For the last few years Alaskans have been arguing over a hole in the ground.
Now, to be fair, this isn’t just any hole.
This hole is filled with a treasure vast beyond imagination.
It’s quite literally the stuff the future is made from. Gold. Silver. Copper. Molybdenum. Palladium. Rhenium. Thousands upon thousands of tons of it. It’s one of largest deposits of its kind ever identified – maybe the largest, we won’t really know until we get to the bottom of the hole. If we ever do.
Wait, what? The stuff the future is made from? The future? Gold and silver, sure. Maybe copper. But what are those other things? Molibud a num? Moly bead enum? Moly … oh screw it. Palladium? Isn’t that what fueled Ironman’s comic book reactor? And rhenium sounds like a discount white wine from California what comes in a box.
Treasure you say?
Oh, yes. Treasure. Billions upon billions of dollars worth.
You see, these are the metals and rare earths that make our modern lives possible. Without these metals there would be no cell phones, no computers, no flat screen TVs, no satellite GPS, and your smart cars and smart refrigerators and increasingly smarter gadgets would be a whole lot dumber and more crude and dirty. Gold and silver aren’t just for jewelry, they’re integral to modern electronics, computer systems, and communications. Molybdenum and Rhenium are used in advanced super strong alloys like you need to build jet turbines, rocket combustion chambers, and turbo-pumps – all the stuff needed to launch the satellites that hold our civilization together. Palladium is used in catalytic converters turning poisonous exhaust gases into harmless vapor. These metals are used in everything from spaceships to medical technology. Without these materials, you wouldn’t be reading this, because I wouldn’t have written it – I’m pretty good with a keyboard, but twenty years of military service left my hands damaged and writing longhand with a pen for more than a few lines is hideously painful for me. Without these metals and the technology which results from them, I’d have to find another line of work.
So, yes. Treasure. Vast and glittering.
To get at it will require an open-air strip mine two miles in diameter and nearly a mile deep along with tens, hundreds, of miles of underground tunnels and a vast processing infrastructure including an enormous workforce – eventually making the Pebble Mine one of the largest in the world. This mine, should it be approved would create thousands of jobs, more when you include the equipment makers, the millions of tons of supplies needed every year of its operation, the support staff, the regulators, the investment bankers, and all the industries that will eventually use the metals.
And since this is Alaska, pulling these metals from our soil makes the US safer because we are not dependent on foreign suppliers for these critical materials.
But there’s a catch.
And it’s a big one.
You see the gold and silver, the copper, the molybdenum and palladium and rhenium, are all mixed together with ten billion tons of ore.
And to get it out requires a number of very toxic technologies. Even under the strictest of environmental regulations, byproducts of the extraction process will produce billions upon billions of gallons of poisonous waste water and more than ten billion tons of toxic mine tailings. All of which will have to be contained permanently. And so the plan is to store this material in two very large lakes – one of those lakes, for example, would be over 740 feet deep (taller by 20 feet than the Hoover Dam) and more than four miles long. These lakes would be contained behind earthen dams. And that containment would have to be forever.
In the rugged, extreme, unpredictable climate of Alaska. In one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.
That material can never escape. Ever. Not even a hundred years after the last of the ore has been mined.
It will have to remain contained behind those walls forever.
Because directly below the proposed mine site is Bristol Bay, one of the world’s largest and richest fisheries and one of the world’s most unique and delicate habitats.
Any leak, any accident, any failure of any kind and the risk is devastation on a scale so massive that it can’t even be calculated. Entire ecosystems could be lost forever. Entire ways of life, ways of life that stretch back to roots ten thousand years old, could be lost forever. The cost to America in lost food stocks alone could be more than the value of all the metals pulled from the mine when calculated over long term timescales – and if that food doesn’t come from American waters it will have to come from foreign ones.
You see, when the metals are gone, they’re gone, and you’re left with a big hole in the ground. But the fish and other seafood that are harvested from Bristol Bay are an endlessly sustainable resource so long as there’s an environment to maintain the stocks. If you destroy it, if you destroy that delicate life-system with acid and heavy metals and ten billion tons of contaminated sludge you’ll lose it all.
If there’s a failure, the mine owners (which are almost entirely foreign firms) will still pocket the profit from the metals. Those people will go on as before. Whether they get rich or not, it’s not their way of life that is at risk because they don’t live in Alaska. They don’t depend on Bristol Bay for their very identity. If the dams fail, if contamination gets into the environment, they’ll pay their fines – or delay in the courts like Exxon before them – and go on as before. They have no investment in Alaska beyond money. Once the metals are gone, they leave, they’ll move on to some other place, some other hole in the ground.
All the risk is on those living downstream.
It’s their lives, those Alaskans, their way of life, that is at stake.
If the containment fails in any way, ever, they lose. No matter what else happens, no matter who gets rich or who gets hurt, they lose. They lose it all. No apology, no amount of money, nothing, could ever give them back that way of life.
That’s the risk.
That is the risk, from the minute the first shovel-full is dug until forever.
There can never, ever, be an accident.
And what are the odds of that?
What are the odds that a lake of toxic sludge deeper than the Hoover Dam is tall won’t leak?
What are the odds an industrial operation two miles in diameter and a mile deep into the earth won’t have an accident?
What are the odds that somewhere in those hundreds of miles of tunnels, there won’t be a mistake?
What are the odds that ships carrying the chemicals to the mine won’t sink or the train from the harbor won’t derail?
What are the odds that the engineers and designers and Wall Street wizards have foreseen every possible scenario? Every possible disaster? Every failure? And adequately prepared for those eventualities?
What are the odds the EPA has foreseen every impact on the unique and fragile Alaskan ecosystem?
What are the odds that the company, or some other agency, won’t deliberately dump toxic waste into the environment through malice or negligence or sheer laziness and greed?
What are the odds Bristol Bay and that Alaskan way of life won’t be affected now or in the future?
The odds? Not very damned good, actually.
Lakes like the proposed Pebble Mine holding reservoirs fail, well, a lot.
It’s not that the idea is entirely bad, it’s that the overall mining operation itself is already complicated and expensive. So, mining companies tend to focus on extracting the valuable ore and pay only the minimal required attention to ancillary functions – such as environmental containment. For example: On August 4th, 2014, at a British Columbia mine very similar to the proposed Pebble Mine, a containment dam failed. Millions of gallons of toxic waste water and contaminated slurry poured through the breach at the Mount Polley Mine and into Polley Lake and then downstream into Quesnel Lake and into the Cariboo River. It took four days for the entire two mile long lake to drain almost completely and it couldn’t be stopped. The full extent of the environmental impact isn’t yet known, it’ll be years before it is. Now, the thing is this wasn’t a disaster in some Third World country with corrupt governments and non-existent regulations. This was Canada. Modern technology, some of the best mining engineers in the world, strong environmental regulations, and yet the dam failed. Why? Well, Imperial Metals, the company which owns the Mount Polley Mine had a history of over filling the tailings pond well beyond its designed capacity. They’d been doing it for years. Because they could. Because any failure would be cheaper in fines and damages than building a new containment system. Because all the risk was downstream.
In fact since 1960 there have been more than 100 major mine tailings dam failures worldwide, and thousands more minor incidents. The most recent happened just last month at a bauxite mine in Henan Province, China, where the failure of a containment dam released two million cubic meters (more than half a billion gallons) of toxic red mud which completely buried Dahegou village. Hundreds of villagers had to be evacuated and thousands of domestic farm animals and livestock were drowned. This happened in a place where the government executes company CEOs and Government officials for such failures – and yet it still happened.
But I’m not really talking about dams.
I’m talking about risk.
On March 24, 1989, Good Friday, the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef and ruptured its hull. Eleven million gallons of heavy crude poured into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound for more than a week creating one of the most devastating environmental disasters in human history. The oil companies, the State of Alaska, and the federal government never anticipated such an accident and there was no plan to deal with it. Equipment, personnel, leadership, funding, and expertise were all woefully lacking. Why? How could something like this happen? The Exxon Valdez was (then) a modern supertanker. Bligh Reef was noted on every chart and the navigation channel to the open sea through Prince William Sound was well mapped and a route tankers routinely transited hundreds of times. The weather was good that night, or as good as it gets in Alaskan waters. So what happened? Human nature, that’s what happened. The most experienced man onboard was Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who it turned out was also a drunk. Instead of being in the pilot house that day, he was below in his cabin sleeping off the previous night’s bender. The vastly less experienced Third Mate was piloting the vessel through the most difficult part of its passage – the part where the Captain should have been on the bridge (and I say this as someone who has had the bridge myself during difficult passage). Now the mate might have been able to make the passage without running the ship aground, despite his inexperience, if he’d had the proper tools at his disposal. The single most important piece of navigation equipment in this case would have been the RAYCAS (Raytheon Collision Avoidance System), a type of automated radar system which if it had been working would have set off an alarm when it detected the radar reflector mounted on top of the rocks of Bligh Reef – specifically for this purpose. But the RAYCAS hadn’t worked in more than a year because the company felt it was too expensive to maintain. The crew themselves were exhausted – ships don’t make money sitting in port, and companies don’t make money by hiring excessive hands, so tankers like the Valdez ran with the minimum number of crew possible (the Valdez’s 1989 crew was half the size it was designed for in 1977) and worked 12-14 hour watches plus overtime. And finally the Exxon Valdez, despite being a modern vessel, had only a single hull, not the double hulls designed to prevent exactly this type of accident. Why? You know why. You know the answer to all the questions above: it was cheaper. Millions of dollars cheaper. So, exhausted crew. Failed equipment. No safety systems. Poor leadership. Utterly inadequate disaster plan. All in the name of profit. And 1,300 miles of coastline and more than 11,000 square miles of ocean were contaminated as a result. Untold numbers of fish, sea otters, seals, and birds were killed. Entire industries were wiped out and never recovered. Today, nearly thirty years later, you can still turn over rocks along the coast of Prince William Sound and find oil from the Exxon Valdez – I’ve done it myself.
Entire ways of life were lost forever.
But not for Exxon. The company was fined – and they fought that penalty for more than 30 years in Alaskan courts until they’d finally bought enough politicians and found themselves enough sympathetic judges to get the fine whittled down to practically nothing. Meanwhile they raked in enormous profits and made their shareholders rich and not one of the people responsible had to change their lives in any way – including Hazelwood, who kept right on drinking and who holds a Master’s license to this day.
It was the people of Prince William Sound who paid for Exxon’s risk. It was their lives that changed forever.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest environmental disaster of its kind right up until April 20, 2010.
That’s the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Five thousand feet below the Gulf of Mexico, sub-standard materials (used to reduce costs), failed safety equipment (that wasn’t adequately maintained or routinely tested), human error, inadequate emergency protocols, and lackadaisical enforcement of regulations all came together in disaster. Methane under enormous pressure from the 18,000 foot deep bore hole surged upward into the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling room and exploded, tearing the rig apart and engulfing the wreckage in flames. The crew abandoned the platform, unable to fight the massive conflagration. Eleven men didn’t make it off and were never found, likely they died in the initial explosion. Support vessels unsuccessfully battled the flames for two days before the rig finally sank in 5100 feet of water. But that was only the beginning of the disaster. Down below, the massive device that should have prevented this disaster in the first place and was designed specifically to cap the well in an emergency, the blowout preventer, had failed. Not one of its three redundant safety systems worked and oil was spewing uncontrolled from the ruptured well at rate of tens of thousands of barrels per day. Once again the companies involved, British Petroleum, Anadarko, Transocean, and Halliburton had no plan for such an disaster. No one had foreseen having to cap a well 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean. The equipment didn’t exist. Plans and procedures were nothing more than than the vaguest of outlines. And while the experts worked feverishly to develop a solution, 4.9 million barrels of oil (about 210 million gallons) blew into the waters of the Gulf. The devastation was unfathomable. An untold number of marine life and sea birds died. Beaches and coastal wetlands from southern Florida to Texas saw oil wash ashore and 68,000 square miles of ocean waters were contaminated. The Gulf fishing industry across five states and Mexico was devastated. The Gulf Coast tourist industry collapsed. It took 87 days to cap the well, but it continued to leak oil into the Gulf into 2012.
And once again, in the end it was human nature, greed, laziness, and the willingness to risk other people’s lives and way of life that was the cause.
Again, it was the people of the Gulf who paid the price for corporate risk.
BP eventually agreed to pay one of the largest fines in history, but that money can’t bring back a way of life that died with a billion tons of marine life smothered in oil.
And once again those who made the decisions that led directly to this disaster remain unaffected, their lives, their way of life, continues.
I could go on. The list of similar disasters stretches back through history, from Love Canal to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, from the Castle Bravo nuclear test which despite the very best scientific minds of the time unexpectedly rendered a huge chunk of the South Pacific uninhabitable to the bombs which contaminated the Southwest from New Mexico all the way to the Mississippi and gave us the term “downwinders,” from Chernobyl to Bhopal to Three Mile Island and the Tokaimura Nuclear Plant, to just last week when a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck Oklahoma – an area not prone to quakes until the advent of fracking wastewater injection wells – after a week of smaller temblors.
The risk is always on those downstream, the downwinders, the ones who never agreed to take it and who rarely if ever profit from it.
This is true no matter how many times you care to run the experiment.
And that takes us to North Dakota and the Sioux People of Standing Rock Reservation
The proposed 1200 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would transport crude oil from the oil rich Bakken Formation in North Dakota down through through South Dakota, Iowa, and into Illinois, where it would connect to other existing pipelines. The oil would then be transported to US refineries in the Midwest, East Coast, and the Gulf Coast. Most of the DAPL would be underground and is expected to move nearly half a million barrels of oil per day. Dakota Access, the project’s lead developer, says that the pipeline would add an estimated $156 million to various state coffers and provide, temporarily, 8,000 to 12,000 constructions jobs. Dakota Access claims the $3.7 billion project will "bring significant economic benefits to the region that it transverses” – though exactly what “significant” means after the pipeline is constructed and in operation is subject to broad interpretation. Since at that point there’s not a lot of effort required anywhere but at the ends of the pipeline (for example: The Alyeska Pipeline crosses 830 miles of Alaskan wilderness. Building it was a hell of a task. But nowadays all the action involves putting oil in one end and taking it out of the other and there’s not a lot of jobs in the middle).
But see, here’s the thing: part of the proposed pipeline would cross native American lands.
Some of that land is sacred to the Sioux – and before you get all dismissive of that, think of the outcry if Native Americans were demanding the right to bulldoze Christian churches and cemeteries to build an Indian Casino. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the shoe was on the other foot.
In point of fact, the very land here, Dakota, is named for these people, the Lakota Sioux. Their roots in this soil go back thousands of years and who are you to decide what is sacred and what is not to such a people?
Other portions of the pipeline cross the Missouri River – the source of water for the entire reservation, along with millions of others. If there is a failure, an accident, deliberate malice, unforeseen events, unanticipated faults, fire, flood, terrorism, any of the disasters listed above, then a people’s way of life could be lost forever.
Again, the risk here, the risk to sacred history, the risk to lives and ways of life, that risk is all downstream. If there is a failure, those who profit from the DAPL won’t have to change anything. They’ll go on as before in their offices in Sioux City and Houston and Washington and Wall Street. But the people who live on that land, whose ancestors are buried in that soil, will suffer the consequences. They take all the risk.
This last weekend, Energy Partners Inc. (a partnership of oil interests) turned dogs loose on peaceful Native American protesters – and they were protesting peacefully. The dogs attacked people and horses which some of the Native Americans were riding. This wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t the first time. It’s an attempt at intimidation, a deliberate attempt to silence the people who will have to bear the risk of the proposed pipeline against their will.
This last weekend, construction teams employed by Energy Partners Inc. bulldozed a two mile long, 150 foot wide path through land sacred to the Standing Rock Reservation tribe. Ancient native American cairns, prayer rings, and burial sites – some hundreds of years old – were deliberately destroyed. Remember the outcry from outraged Americans when Taliban forces destroyed ancient religious sites in Afghanistan? Those same people are curiously silent today.
The land in question is currently being contested in Federal Court. Native Americans are seeking a permanent injunction preventing the pipeline from passing under this land. Instead of waiting for the court’s ruling, the oil companies attempted a fait accompli by bulldozing a path through native lands. This is going on right now, native America people are once again fighting for their rights and their way of life, but you see very little of it in the media, because unlike those temples in Afghanistan it’s not a popular cause.
Well, you see, just as America needs those metals in Alaska, America needs the oil of North Dakota.
Our civilization, our way of life, depends on it.
Our way of life depends on it, our manifest destiny, and so the concerns of Native Americans are once again forfeit.
The risk is all on the Sioux.
The Sioux and every person living downstream on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
And what are the odds there will never be an accident? What are the odds there will never be a leak, a fire, an act of sabotage, or negligence? What are the odds the company will use only the highest grade materials, despite the cost? What are the odds that same company will develop, fund, and maintain an effective emergency plan – and keep equipment and personnel standing by just in case?
What are the odds that a company who would bulldoze sacred ground and turn dogs on Americans will be any more altruistic in the future?
Understand something here, I’m not opposed to progress.
I’m not opposed to pipelines out of hand.
I’m not reflexively opposed to offshore drilling in deep waters – even including the pristine waters of my beloved Alaska.
I’m not opposed to mining.
I’m not opposed to profit. I’m not opposed to capitalism. I’m not opposed to business.
I benefit from those things every single day and I like the modern world.
The Dakota Access pipeline is part of a larger conversation. We’ve talked much in recent years about energy independence and I think this is a good conversation to have. Without American money spent on Middle Eastern Oil, Osama bin Laden would have been just another Saudi. It was money from America’s need for oil that made his family rich and let him fund terrorism across the globe. One of the primary factors in the defeat of the Nazis in WWII was the Allies’ tactic of cutting Hitler off from oil, the Petroleum Campaign, and both Herman Goering and Albert Speer said after the war that the campaign contributed directly to the defeat of the Third Reich. The more energy we can find within our borders, the less vulnerable America is.
But it’s not my way of life that is immediately at risk here.
And the Sioux – and everybody living downstream of this pipeline on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers – shouldn’t to have to bear the entire risk for the rest of the country, for me.
It is long past time that these companies, and the government agencies charged with their oversight are required to share equal risk.
What do I mean?
During the Cold War, I was once stationed on the Island of Iceland. The Icelanders didn’t want us there. You see, during WWII they were overrun by Allied servicemen, hundreds of thousands of them. More than the actual population of Iceland itself. Those troops, despite good intention, ravaged the island, destroying ecosystems and ways of life that stretched back to before the advent of Western Civilization. And when the war was over those troops left almost overnight, leaving behind an imploding economy, hollowed out jobs, and a whole bunch of pregnant Icelandic women. By the time I arrived 60 years later the Icelanders had recovered. They’d learned their lesson, they reluctantly admitted they needed the protection of NATO and the US, being as they were without a military of their own and caught smack between Cold War superpowers, but it was on their terms not ours.
And the example which applies here is sheep.
Icelandic sheep are not cute furry little lambs like they are here in America. These creatures are massive and mean and they roam the island mostly free during much of the year. Icelandic wool is like nothing else in the world and for those who make a living from it each sheep is their life and livelihood. (Also, should you ever get to see a roundup and sorting during shearing season it’s well worth the trip to Iceland all by itself, though there are many other things to recommend the place).
As Americans, if we harmed one of those creatures in any way, say I hit one with the duty bus in the middle of a lava field because I couldn’t see the damned thing in a howling snowstorm in the middle of the seven month Icelandic winter, then we were responsible for paying not only for the value of the sheep itself, but for all the wool it might generate over its lifetime – and if it was female, all the offspring it could have potentially produced. The fines could be in the tens of thousands of dollars if you were unlucky enough to hit a young ewe with a decade of life ahead of her. It made you very cautious, very respectful of Icelandic property and traditional ways of life. The Icelanders had found a way to share the risk, them for having us there, us for using their land. This approach, this practical Icelandic mindset, was common in the Status of Forces Agreement for things vastly more important than livestock and you were responsible for it before you were ever allowed to set foot on the island.
And it worked.
Projects like DAPL risk the lives of all the people in their shadows, they risk the fabric of the land – the legacy we intend for our children and future generations. Those that are to profit from these projects must be made to share equally, or more, in the risk. People who have had their way of life destroyed shouldn’t have to go hat in hand to the courts after a disaster, asking for satisfaction. Projects like this, like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, or the Macando Prospect in the Gulf, or the Dakota Access Pipeline should be required to put up damages before the first shovelful of ore is dug or the first barrel of oil is pumped. A billion, $10 billion, $30 billion, $100 billion, whatever the worst case scenario is plus a margin of error. Borrow it from the shareholders, or from the banks as a lien against the value of the company, or take it from quarterly profits. And a certain percentage should come from the taxpayer, whose representatives approved that project and are required to regulate it. Put that money into an escrow account with the signatories to include everybody downstream, every life, every job. If the project operates to completion without accident, or if there’s an accident and the company was aggressively prepared for it and dealt with it immediately and effectively, if after it’s done the cleanup and restoration meet with the satisfaction of those downstream, then the company and the taxpayer get their money back with interest – otherwise they forfeit it all. Every penny. That way those downstream get something even if the company files for bankruptcy – because the payout isn’t tied to the company’s ability to pay after the fact, but before.
That’s the risk. All or nothing.
Understand something, I’m not talking about damages here, I’m not talking about fines, I’m talking about risk.
Any fines or damages would be for the government to recover after the accident, same as now. The money in escrow would be for the people and lives affected. Not cleanup. Not mitigation. What I’m talking about is divorcing fines and penalties from personal settlements. I’m suggesting we put the settlement upfront, in advance, so that the risk might be shared by all parties with the majority burden where it belongs, on those who stand to profit the most.
I would suggest we need laws that hold company officer salaries and shareholder payouts forfeit in the event of an accident as well.
I can see a number of potential pitfalls right up front.
For example, what’s to keep somebody downstream from one day causing that accident? And then claiming his share of the resulting payout?
What’s to keep company officers from buying up interests downstream, then after they’ve extracted all they can from the project, allow it to fail. They then declare bankruptcy and quietly pocket the settlement money themselves. Then abandon both the worthless downstream properties and the remains of the company and move on – and now you know how to plot a John Grisham novel.
I can think of a dozen other ways off the top of my head to subvert this idea. And two dozen ways to prevent it. The details of how something like this would be administered fairly I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader and perhaps their congressional representatives.
How likely is any of this?
Somewhere between not very and no chance I would guess, but it’s an interesting mental exercise to imagine the world that would result if we all shared the risks of our society more equally.
In the end, this battle, the one being fought right now in North Dakota, affects far more than just a single Native American Tribe.
This affects us all, every single one of us.
We are all downstream.
We are all downwinders.
We must have these metals, this oil, for those are the things from which our future is built. But we must have our past, our history, our sacred places, our way of life too, otherwise that future is hollow.
There must be balance.
This is each and every one of us our fight, our interest, our way of life, our sacred ground, our risk.
The people who stand to profit the most should willingly stand to risk the most.
The rest of us must stand with the Sioux.