Political Matters – August 2019


By Mordecai Specktor

Native women artists
Run don’t walk to see “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists,” an amazing and affecting exhibition on view through Aug. 18 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (artsmia.org). More than 117 works – including sculpture, video and digital arts, photography, textiles and decorative arts – from 50 Native communities and cultures across North America are sensitively displayed by curators Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves, who began planning this show in 2013.

Many of the artwork labels are translated into the appropriate indigenous language; and there are small birchbark baskets in the corner of each room for Native people to leave offerings. American Indian lifeways, of course, are bound up in struggles for land and resources; and many of the artworks on display have unambiguous political messages. The dramatic, large-format photograph by Zoë Urness (Tlingit), for example, captures Water Protectors at Standing Rock marching through a snowstorm. (You can see the artwork at: http://firstamericanartmagazine.com/urness-photo.)
The meticulous artistry on display likely will elicit emotional responses. Standing before some of these artworks, I was nearly brought to tears.

Glencore in focus
In mid-July, the Star Tribune published a story about Glencore, the Swiss-based mining company, that has taken a majority share in PolyMet Mining. As readers of this column over the past dozen years know, PolyMet is the firm behind the copper-nickel mining scheme in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The proposed hard rock mining venture, a first for Minnesota, has been fought by environmentalists and Ojibwe bands concerned that mine wastewater could pollute rivers, streams and groundwater. Of particular concern to the Ojibwe bands in the region is the possibility of sulfide pollution destroying stands of wild rice.

The Star Tribune story described Glencore as the “world’s largest publicly traded companies, with more than $200 billion in annual revenue on operations stretching from Australia to central Africa.” The July 13 article also points out that “none of Glencore’s operations have generated as much controversy recently as its copper and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).”

In plain language, Glencore is a global predator that operates with the connivance of corrupt and pliable governments in the less-developed world. The sulfide mining plays in northeastern Minnesota have always struck me as evidence that our state is being colonized by foreign companies looking to extract mineral resources. The other Up North mining venture, the Twin Metals Minnesota project, which proposes a massive copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is being pushed by Antofagasta PLC, a Chile-based copper mining firm.

Regarding the Glencore/PolyMet project, Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, released the following statement in late July: “Glencore’s worldwide record of environmental disasters, violations of human rights and disregard for workers and labor rights speaks for itself. With former BP CEO Tony Hayward at the helm of Glencore, Minnesota may soon face our own version of the Gulf oil spill. The terrible record of Glencore and its leaders should concern every Minnesotan.”

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s state and federal elected officials have mainly expressed support for the PolyMet project. One exception is U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who has pushed back on bipartisan efforts to grease the skids for copper-nickel mining.

And as you might expect, no resource extraction scheme comes without a scandal; and the PolyMet sulfide mine involves a doozy. A recently released email shows that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) leaned on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to keep their criticisms of the PolyMet environmental review out of the written record.

In a July 12 op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, state Sen. John Marty wrote: “There is no good explanation for the MPCA’s telling EPA scientists and engineers – who are responsible for protecting our waters – to refrain from sending their detailed concerns in writing. The chosen alternative of rapidly reading a letter over the phone should have raised red flags.”

Marty also quoted the Timberjay newspaper in Ely, which stated, “Let’s make no bones about it – this appears to be a significant state agency scandal suggesting intentional malfeasance by top officials in the MPCA. Failure to investigate how this happened would seriously undermine the public’s confidence in state environmental regulators.”

And Marty also noted that Betty McCollum, the St. Paul area DFL congresswoman, has declared that the MPCA official’s email “appears to represent an absolutely intolerable breach of the public trust by two regulatory agencies,” and that the public has the right to question “whether the PolyMet permitting process was rigged against the legitimate environmental and public health interests of Minnesotans.”

Apart from this scandal, the PolyMet mine is a disaster waiting to happen.