On February 25th, the State of Nevada issued three permits to Canadian mining company Lithium Nevada, legally authorizing them to pollute air, water, and soils with toxic and dangerous substances including arsenic, antimony, uranium, sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide, and millions of tons of greenhouse gases.
These permits protect the corporation from legal liability for polluting and other destructive actions that are morally reprehensible and would be punishable by law if committed by an individual.
By definition, a permit is a legal document giving permission to an individual or organization for activities that would otherwise be illegal. Therefore, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which issued these permits, is not protecting the environment, but rather legalizing its destruction.
It should not be surprising that NDEP issued these permits, because regulations are often written to prioritize the rights of corporations over the rights of nature and human communities.
An NDEP employee stated in a public meeting last year that the agency “never denies permits.” NDEP Administrator Greg Lovato later clarified, explaining that his agency works with companies to improve permit applications that don’t meet state guidelines. This is exactly the problem. Our public employees, supposedly dedicated to protecting the environment, are working with destructive industries to ensure their operations are legal and protect them from liability. All paid for by your tax dollars.
By permitting the Thacker Pass mine over the objections of local people and tribes, NDEP is not serving the public, they are serving corporate interests. By permitting the destruction of essential habitat for declining wildlife species and permitting the release of toxic substances into air, water, and soil, NDEP is not protecting the environment, they are making the problem worse.
Most importantly, agencies like NDEP shift the conversation from “Should Lithium Nevada be allowed to destroy Thacker Pass?” to “How many parts-per-million of pollution will they be allowed to emit?” In that diversion, the world is lost.
The great corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris wrote that “It is not corporations but the public that is regulated by regulatory agencies. Their main functions are now to legitimize public harm, act as energy sinks for citizen activism, and protect corporations from upset citizens.” And in fact, the first U.S. regulatory body, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was set up with assent and deep involvement of the industries it regulated.
There was once a time when people had direct recourse against corporate pirates such as Lithium Nevada. Throughout most of human history, anyone working to poison the local water supply or destroy vast swathes of land would either be run off or killed. Now, the illusion of a participatory process (“you submitted your public comment, didn’t you?”) creates an effective buffer between angry communities and corporate pillagers.
Corporations have outsized influence at all levels of governance and oversight. Corporations have the money to lobby decision-makers. Lithium Nevada has spent $310,000 on lobbying over the past 5 years, hiring a company called Harbinger Strategies, a leading lobbying firm with clients including the Airline industry, major banks and investment firms, mining companies, biotech, the military-industrial complex, Facebook, electric utilities, General Electric, and the oil and gas industry. Harbinger’s staff include former senior staff to top Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and they advertise a “boutique model” of lobbying that “gets results.”
Lithium Nevada’s money has been well-spent. They have been promised at least $8.6 million in direct subsidies, and far more in indirect subsidies. Even more is pending. Corporations use the promise of tax revenue and jobs to influence politicians. Corporations benefit from the revolving door for employees between regulatory agencies and industry. And corporations have achieved victory after victory in the U.S. legal system, gaining rights equal to and often exceeding the rights afforded to so-called “natural persons” — AKA, you and me. Most recently, the “Citizens United” decision essentially legalized bribery.
As attorney Will Falk writes, “between 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and 1912, the Supreme Court ruled on only 28 cases involving the rights of African Americans and an astonishing 312 cases on the rights of corporations, it is easy to conclude that the Fourteenth Amendment has done a better job protecting the rights of corporations than that of African Americans.”
These problems are significant and deeply entrenched, and contribute to the ecological crisis we face in this country and around the world. Climate change is accelerating. Oceanic dead zones are expanding at an alarming pace. The average mother’s breast milk contains some 350 industrial chemicals. Microplastic is found everywhere from Antarctica to the Arctic and we each consume a credit-card’s worth of plastic every single week in our food and water. In the western U.S., drought and habitat destruction are pushing countless species, from sage-grouse to trout and salmon, to the brink. And globally, more than 100 species are driven to extinction every single day.
We wouldn’t have these problems if our laws and regulatory system were sufficient. It is clear to anyone paying attention that they are not.
NDEP is not unique. Regulatory agencies across the United States largely serve corporate interests and regulate public involvement. Neither they nor electric vehicles will save us. That is why we need transformation of our political system that reverses corporate rule, transformation of our culture that lifts people and planet above profit, and transformation of our economic priorities that truly allows us to address global warming and the broader ecological crisis.