More U.P. mining in Michigan’s U.P. worries enviros

By Patrick Lyons

Capital News Service

LANSING – A renewed interest in mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could provide funding for state parks and boost local economies.

Three mining projects are in development or underway in the U.P: Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. near Marquette; Orvana Minerals Corp. in Gogebic County; and Aquila Resources Inc. and Hudbay Minerals Inc. near Stephenson.

Iron ore mines started popping up in the Upper Peninsula in the mid 1800s. Photo: Michigan State Archives (geo.msu.edu)

Prior to the renewed interest, mining has decreased in the region.

The last copper mine in the U.P., White Pine Mine, closed in 1996, although some iron ore mines remained in production, said Theodore Bornhorst, a professor of geological and mining engineering at Michigan Tech University.

He said a variety of technologies play a role in the revival.

“There are new technologies — space-based things, airplane measurements and geophysical measurements — that allow us a much better look at the subsurface and that allow us to find things that we weren’t able to find before,” Bornhorst said.

Advances in safety and waste disposal have also improved prospects for the mining industry, he said. Better processing technologies allow miners to recover more metal and put less of it into the waste pile. That allows companies to boost efficiency and profits.

And larger profit opportunities are the reason companies are again showing interest in mining the region.

The price of copper has risen from around 60 or 70 cents per pound in 1980 to nearly $3.80 per pound today, Bornhorst said. At those prices, mineral deposits that couldn’t be mined cost-effectively 30 years ago are now worth the investment.

Mining companies are not the only ones that stand to profit from the new operations, said Thomas Hoane, a geologist for the Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources Minerals Management Section.

Hoane said the state owns the surface property of the mines and leases the land to the companies, which must acquire a lease before anything can be done on the land. Funds from the leases go into the state park endowment fund.

Hoane said the economic impact will be felt locally as well.

“There are a lot of people in the western U.P. that see this as a possibility for gaining jobs, not just with the mining. You have more people buying food, going to restaurants, buying clothing … they see it as an economic gain for the western U.P.,” Hoane said.

Kennecott Eagle Minerals has been developing its Eagle Project nickel-copper mining project, 25 miles northwest of Marquette, since 2002. Kennecott said it will start mining operations next year and plans to extract 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper over a projected mine lifespan of seven to eight years.

It will also refurbish the Humboldt Mill for processing. Once both sites are operating, Kennecott said it expects to employ more than 280 people.

Jon Saari, the treasurer of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, said his group is concerned about plans for Kennecott to build a new haul road between the mine and mill. He said the road would go through previously untouched forest and wetland areas, and current roads should be used instead.

Orvana Minerals said it will mine both copper and silver at the Copperwood mine northeast of Ironwood, near the shore of Lake Superior. Orvana plans to collect 852 million pounds of copper and 242,000 pounds of silver.

The company will begin production around 2014.

There are questions about how waste from the mine will be handled, said John Coleman, the environmental section leader of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

However Orvana’s permit was approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in February.

Aquila Resources and Hudbay Minerals have partnered to mine gold, silver, copper and zinc from their Back Forty project in Menominee County, 12 miles west of Stephenson.

Based on testing, the combination of open pit and underground mining could produce 56,688 pounds of gold; 706,875 pounds of silver; 963 million pounds of zinc; and 75.8 million pounds of copper, according to Aquila.

The project is opposed by a group called the Front 40.

The organization is concerned about the effect sulfide mining will have on the environment, including acid drainage from mines, use of cyanide in processing gold and forest degradation associated with open pit mining, said Ron Henriksen, a member of the group.

  • Alfred

    Be careful how you throw the phrase “sulfide mining” around. It’s not a scientific term, and it’s a misused on a regular basis. It’s used by sensationalists to confuse people. Mining can be a messy business, as it’s susceptible to greed and corruption. But don’t forget that environmentalism is now a big business too – susceptible to the same vices. Many extraordinary, yet false claims are made by such “big environmentalists”. I’m not saying that there aren’t concerns associated with mining – I’m a conservationist. But to say it can’t be done responsibly is absurd. The doomsdayers are assuming worst case scenarios, and incorrectly extrapolating disasterous results in other locales to ours. Do your homework before you demonize processes you don’t understand. Try this: run the phrase “sulfide mining” by a good geologist, and they’ll most likely laugh at you and explain it as a misnomer. You can’t classify all prescious metals (very few actually) mentioned in this article as sulfides. Copper alone can occur in several forms, i.e. as a sulfide, oxide, silicate, chloride, etc.

  • Craig

    Let the mining commence!! Let there be jobs and those jobs created won’t be in the U.P. alone.

    Let there be revenue to townships, counties, state and residents!!

    Let the state park endowment fund grow and grow. Think of all the wonderful improvements that will benefit everyone who visits these parks, tourists and citizens alike.

    Just because people seem to want to preserve the “pristine beauty” doesn’t mean they are willing to change their way of life to do that. Are you going to cease using copper and nickel bearing products?? Are you going to stop the world economy from using them?? It’s time to be realists instead of dreamers!!!

  • Gail

    I believe that any type of environmental destruction for the sake of huge corporate profits and a handful of cash for the local residents area is simply WRONG.
    This is the same scenario as industrial robber barons of days gone by. It will never be worth it, just look at the Copper Country, has it come back to it’s natural pristine beauty?

  • Douglas A. DeVoid

    Some of the contributing factors to the Upper Peninsula’s shifts in population are the boom and bust cycles of the timber and mining industries, as found in Wikipedia.com Here we are in the boom era again but I am afraid that the bust will be in tourism which has become the main industry in recent decades in the Upper Peninsula. Just a brief look at the effects of sulfide mining and acid drainage from mines is enough to make any tourist run for cover. For those who like jewelry made of gold and silver at any price this should be welcome news. At such a great expense to life and habitat I to wonder at what end will Aquila Resources, Hudbay Minerals and government stop abusing our environment? Perhaps we should make a golden calf to symbolize the Upper Peninsula? What a beautiful place the Upper Peninsula is! To spoil and upset another part of our world here in The Great State of Michigan is an atrocity! Thank you Paul my exact same sentiments “I wonder at what cost.”

  • Paul

    The MI DEQ keeps issuing new permits for sulfide mines, like clockwork. It makes you wonder if they are trying to outdo the speed of the previous permitting process. Just as John Coleman does, I wonder what will be done with the extremely toxic waste. Oh, I know, the industry says “no problem”, they will take care of it. Well, the history of sulfide mining is replete with problems that were never resolved, just look out West and only to WI for verification. I suspect that the citizens of MI will eventually pay for the pleasure, both the damage and the clean up. But, that 4 letter word, JOBS, is all powerful, not just for politicians and businessmen, but, now for DEQ bureaucrats. As someone born and raised and living in the U.P., I am sensitive to the need for jobs, but, I wonder at what cost.