Kennecott loses road decision; worries intensify over U.P. mine

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Locals oppose sulfide mining in Big Bay, near the mine site. Photo: Kari Lydersen

By Kari Lydersen

The winding, narrow road between Big Bay and Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is usually plied by tourists, Northern Michigan University college students and locals — likely on their way to snowmobile, cross-country ski, fish or kayak in the cobalt blue waters of Lake Superior or the surrounding woods and wetlands.

But now residents, elected officials and business owners are worried and angry that these pleasant scenic roads — sometimes icy and treacherous in winter — could be widened and reinforced to support an endless stream of trucks carrying equipment and ore to and from the mine that Kennecott Minerals is in the process of opening on the Yellow Dog Plains near Big Bay.

In January Kennecott suffered a major blow when the US Environmental Protection Agency ruled, after a meeting with various government agencies, that Kennecott cannot construct the new Woodland Road it had proposed through wetlands and forest from the mine site to a reopened ore mill about 22 miles away. Kennecott had invested $8 million over five years in preparing to build the road. It had starting last spring cleared the mine entrance — at Eagle Rock, which local tribes consider sacred — on the presumption ore expelled from the mouth could be trucked conveniently to the mill where millions of dollars worth of nickel and other metals would be extracted.

Kennecott, a subsidiary of the London-based mining giant Rio Tinto, has also been considering greatly expanding a seasonal logging road, known as county road 595. In January it announced it had dropped that plan because the permitting process would take too long and locals were concerned about the environmental impacts on surrounding forest. The company announced it would seek to use the aforementioned existing road through Marquette.

Mayor: Routing trucks through city is deal breaker

But Marquette Mayor John Kivela said he has “zero intention of allowing trucks through Marquette.” Kivela strongly supports the Eagle Project in general, saying “the Upper Peninsula’s identity has always been about mining, and it still is.” He said Kennecott officials told him in a February meeting that they are still pursuing permits for county road 595. Much as he thinks the mine will create jobs and needed economic stimulus, if Kennecott tries to bring about 80 mining trucks a day through “the heart of Northern Michigan University campus” — where President Obama spoke on Feb. 13 — it will be a deal breaker.

“I was elected to support the residents of Marquette, not a foreign company,” he said. “It all comes down to money, there are other routes they could take. Of course they want to spend as little as possible, but that’s not my responsibility.”

Big Bay resident Cynthia Pryor thinks there will be devastating environmental and quality of life consequences from any road Kennecott builds or

Cynthia Pryor says "things will never be the same here" once the Kennecott mine is built. Photo: Kari Lydersen

expands, and from the project as a whole.

“This place will never be the same,” said Pryor, who has been organizing against the proposed mine for a decade.

Pryor said opposition to the mine has been increasing lately as people who were enticed by the promise of jobs and tax dollars are growing increasingly concerned about the road issue, increased electricity rates related to the mine and other impacts. She said the fact that Kennecott began clearing the mine site and developing electricity infrastructure before a road to the mill was in place is increasing residents’ skepticism of the company.

“People are starting to see how Kennecott is trying to push things through under the carpet without doing it the right way,” she said. “Now they are building a mine out there and they don’t have a transportation route to it — what kind of business plan is that?”

The mine would tap into sulfide ore which produces sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen. Among the multiple environmental and quality-of-life impacts of the mine, opponents are furious that it could contaminate their beloved pure waters. Residents drink right out of the cold clear streams, the lush wetlands are alive with countless groundwater “seeps” and the area is the headwaters of the Salmon Trout, an acclaimed fishing river that flows into the nearby vast blue expanse of Lake Superior.

Critics say access to public water is corporate welfare

Even if copper and other metals or contaminants mobilized by the mining process remain within drinking water standards, notes Pryor, that still could mean levels exponentially higher than current content.

Kennecott has promised jobs and general economic stimulation, winning significant support from business leaders, local residents and elected officials in the economically-depressed area. The mine is predicted to produce 300 million pounds of nickel and 200 million pounds of copper along with some other metals over its 20-year lifetime, making it the country’s largest nickel mine. Company officials peg its economic impact at $350 million, with production slated to begin in late 2013. (Kennecott did not respond to a request for comment.)

Pryor and other opponents have sought to block the mine through lawsuits, public campaigns, lobbying elected officials, protests and even an occupation by members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribe. Pryor and tribal members have been arrested in the past year near the site. Tribal member and environmental activist Jessica Koski flew to London last summer to testify at Rio Tinto’s shareholder meeting.

Opponents hope the decision on the road signals government officials may otherwise intervene in the case. Previously, the U.S. EPA had decided Kennecott did not need a federal groundwater permit to proceed, a decision that disappointed opponents who felt like the federal government was giving a free pass to the mining company. Before that decision came down, documents published in 2009 by the National Wildlife Foundation revealed Kennecott had been ignoring the EPA’s requests for information for three years and proceeding with development as if no permit was needed.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 2008 granted Kennecott a 40-year lease on public land around Eagle Rock, a move National Wildlife Federation attorney Michelle Halley referred to as “corporate welfare,” closing off lands and waters “that are paid for and enjoyed by taxpayers to grant exclusive access to those lands to a company for private gain and with no permanent ties to the state.” The agreement called for only $4,000 annually spent on water quality monitoring, which Halley and other opponents say is nowhere near enough for meaningful testing for “acid mine drainage” — a common effect of mining in sulfide ore — or other contamination issues.

Can UP’s economic future be both mining and tourism?

In towns built on iron mining and gold mining, locals like those in the Iron Inn on a winter night look forward to the jobs promised by Kennecott. Photo: Kari Lydersen

Many local residents see the battle over the nickel mine as highly symbolic and indicative of the larger economic and environmental future of the Upper Peninsula — potentially characterized by either a resurgence of metal mining or increased tourism and outdoors recreation. Kennecott officials and mine supporters have said the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but mine opponents don’t buy it.

At the same time state boosters are promoting the state’s water as a major asset, they note, state agencies are allowing a private company to take over public land and irreversibly alter its water and other natural resources. Local activists have for years been monitoring water on the Yellow Dog Plains, so they will have benchmarks for comparison if mining starts. Pryor said they are embarking on a year-long intensive water monitoring project that will adhere to the same standards as a bi-national Lake Superior monitoring program undertaken by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Chauncey Moran, who moved to a cabin nearby specifically to help protect the area’s water and ecology, spends long days trekking through the forests or snowmobiling down icy roads to collect water samples. He fears seeing an uptick in metals and pollutants, and he notes that all the samples he and students who help him have collected so far will compared to future results likely demonstrate the effects of sulfide mining — and he hopes inform other communities where mines are proposed.

“The future of clean water rests on prevention and establishing defensible, repeatable and irrefutable baseline data that demonstrates the fragility of our ground and surface waters,” Moran said. “These actions will validate what levels of prevention or remediation, if any, have been effective for maintaining high quality waters seven generations and beyond.”

“Our water is so pure, purer than you can find just about anywhere,” Pryor said. “What they want to do here is a travesty.”

19 thoughts on “Kennecott loses road decision; worries intensify over U.P. mine

  1. Greg has a point. We need to take responsibility for how mineral extraction is carried out. We definitely need over-site from both environmental groups and professionals, such as engineers and geologist, to work together to make mining responsible. The need for raw materials, especially the strategic and rare earth minerals is very important to both the economy and the environment. The high tech circuitry, batteries, alloys and other components we need to be more energy efficient and environmentally responsible do not come out of thin air. (for the most part)
    I became an Economic Geologist so I could change the way we extract minerals from the earth, to give us the materials we need and mitigate the damage we cause. Get involve and try to make a win-win situation out of this!

  2. Really Greg? You don’t think that the trees and water ARE wealth? That vegetation IS food? Environmentalism does not have to preclude sound economics. What good is colored paper when we have no water do drink and to regulate climate and no trees to hold our soil in place and help keep our water clean?

  3. Hey Greg, we have been thru this before in the 1800s when the robber barons stripped the land clean of trees and dug mines with no regulation at all. All to fill bellies and build cities, and it took a century to clean up the mess when the barons walked away. So you want to begin the process again for the very same reasons. Maybe we should not have had so many kids and allowed everyone and their brother to immigrate here, and built our economy on consumerism. Then we wouldn’t have to plunder our natural resources especially those that have a possibility of degrading our life blood, air and water. As long as we humans continue to breed ourselves beyond the capacity of our habitat there will always be the same argument, “it is necessary to feed and shelter us”. That is until it all runs out, what then? Well why should we care, we won’t be here to face that prospect, right?

  4. You environmentalist kill me. Save the trees and water as the US goes broke. What good are trees and water when we have no money to buy food and shelter. I am a civil engineer and anything can be built with the right design. Become an engineer and make sure the right designs are done. Don’t just sit there and complain.

  5. I cannot believe that this company will not be paying the
    state of michigan for the right to mine these minerals. I do believe that this type of mining operation has been done before in the united states with good results in reclaiming the land after the mining of the ore in accomplished.

  6. I was appalled at the community forum in Big Bay. Kennecott showed two beautiful small children playing in the dirt at the end of their power point and left that slide up during the forum. What an insult to the community!!! They must think we are all morons!!! It’s one thing for Kennecott and Rio Tinto personnel to have no conscience; it’s another to insult the entire community…..but I guess that goes hand in hand.

  7. Pingback: » Great Lakes Echo:Kennecott loses road decision; worries intensify over U.P. mine

  8. For what it’s worth, Michigan Sea Grant just released an analysis of regional jobs and economy directly related to the Great Lakes. You may find it relevant/interesting in this context or just in general.
    Link to PDF:

  9. In addition, Rio tinto, a foreign company, is not paying taxes to state of Michigan for extraction of minerals belonging to the people of Michigan. No excise or severance tax! Just taking the minerals and leaving us with environmental disaster.

  10. For the life of me I cannot figure out why our government is so willing to sell out it’s people and our beautiful, pristine U.P. to a foreign based company for basically a shilling. They boast the slogan “Pure Michigan”. Do they not research the environmental damage that follows sulfide mining? This is not iron ore mining, this is sulfide mining! Totally, totally different! How can you have a “pure Michigan” without pure water?


    Perhaps you folks don’t understand what a good neighbor Kennecott can be.

    In their latest release Mother Rio Tinto tells us that the mining operation is to last six years, not ten, not eight, but only six years.

    You don’t have to believe it, but that’s what they say.

    They have no plan to recover the additional 8,000,000 tonnes of disseminated sulfides, worth around $1,700,000,000, which means that they still intend to “hi-grade” the deposit – so not recovering the resource in a responsible manner – which our DNR is supposed to require them to do.

    But in each of those six years Kennecott intends to haul away more than $500,000,000 dollars-worth of our metals, probably to Ontario.

    Thus they will haul away more than $3,500,000,000 dollars worth.


    Now those good neighbors are manipulating the locals, cajoling, bribing, blackmailing as deemed necessary, to get us – State or Federal – to build a haul road for them.

    Be aware that we are being used by a foreign giant with a bottomless budget and hordes of lawyers. Hang on to your wallet, and control of our resources. Please do that.

    jp 2.23.2011

  12. Kennecott is owned by Rio Tinto one of the largest multinational mining companies. It has a despicable track record of environmental and human rights abuses throughout the third world. This will not be just one sulfide mine, it is the forerunner of several and is being used to break thru the legal and societal objections. Rio Tinto considers the U.P. to be a mining district and fair game for extraction of a number of minerals. The geological formation in which these sulfide minerals are found encompasses the U.P., northern lower MI, northern WI, northern MN, and also underlaying Lake Superior and northern Lake Michigan. This whole region is ripe for mining by foreign companies. When it is all over and done, this region will look like mining districts all over the world that have been exploited by Rio Tinto, devastated. But that is what the vocal minority wants. My age will preclude me from being able to see first hand what the inevitable result will be, but my children, and their’s also, will be faced with the aftermath. The minerals mined will eventually feed China’s insatiable appetite and the $buck stops nowhere but in the pockets of the exploiters.

  13. I sincerely hope that this mine project gets killed. Trading short-term economic gain for the sort of permanent environmental degradation and devastation that comes with these sorts of mines is a bad deal for everyone but the owners of the mine, who will walk away with their pockets full and without a thought for the damage they’ve created.

    Keep up the good fight Cynthia Pryor, et al.

  14. This is not your typical mine and mining operation..this is a SULFIDE MINE project, a completely different animal! Investigate the problems it could (and always has) caused. Irreparable!

  15. I’d be curious to see how many jobs this project will actually bring to locals in the area. This type of extraction is so mechanized now, I find it hard to believe it would be a significant number.

    Good article.

  16. Kari,
    Thanks for the excellent article; the divide between the future possibilities for the UP’s economy deserves more attention I feel, and you brought that. As a recently new resident to the western UP I have been struck by the lack of perspective regarding mining verses tourism. Mining seems to be viewed by native “yoopers” as universally positive, with no thought to the environmental costs, especially with regard to environmental tourism. The mines are not sustainable; by their very nature their tenure is limited, and when they are gone, what is left? Particularly using public lands, we are robbing ourselves of future economic income by taking those lands out of the realm of hiking, paddling, skiing etc…

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