Friday, November 25, 2005

Are UP mining jobs worth the environmental risk?

Found this today in the Toledo Blade.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Mention the words mining and Upper Peninsula and most people think of copper, and a bygone era. Yet Kennecott Minerals has discovered a huge nickel deposit under an area in Marquette County - possibly a billion dollars worth, or more. Jon Cherry, Kennecott's project manager, said it holds the potential for about 120 jobs, mostly for local people, that would last seven to nine years. That would be a considerable economic plus, especially on the western half of the UP, where neither people nor jobs are in big supply. But environmentalists are not so sure this is a good idea. That's because the Eagle project is what is called a sulfide mine... (there's more)

This means that the process of getting out the nickel could, if something goes wrong, easily release sulfuric acid into nearby lakes and streams, one of which, the Salmon River, is the only place where a subspecies called the coaster brook trout live and spawn.

Phil Power, a former newspaper publisher, is torn over the issue. As the state chair of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, he is acutely sensitive to the need to safeguard Michigan's environment.

But Mr. Power is also vice-chair of the MEDC, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which is charged with bringing employment to a state which this week saw thousands of jobs eliminated by General Motors. "An intriguing and exciting idea," he said of the plan for the nickel mine. But not worth the risk in that area.

(This, to me, seems like a conflict of interest that should be brought to the attention of the Nature Conservancy Board of Trustees - Black Bear Speaks)

However, Kennecott's Jon Cherry said the mine would be safe. "Every precaution will be taken. The rules set a very high standard. We can meet all the rules, we can exceed them," he said. If Kennecott goes ahead with the mine, he pledged to set up a liner to make sure there is no seepage of acid from the rocks that would have to be disturbed to get at the nickel deposit.

However, even Mr. Cherry admits that preliminary studies show 80 percent of the rocks involved have the potential to generate sulfuric acid. "I have to say, better safe than sorry," said Mr. Power.

The state government also became concerned when it first learned more than two years ago that Kennecott was thinking about a sulfide mine. "That set off alarm bells," said Skip Pruss, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ.

"We believed we didn't have the regulatory tools to address sulfide mining," Mr. Pruss said. So in a rare show of bipartisanship, the legislature passed a law a year ago toughening mining regulations. It grants broad and exclusive authority to regulate mining to the DEQ, and requires strict standards for cleaning up a mine site and returning it to nature after it is no longer being run.

Since then, the various parties have been hammering out rules to govern mining in the state. The DEQ is holding public hearings on the proposed rules Nov. 29 in Escanaba, Nov. 30 in Marquette, and Dec. 7 in Lansing (check for details.)

Kennecott officials say they haven't made the final decision to go ahead. If they do, they need to apply for an array of permits, Mr. Pruss said. The earliest a mine could be up and running, given the work that needs to be done, would be several years from now. And though all signs indicate that Kennecott intends to go ahead, Mr. Cherry indicated that no final decision has been made.

Perhaps the final word - for now - should go to Kristy Mills, who owns a store not far from the proposed Eagle mine. She could use more customers, for certain. But she isn't sure about Kennecott.

"You know we need tourism and visiting, not mining and hauling ore around in big trucks," she said in a telephone interview, and then paused.

"It's gonna be interesting," she said. She may be more right than she realized. A number of other firms are looking for possible mining sites in the UP. Skip Pruss' rules may soon be repeatedly put to the test.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
» E-mail him at or call 1-888-746-8610.
» Read more Jack Lessenberry columns at

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