12 September 2008

National Summit of Mining Communities: Butte Montana 2008


Hundreds of mining community residents, agency personnel, and corporate representatives converged in Butte this week for the third annual National Summit of Mining Communities. The Summit began in Leadville, Colorado, to "focus on sharing experiences in order to help communities avert or reduce the severe econonic cycles associated with the boom and bust cycles of mining."

Though the real worth of the Summit lies in dialog among people from across the spectrum of mining & community, the Summit's structure revolves around presentations, roundtable sessions, and tours of local sites.

As an academic, I've been to a lot of workshops, conferences, and related meetings over the years. For the most part, they are not all that interesting. This was very different, in part because it's a topic I'm centrally interested in and in part because of the diverse participants.

With simultaneous sessions on local, regional, and national themes, there were a lot of sessions I wanted to here but could not. Ah, life is choices. Among the sessions I was able to attend, my favorites were presentations about Rico, Colorado (by both ARCO-British Petroleum the legally responsible corporation and local government officials), post-industrial environmental restoration & education, VISTA volunteers in hardrock mining communities, problems caused to communities by mining in Argentina, and a panel discussion by participants from various mine-affected communities. I'll explain each of these in more depth.

I've included lots of links in this blog entry--please explore them and learn more about each of these people and issues.

Rico, Colorado
Rebecca Levy(Mayor Pro-temp and newspaper editor) and Jennifer Stark (Town Planner) presented "Bust to Bust in Rico, Colorado." A small town of several hundred souls, Rico had high lead levels in residential soils, acid mine drainage, and piles of mine waste. Because the town is a bedroom community for upscale Telluride and real estate values are critical to the local economy, citizens feared the stigma of a Superfund designation. Also, as Becky put it, "Residents feared that EPA would set cleanup goals that were too high." For these reasons, Rico opted to work directly with ARCO-BP on an acceptable cleanup.

Chuck Stilwell, an environmental project manager with Arco-British Petroleum who has also worked in Butte, Montana and is now with BP Exploration in Alaska, was concerned about Rico and the Dolores River becoming a Superfund site. He stated that Superfund is an inefficient process that burns local communities, and that working directly with a local community can produce the same result. In this case, Arco-BP is working on yard cleanups, addressing lead pollution from local roads, the creation of a hazardous waste repository, and treatment of polluted water. Arco-BP and Rico have also created a non-profit organization for the ownership of mine properties and for institutional controls to protect the public.

Our experience in the upper Clark Fork River basin of Montana -- America's largest Superfund site -- has been very different. There is a general public consensus that Arco-BP often tried to subvert local government to accept less thorough (and much cheaper) reclamation projects as a substitute for more thorough cleanup. Superfund at sites such as Silver Bow Creek and Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program brought far more money and achieved results superior to collaborative (cf. Norwegian Quislings or the French Vichy) approaches.

The nature and extent of pollution at a relatively small and discrete site such as Rico is very different from the three large megasites that compose the upper Clark Fork River basin. And perhaps Arco-BP has learned from its mistakes in Montana. It is even possible that the corporate culture of Arco changed after acquisition by BP. I don't know how to explain it, but the western Montana experience with Arco-BP was certainly not pleasant.

Environmental Education
Justin Ringsak and Matt Vincent of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program presented "Restoration & Education." They described how their program began with education about environmental restoration delivered directly to kids, but has broadened to a "teaching the teachers" model. From their presentation, other communities could learn how to build their own education program about environmental restoration.

Clearly, the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program has demonstrated that this place-based, outdoor laboratory approach effectively raises achievement in science education (standardized test scores, etc). As I listened, though, this presentation raised deeper thoughts stemming from the foundations of liberal education and citizenship established by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and John Dewey. Above all, it raised a question that deserves further thought: What does it mean to be a good environmental citizen?

Vista at the Hardrock
Dr. T. Allan Comp, who like many great people can say he once lived in Butte, directs the Western Hardrock Watershed Team. A panel discussion by volunteers Torie Bowman, Grady Harper, Molly Smith, and Abigale Stangl explained some of the tremendous ways that smart, hardworking young volunteers can help improve and empower [i.e. "build capacity"] American mining communities. It was very empowering just to listen to this crew: there's not much that's wrong about the world that what's right about the world (incl. brains, youth, and energy) can't fix!

Mining Argentina
Wow. Just when you think the world is coming along pretty well, you look over the further hills and it scares the hell out of you. David Modersbach, a graduate candidate with National University of Rosario, presented "Social Insertion Strategies of Transnational Metals Mining Interests in Argentina." Corporations such as Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining Company, which often have a fairly good reputation of working with communities in the U.S. southwest, have a horrible environmental and social justice record outside the U.S. David described how mining has created a huge "sacrifice zone" in the mountains along the border between Chile and Argentina, where ecological functions have been totally destroyed, with great harm to local peoples. See YouTube Gold Link.

Mining Communities
More tears as I listened to the Community Panel by Gayla Benefield (Libby MT), Virginia Commack (an Inupiaq of Ambler, Alaska), Rebecca Levy (Rico, Colorado), and John Kill Eagle (Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana). No one can listen to the stories of men, women, and children coughing their lungs up from asbestosis in Libby without weeping. No one can listen to the stories of NovaGold Resources Inc. ripping apart the traditional "life in/with nature" of native Alaskan peoples without weeping. But as Bobbie D. taught us, "Take the rag away from your face. Now ain't the time for your tears."

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Thanks to Wendy Thomi (EPA), Kevin Mellott (Montana Tech), and all the other great folks who worked their butts off to organize and host this great Summit!

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