Upper Peninsula Looks Ahead, And Back, as Mine Interests Call

Environmentalists oppose a proposed nickel mine run by Kennecott Minerals Co.  because it would tap into sulfide ore bodies, which, when exposed to air, produce sulfuric acid.
Environmentalists oppose a proposed nickel mine run by Kennecott Minerals Co. because it would tap into sulfide ore bodies, which, when exposed to air, produce sulfuric acid. (By Brian Halbrook -- Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

MARQUETTE, Mich. -- Like much of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Marquette was built on mining. Thousands of Irish, German, Polish, Italian and other immigrants arrived here in the late 1800s and early 1900s to forge new lives in the copper and iron mines.

As mines closed during the mid-1900s and many residents fled to the auto industry in Detroit, the town and the region struggled.

Now, thanks to rapidly rising metal prices, international mining companies are again interested in the Upper Peninsula. A subsidiary of industry giant Rio Tinto wants to open the country's largest nickel mine about 25 miles from Marquette, and various companies are prospecting for copper, nickel, uranium and other materials.

One would think they would be welcomed with open arms.

Think again.

The region has moved on. Tourism built on activities such as hunting, fishing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, skiing and kayaking has become its economic mainstay. Many residents say they don't want this greener economy sullied by mining.

In Big Bay, a quaint, woodsy town seven miles from the proposed nickel mine, windows sport hand-lettered anti-mining signs and "No Sulfide Mining" is painted in large letters on the slouching hulk of an old barn.

Environmentalists are especially concerned about the proposed nickel mine, known as the Eagle Project and run by Kennecott Minerals Co., since it would tap into sulfide ore bodies, which, when exposed to air, produce sulfuric acid as a byproduct.

The proposed mine is also four miles from the Huron Mountain Club, a private wilderness reserve where 50 families have vacation homes amid old-growth forest dotted with lakes and the Salmon Trout River, home to the rare coaster brook trout.

"This area is so sufficiently unusual, precious and delicate that the mine should not be located here," said Peter Dykema, a Washington lawyer and sixth-generation club member. "We're not against mining -- the world needs nickel and Michigan needs jobs. But it shouldn't be here."

Kennecott project manager Jon Cherry said the mine would operate for about eight years and would be completely cleaned up a few years past that. He said potentially acid-producing waste would be contained in a double-lined pad and water quality would be restored.

But environmentalists contend that accidents are bound to happen.

"Nothing is totally leakproof," said Sierra Club forest ecologist Marvin Roberson. "One bad winter runoff could contaminate the stream and kill off all the coasters."

"I don't see anything good coming out of this, but I see the potential for a lot of harm," said Gary Cook, Huron Mountain Club security director. "What the local, state and federal governments are getting out of it is minuscule."

Still, many residents see the mine as an economic opportunity that the area would be foolish to pass up.

Tony Retaskie, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Construction Council and a Marquette native, thinks here is as good a place as any.

"It would open up a lot of opportunities in the UP, it would be a much-needed boost for the area," Retaskie said. "I think a lot of people feel that way but they don't want to go public supporting the mine."

Tom Petersen, an Upper Peninsula native and retired mining engineer, thinks opponents have exaggerated the risks.

"There are die-hard environmentalists who just don't want any mining," said Petersen, 57. "If this one goes ahead and is successful, it will open the way for other mines. These groups are trying to keep the camel's nose out of the tent."

Kennecott controls 500,000 acres of mineral rights in the area, most acquired in the past decade. Michelle Halley, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, calls this part of a "mineral rights rush."

The Canadian company Prime Meridian Resources is exploring close to the Eagle Project, and near the Wisconsin border Aquila Resources Inc. is studying the viability of mining zinc, gold, copper and silver. In addition, Bitterroot Resources is prospecting for uranium in the region and two sulfide ore mines have been proposed along the same midcontinental rift in northern Minnesota.

Kennecott must comply with a 2004 state law regulating sulfide mining, drafted by a committee of industry and environmental representatives and considered the strictest in the nation. Cherry is confident the company will win approval for the project.

But Russ Magnaghi, director of Upper Peninsula studies at Northern Michigan University, fears that a new mining surge could mean history repeating itself.

"You have people talking about our heritage, that this is what made us great and if we have it again we'll be great again," he said. "Mining can seem romantic. But the reality is it's very destructive to the environment, and it's a very temporary thing. Are tourists going to vacation at an industrial site? You could end up with no tourism, no mining, no nothing."

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