Environmentalists attack nickel mine

 

A proposed nickel and copper mine in Michigan’s economically hard-hit Upper Peninsula will never see the light of day if a coalition of environmental groups get their way. 

The $300 million Eagle Project mine would be the first new hardrock mine to open in the Upper Peninsula in a half century.  Located about 25 miles northwest of Marquette, the mine is expected to produce 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper.  Nickel is a crucial component in stainless steel, hybrid-electric vehicles, and advanced medical equipment.  Copper is the world’s most efficient conductor of electricity and is the industry standard in wiring and plumbing.  It also is 100 percent recyclable without degradation. 

Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co., a subsidiary of London-based Rio Tinto, expects to have 200 full-time employees working at the mine, with an additional 500 jobs created by mine-related activities.  Having almost completed the permitting process, the company hopes to have the mine up and running in 2013.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are pulling out all the stops to kill the project.  The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Huron Mountain Club, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, and the Michigan Save Our Water Committee (MSOWC) are among the green groups trying to scuttle the mine project.  They claim that the mine could drain acid into the nearby Salmon Trout River and disturb land considered sacred to a local Indian tribe. NWF is filing two lawsuits to keep the project from becoming reality. 

Even more ominous for the mine’s future, and for all mining in Michigan’s UP, is a ballot initiative pushed by MSOWC   The Detroit-based group began circulating a petition to that would place a mining “reform” on the state’s ballot this November. The reform would ban all future mining projects in Michigan within 2,000 of a body of water, and would require all mining developers to identify similar mines in the U.S. and Canada that operated without violating environmental standards.  Because Michigan is dotted with lakes, rivers, and streams – not to mention its proximity to Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan – the ballot initiative would effective spell the end of all new mining projects in the Wolverine State. 

Such an outcome would deal yet another devastating blow to a state already suffering from depression-era levels of unemployment.  At 14.6 percent, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country.  The two counties in the UP where the mining operation would take place – Baraga and Marquette – have unemployment rates of 25 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. What’s more, as Land Letter (Feb. 4, 2010) reported, the average income in the UP is $36,600, well below what mining companies pay their workers.  Even more promising for Michigan is the fact that other developers are prepared to seek permits to open zinc, silver, gold, and copper mines in the near future.   

Unable to raise sufficient funds to continue their petition drive, MSOWC Feb. 11 announced it was dropping plans to get its mining “reform” on this November’s ballot.  The group is now planning to restart its effort to snuff out mining in Michigan by having their initiative on the state’s November 2012 general election ballot. 

Few economic observers expect Michigan’s once-dominant auto industry to regain the position it once held.   With “Detroit” no longer synonymous with industrial might, putting the state’s abundant natural resources to use may be Michigan’s ticket to a more prosperous future.

 

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.