I'd noted yesterday a long piece about the most recent GTAC iron ore mine initial operating and reclamation plans, called it a must-read, and want to add a little context.
What I found so striking was the certainty with which the company asserted something of a sweeping New Penokee Hills Creation Story wherein miles of land and vegetation in existence for eons can be blown up, trucked out, milled, exported by rail, while massive amounts of waste rock are deposited on nearby land and waterways with people and communities close by...and then the entire area will be restored, even improved:
[Spokesman Bob] Seitz said the process would involve the creation of what would essentially be a large hill of mining tailings that would be covered over with earth and replanted at the conclusion of open-pit mining activities in the first stage. The second stage would dispose of its tailings in the first pit, while the second pit would, at the conclusion of its operational life, be turned into a 355-acre lake. That lake would be graded to produce gentle slopes, making it conducive to recreational uses.And:
“Once you build that hill, you can cover a portion of it with topsoil, you can concurrently reclaim it, which means that you have a much smaller portion of the waste area that is open and by the time the process is complete, you are actually going to have mature trees or whatever the reclamation plan calls for,” Seitz said.Color me skeptical.
I remember example after example of glitzy, dreamy complex projects that began with engineers and politicians singing the plans' praises (along with their own) as they promised fail-safe designs and environmental safety and social successes, but events proved otherwise and at great, irreparable costs.
In other words, the exact opposite of what was promised, because plans are planned and outcomes, for a variety of reasons, go Code Red.
* Adequate sea walls protecting Japan's northern nuclear plants.
* Trustworthy levees around New Orleans.
* The Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, with its super-duper blowout plug.
* Three Mile Island.
* Or on a smaller, local scale: look at the $800 million dollar Marquette Interchange project. It was planned, drafted, refined and modeled to death, all to defeat modest traffic congestion with modern designs - - yet the Marquette wasn't reopened for very long after four years of headaches before one elevated ramp's pillars began to disintegrate and more millions of dollars were spent reconfiguring westbound I-94 lanes that had produced...fresh congestion.
Granted that human beings are just that - - human. Bad things happen. Nothing and no one is perfect, even if the most highly-trained and experienced people are at the controls.
Just about every aviation accident, despite numerous safety systems and redundancies, is related to or caused by human errors - - mistakes, poor judgements, bad policies or miscommunication. (I covered aviation safety for The Milwaukee Journal: the field is rich with information we can all understand and visualize about planning, technology, human behavior and risk).
This example always stuck with me:
Ninety-nine people died in 1972 when a Lockheed-1011, the most advanced large passenger jet flying at the time, crashed into the Florida Everglades because all three cockpit crew members, distracted by a single warning light (harmless, it turned out) as the plane descended towards the runway forgot to fly and land the plane.
Or fast forward to an airliner crash in 2006 at the airport in Lexington, KY that killed 49 people.
In a nutshell, the pilots launched their take-off roll down the wrong, too-short runway and crashed into trees and structures at the perimeter.
Sad, true story.
And even heroic pilots could not save an Alaska Air jetliner doomed because company policy called for infrequent lubrication of a key screw in the tail. One worn nut broke the screw assembly, the plane became unmanageable and 88 people fell to their deaths in the Pacific Ocean.
Inexplicably poor judgement at the help also led to a recent cruise ship disaster.
Getting the picture?
Mines to planes to ships; apples to oranges, you say?
How about this report from April of this year?
And projects are sold and advanced on science and data, but it's really a matter of how good is the information and how well is it turned, spin-free, into accurate predictions and workable, reliable policies.
The company planning the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to Houston has predicted 11 major spills during its 50-year life - - bad enough, for sure - - but one expert, using the company's data, says the number is really 91.
Average them out and you still get one a year. Google Kalamazoo River and see if you think US waters could take one of these annually.
Again, here's a local example where planning and data seem contradictory: when the Wisconsin Department of Transportation embarked nearly ten years ago on a 30-year, $6.4 billion plan to rebuild the Southeastern Wisconsin regional freeway system, and add 127 new lanes to absorb more miles driven, it relied on driving demand projections pegged to gasoline costing $2.30-per-gallon.
Before The Great Recession, and declines in driving due to generational changes, an aging population and people of all ages opting for walkable, transit-and-bike-friendly city settings.
But the new lanes are being added, with billions of dollars in the pipeline, across seven counties, as if we were in the middle of a driving binge fueled by cheap gasoline.
And it doesn't take much to defeat even the best-engineered systems that are brought online to implement the best laid plans that were supposed to unfold just as the predictions and brochures and politicos and corporate leaders promised.
Again, look to the proposed XL pipeline. A published report based on the company's information says small leaks could take as long as 90 days to be detected despite all the technology available.
And that's if the best-available practices are followed and advanced technologies are actually employed to make sure small leaks don't become bigger ones.
Speaking of which: There was a recent and major frac sand spill into the St. Croix River in Western Wisconsin by a mining operation that went undetected by company systems. A hiker discovered the torrent of polluting mud - - but not until the spill had run into the river for five days.
Yes, a true story.
So when we see that GTAC believes it can safely upend and then rebuild the Penokee Hills, with the Bad River Ojibwe and other communities' water supplies so closely downstream from the mining area, as I said - - call me a skeptic.
Maybe I'd give GTAC the benefit of the doubt if the Legislature and Gov. Walker hadn't changed state mining laws to meet the company's demands, fast-tracked the process and minimized citizen input.
Especially telling is how mining permit reviews and hearings would be run from now on.
Under the old law, citizens could raise challenges to the science, assumptions and information in the mining company's application before the DNR were to make a permit ruling.
The new law puts that public input perfunctorily into the process at a point after the permit decision is made.
If you were in court, how would you like to be able to introduce your evidence only after the judge announces a verdict?
We've seen that human beings can produce severely bad outcomes for large numbers of people due to the slightest, momentary mistake or seemingly minor equipment problem.
We know that Wisconsin waters are already are over-pumped and polluted - - but the powers that be are enabling mountain-top removal...for the excavation of a huge mine...needing giant amounts of fresh water...in a pristine watershed...where acid-bearing waste rock will be dumped for 35 years on open land and into lakes up to two acres in area...upstream from wild rice-bearing estuaries that have sustained the Bad River Ojibwe for centuries.
Approving a project this massive, this complex, this consequential, this risky - -and with data, assumption and conclusion vetting intentionally restricted when common sense says they should be expanded and honored is little more than an
And will put the mine on a world-class list of mistakes that occurred through avoidable human, political choices.