The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Battle Over Michigan Sulfide Mines Heats Up

Enviros score small victory in long fight against polluting industry

by Kari Lydersen

In an early round of bureaucratic wrangling, Michigan environmental officials have withdrawn their proposal to allow a sulfide mine in a relatively untouched part of the state.

Apr. 16, 2007 – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, known as one of the least-developed natural regions in the Midwest, has recently attracted a slew of international mining conglomerates looking to cash in on rising metal prices. But the prospect of new mining has also drawn strong opposition, as the nickel, copper, uranium and other reserves the companies want to exploit are locked in sulfide ore bodies, which create toxic sulfuric acid when exposed to air.

On March 1, environmentalists scored a surprise victory when the state revoked its own proposal to grant permits to the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company, a subsidiary of international giant Rio Tinto, after top officials were made aware of critical technical reports by an outside consultant that had not been entered into the public record. Michigan has what is considered one of the strictest laws in the nation regulating sulfide mining.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had proposed in January to approve the mine, despite intense local opposition from a wide range of parties going back several years. Activists opposed to the Eagle Project Mine say they have sent more than 10,000 petition signatures to Governor Jennifer Granholm. They oppose the mine because of its potential to damage local water supplies, forests and a sacred Native American site. The DEQ’s revocation of the permits came just days before scheduled public hearings in Marquette and Lansing, where large protests against the mine were planned.

Nationwide, acid mine drainage from sulfide mines is estimated to have polluted 12,000 miles of rivers and streams.

The Eagle Project, as Kennecott’s mine is known, is so controversial in part because of the serious environmental dangers associated with sulfide mining.

Nationwide, acid mine drainage from sulfide mines is estimated to have polluted 12,000 miles of rivers and streams, along with more than 180,000 acres of lakes and water impoundments, according to a study by the Environmental Mining Council of British Columbia.

Though Kennecott promises acid-producing ore from the Eagle mine would be adequately contained during the seven- to eight-year life of the mine and then fully removed, opponents say the danger of sulfuric acid leakage into groundwater and soil is too great.

"Sulfide mining has had a pretty bad record, especially in respect to water," said Dick Huey, who founded the group Save the Wild UP in 2004 to fight proposed sulfide mines. "We are in this water-rich environment between the two Great Lakes."

Mine opponents say the suppression of the critical reports raises suspicion that authorities are not meeting their mandates to provide for an extensive, informed public-input process.

Reports by HCItasca Consulting Group, an independent agency hired by the state, said aspects of the Eagle Mine proposal did not meet industry best practices and posed risks related to the stability of the "crown pillar," as the mine ceiling is known.

Mine opponents say the suppression of the critical reports raises suspicion that authorities are not meeting their mandates to provide for an extensive, informed public-input process.

Michelle Halley, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the environmental groups opposing the mine, said she had heard about the reports’ existence in February, but was surprised they had not shown up in documents released through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request she and the local Keweenaw tribe had filed. She said they told the DEQ director about the missing reports.

"To their credit, they did the right thing and pulled the preliminary approval," she said.

DEQ officials said in a March 1 statement that the reports "were not properly made part of the public record or given a comprehensive technical review." DEQ spokesperson Robert McCann said Kennecott’s application is indefinitely on hold while the department investigates both the suppression of the report and the technical aspects of Kennecott’s proposal.

Meanwhile, Halley is worried that other documents and studies may have been left out of the public record.

While mine opponents are relieved at the indefinite stalling of the Eagle Project, it is still clearly on the table. The Michigan DEQ stated that it will conduct "an extensive procedural review" to determine why the Itasca reports were suppressed. The DEQ says it will post eventual findings on its website.

In a press release, Kennecott Eagle project manager Jon Cherry said, "We are very disappointed with this decision, since it does not appear to have anything substantively to do with the draft permit and conditions. But we will work cooperatively with MDEQ once MDEQ gets the process back on track."

‘A Severely Leaking Ship’

For the Eagle Project, Kennecott proposes to blast a hole into Eagle Rock, which nearby Keweenaw tribal members consider a sacred site. According to Kennecott, miners would tunnel about a quarter mile from there to the ore deposit. Along with the actual mine, the project would entail constructing a reservoir for displaced sulfide ore, building and widening roads, expanding the power grid, and increasing truck traffic along small forest roads.

“This is not about one mine; it’s about a new sulfide mining district.”

Opponents say the mine and surrounding development would wreak irreparable destruction on the fragile Yellow Dog Plain, a mostly uninhabited roadless area south of Lake Superior, surrounded by forests and the headwaters of the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers.

In a letter to the DEQ, Johns Hopkins University science professor Bruce Marsh compared the proposed mine to "a severely leaking ship."

"The mine goes deep into the water table, and the water must be vigorously pumped out to keep the mine dry," Marsh wrote. He concluded that the mine "will alter the water system in ways that will almost certainly severely damage this land forever. The forest may die; streams may dry up. Regardless of the adherence to environmental laws, this mine will irreversibly damage singularly beautiful and majestic Michigan wild land." 

The area’s waters have added ecological importance since the Salmon Trout River, which runs directly through the mine site, is habitat for a rare fish called the coaster brook trout.

The battle over the proposed Eagle mine is especially significant since it is the first test of the Michigan state law regarding sulfide mining. The law, drafted by a committee that includes environmentalists and mining officials, provides a public input process and mandates companies set aside funds for remediation once the project is done.

Both supporters and opponents of the mine say the way the Eagle Project plays out will set the standard for how the state implements the law and deals with future mining applications. If metal prices stay high, they expect, a host of new mines will likely be proposed over the coming decade around the Upper Peninsula.

"This is not about one mine; it’s about a new sulfide mining district," said Huey of Save the Wild UP.

As exploration and proposals for sulfide mining have increased, so has awareness and opposition to the practice. In order to obtain a sulfide mining permit in Wisconsin, a company has to show that, somewhere in the US or Canada, such a mine has operated for ten years without acid drainage and that it or another mine has gone a decade after closure without contaminating the environment. No sulfide mining proposals have been approved in Wisconsin since the law’s passage in 1998.

Another sulfide mine known as the "Back Forty Project" is already proposed in Menominee County, in the southern part of the Upper Peninsula, by the company Aquila Resources. A March 2 press release from the Canadian mining company Prime Meridian Resources describes its ongoing experimental drilling in northern Michigan, looking for significant deposits of nickel, copper, platinum, palladium and gold "similar to Kennecott Rio-Tinto’s Eagle Deposit." And another Canadian company, Bitterroot Resources, is prospecting for uranium in the western Upper Peninsula, raising additional health concerns because of the element’s radioactivity.

There is also intense opposition to at least two sulfide mines proposed near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters by Polymet Mining.

"The companies are swarming in at this point, and the [Department of Natural Resources] and DEQ are very ill-equipped to deal with this mineral-rights rush," Halley said.    

Kennecott has promised the Eagle Mine will create about 120 jobs. Mining copper, iron and other metals was once the mainstay of the Upper Peninsula’s economy, with hundreds of sites operating in the early 1900s. But since most mines closed decades ago, tourism, hunting and fishing are the primary economic engines of the still relatively unpopulated area.

Opponents predict the jobs created by the mine would be offset by damage to the tourism and outdoors industries because of the mine’s effect on fish, wildlife and natural beauty. And they point out the mine is planned to last less than a decade before the metals are tapped out; meaning whatever jobs are created would be temporary.

"This goes to the heart of the ‘Michigan water wonderland,’ ‘pure Michigan,’" said Huey of Save the Wild UP. "All these [tourism] initiatives that depend on the water and the quality of the environment are absolutely at risk with sulfide mining."

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Kari Lydersen: