MINING THE BOREAL NORTH
Who Decides? Sustainable planning, Mines, and Environmental Justice
A mining boom in the north--from Lake Superior to Scandinavia--is creating new conflicts and stirring up old fears.
What is sustainable mining? Many scholars argue that sustainable mining is impossible because recovery from mineral extraction involves geological processes extending over millions of years. Unlike trees, ore deposits don’t grow back.
Yet demand for many minerals is increasing, especially in the growing economies of Asia. Existing mines cannot meet those demands. While conservation and recycling has the potential to decrease the demand for new mines, in the foreseeable future it will not eliminate the demand for new mines. Denying all mine permits because mines cannot be completely sustainable does not reduce the environmental consequences of mines; those consequences are merely shifted into regions with fewer environmental regulations.
Decisions about mine planning are not purely scientific or technical decisions; at heart, they are social decisions. Indigenous communities have often borne the greatest burden from the toxic wastes and social instability fostered by mining projects, but they have rarely had much decision-making power in the planning process. Communities interested in sustainability therefore face important dilemmas when planning new mines. How can a planning process be designed that makes the most sustainable (or the least unsustainable) decisions? Who decides, when the benefits and consequences of new mines are not equitably shared?
2. "More sustainable mining" and history
Our initial review of the literature suggests that three key factors have historically been ignored when planning for mines in northern lands:
a. Watershed perspectives: The cumulative effects of individual mines on the larger watershed have usually been overlooked. Mines are typically planned in isolation, one at a time. But the ecological effects from mines do not happen in isolation; rather, mines have cumulative effects within the larger watershed.
b. Historical perspectives: The mining planning process has often ignored the larger regional environmental history of landscape and social change. Planning processes have rarely incorporated evidence from past mines about the ways decisions affected the larger cultural and ecological landscape.
c. Environmental justice: Most important, the rights of indigenous peoples have historically been marginalized in past mine planning. Indigenous lands in the north have, in essence, been sacrifice zones for resource extraction; urban centers of power have seen them as resource colonies. Even when treaties and laws require consultation, indigenous communities have rarely been meaningfully involved in the planning process. It has been even rarer for affected communities to make the final decision about whether a new mine should be approved.
3. Research question:
A more sustainable mine planning process should include the three factors mentioned above: watershed scale planning, historical perspectives, and indigenous decision-making.
Our research compares the planning process for iron mining in two northern regions: the Lake Superior Basin in North America, and Sapmi in northern Scandinavia. Both regions have a history of intensive and extensive iron mining, both underground and above-ground. In both regions, historic conflicts over indigenous land tenure rights continue to play an important role in current mining controversies. Both Lake Superior and Sapmi face decisions over planning new iron mines that have proven extremely contentious. Opponents to new mines argue that mine proposals ignore indigenous rights, watershed effects, and historic evidence about mining damage.
In this research, we examine the historic planning process for past iron mines in the two regions. We look in particular at the roles of indigenous groups, watershed-scale questions, and use of historic context in past planning processes.
4. Project context:
A. Iron Mining Case Studies
Sustainability questions are particularly interesting for iron mining, because unlike gold or nickel mines, it is possible to design iron mines that release few toxic wastes. Yet it is more common for iron mines to leave toxic legacies. We hypothesize that the planning process--not just the geologic context-- has historically been an important factor in the sustainability outcomes.
Some, but not all, iron mines release sulfides into the water, which create acidic drainage issues that mobilize extremely toxic minerals into the watershed. Some, but not all, iron mines include processing facilities that release mercury into the atmosphere, where it then mobilizes into the larger environment as toxic methylmercury. Some, but not all, iron mines not release damaging dusts from tailing stacks into local ecosystems, changing plant succession and watershed health. Some, but not all, iron mine tailings destroy local wetlands and aquatic habitat.
Whether or not a particular iron mine has these unsustainable consequences depends partly on the geologic context, in particular the composition of the overburden (the rocks that cover the ore deposit). Pyritic minerals, for example, are more likely to create acidic drainage problems than other minerals. However, the geology alone does not determine how sustainable a mine has been. It’s not the geology that leads to toxic consequences; it's the human decisions about how to interact with that geology that leads to toxic waste and ruined community. Therefore, iron mining offers an excellent set of historical case studies which will allow us to understand how planning decisions have, in the past, shaped the sustainability of mining.
B. Iron Mining in Northern Sweden
Reprinted from my essay in American Scientist, "Mining the Boreal North," March/April 2013:
For centuries, urban governments have used the idea of the boreal north as uninhabited and remote to promote colonization of the north for its resources. Open pit iron mines proposed for Sámi territory in the ore-rich landscape near Kiruna, Sweden, continue to be justified by similar logic. The Kiruna region contains the largest underground iron ore mine in the world; 90 percent of all iron ore mined in Europe comes from here. From the Swedish government's perspective, mining is inevitable because the world needs iron ore for steel, and the government needs mining profits to fund the social programs integral to Swedish society. But from the Sámi perspective, the proposed mines would make it impossible to continue reindeer herding, ending thousands of years of successful cultural adaptation to the north.
The north, in European eyes, seemed empty of people (even though the Sámi provided essential taxes), and that emptiness justified it becoming Sweden's colony for resource extraction—first for furs, then for minerals, timber and energy. In 1542, the Swedish king Gustav Vasa proclaimed that “all permanently uninhabited land belongs to God, Us and the Swedish Crown, and nobody else.” In 1635, cabinet minister Carl Bonde wrote to the Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna describing silver ore deposits in the north, expressing his belief that the boreal north could become Sweden's own West Indies.
Swedes had long suspected that the north contained some of the richest iron ore deposits in the world, but exploitation could not begin until the transportation problem was solved. In 1903, Sweden completed a railroad running from the Baltic port of Luleå, through the iron ore region of Kiruna, then down to the ice-free port of Narvik on the Norwegian coast. The mining boom at Kiruna was on.
Initially open-pit mines, the Kiruna mines transformed the landscape. Historic photos show that mountaintops were removed to reach the rich ore deposits, a precursor to today’s controversial mountain top removal in Appalachia. The work was dangerous and pollution from the pit and tailings piles was notorious. Sulfates contributed to acidification both of local watersheds and larger regional watersheds. Acids leached toxic heavy metals from rocks where they had been safely locked up, into river systems where they contaminated food chains that eventually included people. Smoke from smelters contained heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, which were captured by lichen and then accumulated in reindeer and the people who ate them. Mine tailings were stacked in enormous terraces, and winds blew toxic dust over reindeer pastures. Sediments washed over spawning beds for anadromous fish.
In the 1960s, the Kiruna mines moved underground, safety records improved, and treatment facilities reduced emissions. Yet the toxic legacies persist. Today, according to Per-Ola Hoffsten and colleagues, “wastes from the Kiruna mine … [continue to] drain into the Kalix River. Mercury pollution causes problems locally in Lake Ala Lombolo in the Kiruna area that drains into the Torne River at Jukkasjarvi via Luossajoki stream. The impacts stem from previous pollution and still causes reduced invertebrate diversity and deformed mouthparts in larval midges living here.”
Global markets affect local conditions in Sápmi, remote as the region seems to many people. An global steel boom in recent years has increased Asian demand for iron, and LKAB (the Swedish-owned mining company that operates the Kiruna iron mine) has decided to expand the mine, which means Kiruna's city center must be moved, an enormous logistical undertaking.
Local communities accept the need to move Kiruna, but new open pit mining proposals in the Kalix River valley have met with more opposition. In 2010, an Australian mining company named Kiruna Iron proposed to create three new open pit mines in the Kalix River valley. These mines would operate for 10 to 20 years, depending on steel prices; Sweden would agree to collect no royalties or taxes on the profits. The Swedish government approved the proposal, ignoring the fact that the proposed mines lie in the heart of two Sámi reindeer villages.
The Sámi argued that the proposed mines would alter ecological relationships within their territories, making it impossible for reindeer herding to persist. The mines, for example, would likely consume 60–70 percent of the spring pasture area and substantial portions of fall pasture. Mining infrastructure would block critical migration routes, and dust from tailing piles would change succession patterns in spring pastures, allowing grass to overtake ground lichen. Autumn pastures would also be reduced, increasing reindeer vulnerability to harsh winter conditions. From the Sámi perspective, “how can 20 years of mining take priority over thousands of years of Sámi culture?” (Stone 2012)
The Swedish government contends that the Sámi have no rights to exclude competing uses from Sámi territories. From their perspective, industrial development is inevitable and the Sámi must make way for it. If the good ore happens to interrupt a migration route, then move the reindeer somewhere else. Put them in trucks if necessary. If tailings piles eliminate lichen, then feed the reindeer something else. In this view, domesticated reindeer are essentially cogs in a machine, not members of interconnected ecological systems. The logic assumes that sharp boundaries exist between wild and tamed nature. But reindeer disrupt these boundaries, for they are semi-domesticated creatures. The migration paths they choose are negotiations with the reindeer herders, not engineered decisions imposed by technical logic. The food they eat is neither purely natural nor domestic, and the pastures they need cannot simply be replaced.
C. Lake Superior mining
Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world, lies at the border between Canada and the United States. A mining boom is currently underway along its shores, with dozens of new mines proposed. Planning and permitting processes for these new mines happen individually, with no formal process for consideration of cumulative effects or historical legacies of past mines. Moreover, many of these proposed mines affect indigenous groups within the watershed, yet planning process often excludes the tribes.
The proposed research would examine the planning process for Lake Superior mines. One case study of particular interest is the proposed Penokee Range iron ore mine on the south shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. If permits are approved, this would become the world's largest open pit mine. The mine would lie just upstream of the Bad River Band Reservation, so mine wastes would drain through reservation waters into the Kakagon Sloughs, one of the world's largest remaining freshwater estuaries (and a RAMSAR wetland).
Wisconsin currently has some of the world's most restrictive mining planning requirements. GTAC, the mining company, is demanding that the state change its mining laws so that mining companies would be excluded from requirements to protect water and wetland quality. Without these changes, the company argues, it would not be possible to maximize mine profits.
The tribe's Chairman, Mike Wiggins, is leading opposition to the mine. Scientist from within the tribe's natural resources department argue that acidic wastes from the mine could destroy the wild rice beds in the Kakagon Sloughs, which are of enormous historic, spiritual, and economic significance to the band. Mercury released into the atmosphere from taconite processing would also add to the existing mercury load in Lake Superior, even though international agreements stipulate that no new sources of mercury from within the basin should be permitted.
The political and legislative debates over the proposed new mining laws have brought questions of tribal consultation, environmental planning, and decision-making into sharp focus. Over the past 150 years, a complex body of state, federal, and tribal environmental legislation regarding mining has developed that guides the planning process. In the 19th century, in order to make mineral resources available for white exploitation, federal laws stripped Indian nations of their land tenure rights. Indians had exploited the mineral resources of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior for at least seven thousand years, soon after the last glacier retreated. In the 1840s, word of copper deposits on the Keweenaw Peninsula spread to the east coast and Europe. The federal government negotiated the Treaty of La Pointe in 1842 with the Anishinaabeg nations, which required them to cede northern Wisconsin and the western half of the Upper Peninsula to the United States. Mining companies soon moved into the area, exploiting first copper and then the rich iron ore deposits.
In the mid 1840s, the first of the iron ranges in the Great Lakes drainage basin came into production near Marquette, Michigan. Iron tailings were often less toxic than copper tailings, but the refining process added significant quantities of mercury to the watershed, soon becoming an important source of mercury to the lake. Some iron mines were vast open pits; others were deep shaft mines, and both led to significant changes in the aquatic habitats that tribal members relied upon. Miners sliced off forests and the soils that sustained them to create the open pit mines, leading to increased runoff and siltation in tributary streams. Deep shaft mining pumped ground water to keep the mines dry, lowering the water table and creating silt-filled runoff. Timber was needed to shore up shaft tunnels in deep mines and create safe passages, while the charcoal-fired iron furnaces of the smelting furnaces demanded huge quantities of hardwoods. By 1903, for example, the iron furnaces of Michigan's Upper Peninsula devoured wood from 30 acres of hardwood forest a day, every day of the year.
By the late 20th century, tribes used new federal environmental laws to challenge state mining planning processes that would have deprived them of clean water. Current mining laws in Wisconsin can only be understood in this historic context. Conflicts between American Indian tribes and the State of Wisconsin over a planned gold mine in the Wolf River watershed led to fundamental changes in mining laws in 1996. The new law required that proposed mines could not be approved without historical information proving that the company had successfully controlled mining waste in the past.
But by 2011, with mineral prices increasing and a pro-business government in power, the state began a legislative effort to reverse those laws. The tribes have turned to federal law to slow (or possibly block) the easing of environmental requirements. While treaties between the US federal government and sovereign Indian nations require formal consultation before environmental permits are issued, the states within the Lake Superior basin often ignore these planning and consultation requirements, which leaves them vulnerable to federal lawsuits. This case study provides an excellent test of the roles of history and environmental justice in sustainable mine planning.
Environmental history cannot tell us whether mining in a particular place should happen—that is a social decision, not a scientific or historical decision. But historical perspectives can remind us that there is nothing natural or inevitable about resource development. Resources are contingent and they change over time. Calling something a resource pulls it out of its intricate social and ecological relationships and isolates it in our gaze. Yet those isolations are illusions. We still live in intimate relationships with larger landscapes, even if we think technology isolates us from ecological constraints. When minerals are dug from the ground, when trees are cut in the forest, when flood waters are diverted, when rivers are dammed, when animals are changed from fellow creatures to livestock resources, we set into motion subtle processes of toxic transformation that have legacies far into the future.