses, most from individuals, research institutes, environment agencies and other groups expressing opposition to Norway’s deep-sea mining plans.
One response came from the Norway Environment Agency, a government bureau under the Ministry of Climate and Environment. The agency raised several issues with the impact assessment, including that it did not provide adequate information about how mining could be done safely and sustainably. The agency argued that this omission violates the country’s Seabed Minerals Act, a legal framework created in 2019 for surveying and extracting minerals on the Norwegian continental shelf.
Now that the public consultation process has finished, the decision whether to open Norway’s EEZ and continental shelf to deep sea mining sits with the federal government. If the government does open the area, Norway could become one of the first nations to initiate deep-sea mining in its nearby waters. A few other countries, including China, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, have explored starting similar projects, but none have begun full-scale exploitation. According to the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, a government agency responsible for regulating seabed minerals, the country has issued exploration licenses to obtain “the information necessary to inform future decisions about whether it will allow mining to commence in line with the precautionary approach.” In the case of New Zealand, its supreme court blocked a proposed seabed mining operation in 2021, generating a major stumbling block for the industry.
‘Enormous supply gap’
Walter Sognnes, the CEO of Loke Marine Minerals, one of three companies looking to mine Norway’s continental shelf, said he believes the deep sea is key to supplying the “increasing demand” for critical minerals. Loke is aiming to mine manganese crusts that occur on seamounts on Norway’s continental shelf, believed to hold cobalt and rare-earth metals worth billions of dollars.
“We need to solve this enormous supply gap that is coming … and we think deep-sea minerals are the right way to go,” Sognnes told Mongabay.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), today’s mineral supply will fall short of what’s needed to transform the energy sector, resulting in a delayed and more expensive transition to renewable technologies. A recent study in Nature Communications likewise suggested that demand will escalate as countries work to replace gas-combustion vehicles with electric ones. For instance, it suggested that if nations aim to make all vehicles electric by 2050, the global demand will increase by 7,513% for lithium, 5,426% for nickel, 2,838% for manganese and 2,684% for cobalt. The study also pointed out that most of these critical minerals were available only in “a few politically unstable countries such as Chile, Congo, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa.”
While environmental experts argue that industries can obtain minerals through means such as battery recycling, Sognnes said he doesn’t think that will become a viable option for at least a couple of decades.
Mineral supply chains can also be complicated by geopolitical tensions with countries like China and Russia, which currently generate many critical minerals, Sogness said.
“You have to look at the alternatives,” he said. “We believe that if you apply the best technology and work together [to protect] the environment, deep sea minerals can be a better alternative, both on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) rating, but also on the geopolitical side, you can have a resource that makes us less dependent on China.”
An ESG rating is a measure of how well a company addresses environmental, social and governance risks.
Sognnes said if Norway does open its continental shelf, Loke would not begin mining until early in the 2030s. He said it would first be necessary to map and explore the seabed and develop the best possible technologies. Loke plans to use excavation tools, thrusters and pumps to “scrape” the manganese crusts then transport them to a collection vessel.
Some researchers have suggested that plumes generated from deep sea mining extraction could be highly destructive by distributing sediment and dissolved metals across large swaths of the ocean, which would threaten organisms and introduce heavy metals into the pelagic food chain. However, Sognnes said he does not expect Loke’s crust cutting and collection to generate plumes.
Loke also recently acquired UK Seabed Resources (UKSR), a deep sea mining firm formerly owned by U.S. global security company Lockheed Martin. This acquisition has given Loke full ownership of two exploration licenses and partial ownership of another in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. This proposed mining would focus on extracting polymetallic nodules, which are potato-shaped rocks containing critical minerals like manganese, nickel, cobalt and copper. Since the CCZ is located in international waters beyond any nations’ jurisdictions, mining activities there are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a U.N.-affiliated body tasked with protecting the marine environment while ensuring nations receive equal access to minerals.
While the ISA has yet to issue an exploitation license for deep sea mining, it is working to finalize a set of regulations that could allow mining to start as early as next year — a move that has garnered criticism from governments, civil society organizations, research institutes and many other individuals and groups. Those in opposition say that not enough is known about the deep sea to accurately assess the impacts of mining, and that mining technology is not advanced enough to minimize harm. Additionally, critics say what is known about the deep sea suggests that mining could cause irreversible harm to habitats and species that are essential to the functioning of the ocean.
Some nations and delegates to the ISA are calling for a “precautionary pause” or a moratorium on deep sea mining until more research is conducted on the deep sea and the possible impacts of mining. France has even called for an outright ban.
Norway, an ISA council member, has generally supported swiftly completing the international mining regulations but stated at recent ISA meetings that no mining should proceed without the “necessary knowledge about ecosystems.”
Other Norwegian companies looking to mine in Norway include ADEPTH Minerals and Green Minerals. While Norwegian energy company Equinor previously expressed interest in deep-sea mining, the company called for a “precautionary approach” during the public consultation, saying experts must have sufficient time to properly understand the possible environmental consequences of deep-sea mining.
‘Too quick and too big’
Peter Haugan, a scientist who serves as policy director of Norway’s Institute of Marine Research and director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen, said the Norwegian government should not rush mining in the country’s continental shelf.
“Jumping right into mining and opening big areas for exploration first with the implication that there will be mining is a bit too quick and too big,” Haugan told Mongabay. “Normally, when we think about new industries that may be moving into areas in the ocean, we typically take small steps.”
Haugan said that while some academic research has been conducted on features like hydrothermal vents in the proposed mining area, more is needed to understand this deep-sea environment, the water column and the organisms that live there. Before mining is allowed to proceed, he said researchers need to conduct extensive baseline studies to understand the impacts for both the mining area and the wider environment, which would be hard to do within short timespans.
“It’s very difficult to imagine that a single company getting a license for a small area will be prepared to do the environmental baseline that is needed in their area and in the surrounding areas, which may be affected and which may have connected ecosystems,” Haugan said.
According to an assessment by the Institute of Marine Research, there is a lack of information for 99% of the proposed mining area.
Kaja Lønne Fjærtoft, a marine biologist and global policy lead at WWF, told Mongabay it’s difficult to “nail down the actual consequence” of deep-sea mining on the Norwegian shelf without more knowledge of the environment, technology and mining impacts. Based on what is known, she said there is concern that mining manganese crusts or sulfide deposits could have widespread effects on species through the destruction of habitat, generation of harmful plumes and noise pollution. (Sognnes of Loke, however, said his company’s proposed operations would not target unique habitats or generate plumes and would produce minimal noise.)
Norway’s plans also raise several transboundary concerns. For one, mining activities could impact fisheries operating in the water above the extended continental shelf, Fjærtoft said.
“We don’t have exclusive rights to fisheries above it, so the mining that could happen in the seabed could impact international fisheries because most of the [proposed mining] areas are also in areas where like the U.K. would be fishing, the EU would be fishing,” she said. “And that’s not really accounted very well for in the impact assessment.”
According to 2019 data, the U.K. and several EU countries fish in the proposed deep sea mining area, targeting species like shrimp, cod, sole, haddock and mussels.
Norway submitted its impact assessment to Denmark and Iceland in accordance with the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment, which requires parties to disclose if activities could cause transboundary environmental harm. Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter to the Norwegian Environment Agency, arguing that the mining’s possible effects on seabirds and marine mammals have not been thoroughly investigated, according to documents reviewed by Mongabay.
Another issue is that part of Norway’s proposed mining area falls across the continental shelf of Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The Svalbard Treaty, which 48 countries have ratified, recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard but also specifies that parties have equal rights to engage in commercial activities there. However, in a letter viewed by Mongabay, Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs informed the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the exploitation of any mineral resources on Svalbard’s continental shelf was “subject to the provisions of the Svalbard Treaty, including the principle of equality.” In other words, Norway couldn’t claim sole ownership of these resources.
“If Norway actually goes ahead with extraction of seabed minerals, it will be the first time the Svalbard Treaty — in terms of extractive seabed resources, including oil and gas — is tested in that region,” Fjærtoft said. “This will set precedent for future potential oil and gas extraction in this area.”
Fjærtoft also argues that Norway’s plans for deep sea mining contradict its commitments as a founding member of the Ocean Panel, a global initiative that aims to help member nations “sustainably manage” 100% of their national marine waters by 2025.
In a paper, the Ocean Panel stated that nations should take a precautionary approach to deep-sea mining and that regulations and knowledge should be in place by 2030 to “to ensure that any activity related to seabed mining is informed by science and ecologically sustainable.”
More recently, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, the current head of the Ocean Panel, said in an interview with a Norwegian paper in March that deep-sea mining can be one of three sustainable ocean actions Norway can set in motion and that deep-sea mining could be done in a way that doesn’t harm marine biodiversity. Støre’s comments garnered criticism from environmental NGOs.
Haugan, who serves as co-chair of the Ocean Panel’s Expert Group, said the Norwegian government’s course technically satisfies the panel’s “not very precise” statement directing a precautionary approach to deep sea mining. However, he said he was still concerned about how quickly things were moving.
“There is a real fear that the quality and quantity of those environmental investigations will not be sufficient,” Haugan said. “And therefore, there’s this big danger that this will run off and lead to inappropriate actions in the deep sea.”
What happens next?
Amund Vik, state secretary of Norway’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, the body forwarding the proposal to mine, told Mongabay the impact assessment, consultation impact and resource report from NPD “will form an important part of the decision basis on whether to open areas” to deep-sea mining. However, he emphasized that a decision to open the area wouldn’t necessarily result in commercial activities. Vik also said the government will submit a white paper about the issue to parliament in “spring.”
“A comprehensive permitting regime has been established in Norwegian legislation, and this regime is based upon a stepwise approach to allowing commercial activities to take place,” Vik said in an emailed statement. “Seabed mineral activities will only take place if it can be done in a prudent and sustainable manner.”
However, Fjærtoft said she believes if and when the Norwegian government does approve the opening of the proposed mining area, commercial activities could quickly begin. The nation’s Seabed Minerals Act specifies that companies may immediately apply for exploitation licenses alongside exploration licenses. According to Fjærtoft, companies are likely to opt for exploitation licenses because they confer exclusive rights to an area; exploration licenses, on the other hand, are nonexclusive.
“Norway could be the first country to give an exploitation license,” Fjærtoft said. “If they do that, that is heavily criticizable because you definitely do not have enough knowledge to be able to assess anything on the impact of exploitation. You don’t even have enough to assess impacts of exploration.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.