Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sic semper tyrannis

The photo you see below is of a Marion 8750 dragline used by the Falkirk Mining Company to remove "overburden" (top layers of soil). The strip mining operation is pretty standard for what you see in much of western North Dakota. This particular mine is about fifty miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota's state capitol. It is an incredibly large machine.

I had the opportunity once to see the inside of it while it was operating. That was an awe-inspiring experience. The body housing of the machine is three times as big as a standard, two story house. Once you are inside, the experience of the machine turning one way to the other is disorienting. It's like a big office building on roller skates spinning around. It spins as the boom moves from left to right to tear away at the soil.

When you get to the operator's chamber, a person can see through a plate glass window to the huge bucket that is suspended over the prairie by long, thick cables. The boom seems to thrust out for several football-fields length, but it probably is only seventy or eighty yards out. (The sheer, mammoth proportions tend to distort how far everything is away.)

I remember my words I spit out when I saw the dragline operator, working his little joystick back and forth and felt, saw, and heard hundreds of tons of prairie soil removed in one fell swoop: "If that doesn't give you a god complex, I don't know what would..."

The State of North Dakota likes its strip mines. They provide many jobs that otherwise wouldn't be in North Dakota. The mine's operations, therefore, are a main player in the state's big game of politics.

All that coal is burnt up in power plants to feed our nation's demand for more and more juice. The mine digs it up; they burn it; you turn on your light. Simple.

But, wait a minute! After the mines dig up the coal, what happens to all that dirt that's stripped away? Does it just lay around in piles?

This is how the mines used to do it all the time. In fact, there are some piles out there that are still laying around from mining prior to 1977 in North Dakota. They are big piles of infertile earth with weeds all over them.

But now, because of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, strip mines are required to reclaim the land they have torn apart to put it back into production. In essence, it's about putting the land back the way they found it. (At least in theory, it doesn't really work out that way.) This is the process called reclamation.

You can see an article of this whole process here (Falkirk Land Reclamation).

Well aren't those mines just the greatest thing since Fleischkeuchle came in little plastic bags!?

Hold on now...

One of the things that I have always found interesting is how self-congratulatory Falkirk mine is with its land reclamation.

Several years ago I went on a tour of the mine. It was a special tour that wasn't looking at the whole operation, but at the aspects of reclamation. As the bus glided across the mine's private roads, the guide on the microphone in the front explained the wonderful native grass and wildlife communities the mine was re-establishing. An average tourist, not knowing the history behind the mining laws, would think that the mine itself came up with these great ideas. When, in fact, it was the "wacko" environmentalists of the 70s who forced the mines through legislation and regulation who were the authors of these fine plans.

What we have to remember about corporations is they are not individual human beings with moral directives.

Corporations are neither moral nor amoral. Nor are they like your greedy little brother Nicky or your stingy Uncle Jack. They are different entities entirely. Their purpose for existence is to make money. Period.

So Falkirk mine, or any other mine, would NEVER choose to reclaim land unless they were forced to do so. Because it is a lot cheaper to dig the coal out of the ground and leave all the piles around to be somebody else's problem.

However, since the mine has to go through all that inconvenient--and expensive--process of separating all the soil out and putting it back, they might as well run tour buses through and tell about what great land stewards they are. It is only good public relations to do so (which makes investors feel a little better about themselves--and makes their pocketbooks a little looser, too).

'Sic semper tyrannus' means 'thus shall tyrants always be' in Latin. It is an acknowledgment that tyrants shall always be a certain way; it's no good trying to change the way that they are.

Big corporations are here, and they are here to stay. Any denial of this fact is wistful tomfoolery.

If enlightened, ecology-minded individuals are going to try to change corporations' practices that are wasteful, polluting and lack stewardship, they first must accede to the fact corporations are not individuals like you and me. Corporations are not people that a person can convince to be right for right's sake.

Instead, if individuals want to change large corporations' practices, political activism and legislative support are paramount.

In North Dakota, one such organization is Dakota Resource Council (www.drcinfo.com). Good, ethical people seek to work with like-minded organizations to lobby support to make change happen.

No one says that this is a perfect system. But if you want things to happen, "you gotta put a little muscle behind it."

That's the way tyrants are kept in check.