Those who don’t learn from history…

The NWF Great Lakes Regional Center’s new reports on oil and gas drilling, and on sulfide mining could not have been timelier.

Just as we are issuing reports on government efforts to address oil and gas drilling and sulfide mining both industries are announcing major new initiatives in each area– an expansion of the Enbridge oil pipeline, and the approval of a permit for a huge new sulfide mine near Lake Superior.

Individually, the news is not good. Together, the actions begin to form a disturbing pattern of trading short term economic growth for ecological damage and eventual economic decline –that, if uncorrected, threaten the future of the Great Lakes and all of us who depend on them.

Pipeline Report Shows Lax Protections from Oil and Gas Spills

The pipeline report looks at federal and state programs that are supposed to protect people and wildlife from oil and gas spills and leaks. This region is a long way from recovering from the one-million-gallon Enbridge spill in Marshall, Michigan, so you’d suspect that there are some major gaps in protections. You’d be right.

The report documents that the federal government’s protections are weak and the states’ are incomplete, fragmented and ineffective:

  • There is no federal review of the long-term risks associated with routing of new oil pipelines or consideration of impacts to entire watersheds such as the Great Lakes basin, and state review is at best inadequate, and in some cases non-existent;
  • Many areas designated as “environmentally sensitive” are left unprotected by the federal Integrity Management program, the primary tool for assessing the condition of existing lines, installing leak detection systems, and repairing defects on a set timeline; and
  • Within the Great Lakes region, only one state (Minnesota) is certified to regulate intrastate oil pipelines, and only three states (Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois) have any permit requirements for new oil pipeline construction – and in many cases even those requirements are minimal.

We don’t have much time to fix the ineffective state and federal regulations. Enbridge is proposing to expand two of their pipelines to carry more oil in a more corrosive form though pipes that are 50-60 years old. The federal agencies need to do their jobs when reviewing the Enbridge plan, and even more importantly, the states need to step up. Michigan needs to closely scrutinize the Enbridge expansion plan and, if necessary, order the company to change it to make it safer. And the feds need to take a new and much harder look at the entire project.

Great Lakes Region in Midst of Mineral Rush

Our sulfide mining report also paints a grim picture of short-term jobs and revenues being traded for long-term ecological harm like acid mine drainage that destroys not just lakes and streams but also the jobs that depend on them. The Great Lakes region is experiencing a mineral mining rush. Billions of dollars of gold, nickel, copper and other metals have been discovered in sulfide ore bodies in the upper Great Lakes states and mining companies are pursuing them at full speed.

The tradeoff posed by this mining rush is not simply jobs vs. the environment; it is jobs vs. jobs – mining jobs vs. tourism and recreation jobs, and mining jobs vs. the jobs in the knowledge economy that come to a region when its quality of life is high.

Federal protections against this type of sulfide mining are minimal and the state response is mixed. Some, like Wisconsin, are doing a decent job; others, like Michigan, are not. The report found, for example, that Michigan has a potentially effective law, but that its methods of implementing and enforcing it are weak.

And that’s bad news for Lake Superior. Michigan has already approved the massive Kennecott mine, which will be dug underneath the Salmon Trout River, a blue-ribbon trout stream that runs through pristine forest to Lake Superior, only a few miles away. Michigan’s approval came despite overwhelming evidence that acid mine drainage is likely to occur and that the mine itself could collapse, endangering workers and sucking in the entire Salmon Trout River.

Last week, Michigan issued an initial permit for a second operation, the Orvana Copperwood Mine, to be located in the far western tip of the Upper Peninsula only two miles from Lake Superior. Mining at Orvana would be permitted within 200 feet of the Lake Superior shoreline. 200 feet! That puts the risk of acid mine drainage  less than a football field away from the largest, cleanest lake in North America.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

When we talk about the Great Lakes, we often think about “restoration” – helping the lakes recover from decades of historic contamination and other threats. We think of restoring the status quo. But that’s not right; for the Great Lakes the status quo isn’t static. It’s moving all the time, and in these areas, the status of the lakes is degrading.

We cannot restore the lakes with one hand while we’re making them worse with the other. It’s much easier to make them sick than it is to make them healthy. The adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” strongly applies to the Great Lakes. It is far more costly to restore the damage than to prevent it in the first place.

The agencies charged with regulating pipelines and mines need to consider why we need a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In the past we allowed the kinds of pollution that they’re allowing now. That pollution damaged the lakes to the point where we need a $20 billion investment to bring them back to health. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.

The Great Lakes are the foundation of our economy, our recreation, our quality of life, our health. Let’s treat them that way.

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