Acid on the rocks: Sulfide mining poised to tunnel into MichiganPublished by MAC on 2005-07-06
Acid on the rocks: Sulfide mining poised to tunnel into Michigan
July 6 2005
By Lawrence Cosentino, Lansing City Pulse
In Michigan's wild Upper Peninsula, the world begins with rocks and water.
It's a brutal romance that takes many forms. At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a six-hour drive due north of Lansing, Lake Superior lobs endless volleys of turquoise breakers into orange sandstone cliffs. Far to the northwest, a more austere coastline wraps the remote Keweenaw Peninsula, where whitecaps slap dark haunches of stone that contain no fossils because they predate all life on Earth.
Everywhere in between, hundreds of waterfalls roar, bubble and swirl over the peninsula. The violent tango of rock and water built this wild country, and it's still visible everywhere you go here. Now, a third party wants to cut into this primordial dance, provoking a bitter conflict that has already reverberated up and down the state of Michigan. Scarred by accidents in other states and provisionally banned by Wisconsin, sulfide mining - a process with a hotly debated safety record - is poised to tunnel into Michigan, starting at the state's remotest, most mineral-rich outpost. The vein in question stretches downstate nearly to Ann Arbor, following the ancient geological rift that exposed it millions of years ago. The U.P. is thus the first part of Michigan to face a dicey experiment that, once begun, could wend its way far south, spreading a cloud of uncertainty over the state's much-vaunted water resources. Judging by the depth and breadth of opposition to the project here in Marquette, the area's population is proving a very wary canary.
Small but high-grade
"I need someone to hold the corner of this." Legs apart in classic can-do stance, Jon Cherry of the Kennecott Minerals Corp. unrolls a map, laboring against a warm wind smelling of sun-baked pine. It's Thursday, June 30, and a group of government, industry, community and environmental stakeholders have gathered at the proposed mine site to brief the press on this divisive issue.
If Cherry has his way, 30 to 40 semi trucks loaded with ore-bearing rock will soon rumble out of that hill every day, hustling in and out of a network of subterranean chambers like 24-wheeled ants. Cherry is a project manager of the proposed Eagle Mine, a potential bonanza for a deep-pocketed mining outfit owned by a London conglomerate. Since 1992, Kennecott has been buying up mineral rights to hundreds of thousands of acres in the Yellow Dog plain, a pristine natural area just west of the Upper Peninsula's largest city, Marquette. With $100M worth of capital investment on the table, they've announced plans to build a special type of mine, rare in Michigan, designed to decouple a 10-figure cache of minerals from the surrounding rock.
As the vagaries of this meet-the-press excursion would have it, the person who grabs the map's other corner and stretches it taut is Michelle Halley, an attorney for the National Wildlife Association specializing in Great Lakes issues. Halley has spoken out repeatedly on the potentially harmful social and environmental impact of Eagle Mine.
Cherry estimates that a billion dollars' worth of nickel is locked inside this vast forested bowl, intersected by two wild rivers and bordered by the ancient Huron Mountains.
The only signs of mine activity so far are some red surveying ribbons tied to shrubs and a handful of research wells scattered along the plain. That, however, could change in a hurry. "It's a small, very high-grade deposit," Cherry says, "and if we get it up and running, it'll be the only active nickel mine in the United States."
If miners could simply tunnel into the rock and spoon out pure nickel, there wouldn't be much conflict here. The U. P. has lived with iron and copper mining for more than a century, and mining lore is inextricably woven into the region's unique character. But the deposits sought by Kennecott don't come from the familiar metal oxides that have been scraped from the U.P.'s rocky hide for decades. The Yellow Dog plain, perched near the top of a boomerang-shaped mineral belt that stretches downstate all the way to Ann Arbor, is rich in sulfides - a Dracula-like ore that wreaks chemical havoc when roused from its coffin of rock. When sulfides are exposed to air or water, they release a brew of sulfuric acid (battery acid) and heavy metals that percolates into groundwater like coffee from a giant drip coffeemaker.
In April 1998, partially in response to public concern over Kennecott's problem-plagued Flambeau Mine, Wisconsin passed a sulfide mining moratorium that requires permit applicants to show one example of a mining operation in the United States or Canada that has operated for 10 years - and one that has been closed for 10 years - without causing significant environmental pollution. It's a test no company, including Kennecott, has yet met. Sulfide mine opponents point to past Michigan projects, such as the Buck Mine and the Dober Mine in neighboring Iron County, that still leak what they call AMD, or Acid Mine Drainage. (It used to be called ARD for Acid Rock Drainage, but AMD has the advantage of naming the culprit; the ominous resonance with "WMD" is a bonus.) Acid drainage from the Dober mine, says advocacy group savethewildup.org, killed all the aquatic life in a seven-mile stretch of the Iron River downstream from the mine site.
Cherry sweeps his finger across the map, laying out Kennecott's plans to keep such exposure to a minimum. He explains that waste rock and ore tailings (imagine a mountain of sulfurous, metal-bearing pistachio shells), the potential sources of contamination, will be efficiently and thoroughly dealt with.
"Eighty percent of the rocks excavated has the capacity to generate acid," Cherry says. The environmentalists in the briefing group wince noticeably. "So we design as if all the rock is acid-bearing - there will be no segregation." None of the waste rock, Cherry explains, will be left lying around to interact with air or rain. Instead, it will be back-filled into the same holes the ore came from, or hauled away in covered semi-trucks as quickly as possible. In the meantime, double-layer polyethylene liners, like those used in landfills and toxic waste dumps, will be placed under any exposed rock awaiting treatment.
But mine opponents point out that sulfide mines in Utah, Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado and Ontario have already experienced significant and unforeseen AMD problems, some of them requiring drastic remedial measures - caps, dikes and dams that cost millions of dollars. For example, the Red Dog Mine in Kotzebue, Alaska, leaked zinc into surrounding groundwater despite precautions, killing all fish in a 25-mile radius. After claiming the zinc levels were not mine-related, the mining company relented under public pressure and spent $11M to move a crucial creek into a specially lined bed.
"All mines have problems," says David Chambers, a mining engineer and geologist now working with the Center for Science in Public Participation. "Somebody might turn a valve the wrong way, or a sudden storm could come." Chambers is particularly concerned that the Eagle mine is "happening underneath the river," raising the specter of subsidence, or collapse of metal-bearing ore into the groundwater beneath.
The mine, Chambers says, would leave "a void below ground, and nature wants to fill that void. Even backfill can't be dense and strong as the original rock." Risk of catastrophe aside, there is also concern is that stray dust from hundreds of bouncing trucks could, by itself, toss a significant amount of toxic metals into the water. Most important, all parties agree that once damage is done to precious groundwater, little or no remediation is possible. Even if the risk of AMD leakage is small - a hotly debated point - mine opponents say it's not worth taking the chance.
Pressed to guarantee against accidents, Cherry crisply demurs. "Everything in life has a certain amount of risk," he says. "You take a chance driving down the street."
"I'm an accountant!"
There are a lot of people in the U.P. who don't care to take that drive. Signs of opposition, large and small, organized and not, are evident all over the area. Huge letters reading "No Sulfide Mining" are whitewashed on the side of a barn outside Big Bay, the nearest town to the proposed mine site.
An array of activist groups - Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, the Sierra Club, the Eagle Alliance, savethewildup.org, the National Wildlife Foundation, even a bottom-line business organization called Wolfpack - have lined up against the project.
Lynn Swanson lives just outside Big Bay and fishes the area regularly. "I've never been involved in anything environmental in my life - I'm an accountant!" she laughs. "But our watershed is as pristine as you can get."
Inside, Bill Kinjorski and Kristi Mills, co-owners of Big Bay Outfitters, mull the mine's potentially devastating effect on their business. "We make our livelihood from outdoors activity," Kinjorski says, "and we're very concerned about the changes this project may bring"
Cut-throat vs. coaster
Much of the panic over a potential decline in tourism centers on a lovely, pink-bellied game fish called the coaster brook trout. Highly prized by anglers - mainly because at 15 to 20 inches, it's considerably larger than any other species of brook trout - the coaster was nearly fished out in northern Michigan as early as 100 years ago. Laura Hewitt, watershed programs director of a 140,000-member conservation group called Trout Unlimited, calls the coaster brook "ecologically naïve," meaning it falls for fisherman's tricks too easily for its own good. At present, the only viable breeding ground of the coaster brook on the northern shore of the U.P. is the Trout Salmon River, about 2,500 feet from the proposed mine site.
"The coaster brook trout is a vital part of the ecosystem here - as much an emblem of this wild place as the black bear or bald eagle," Dykema says. Later, Hewitt explains how Dykema's goals dovetail with her group's long-held dream - to restore all America's native trout species to their native range within a generation. "The coaster is crucial to this master plan," Hewitt says, "and the only secure breeding population on the south shore of Lake Superior is right here."
With so protective an attitude, it's no wonder conservationists are wary of Kennecott's promises to protect the coaster. According to a newsletter distributed by the Yellow Dog Watershed Reserve, the company's CEO called it the "cut-throat" on his first visit to Big Bay.
Not just a U.P. issue
Halley is concerned that downstaters will brush off the issue as a distant "up north" skirmish with no relevance to their lives. "This isn't just a matter of two charismatic rivers," she says, referring to the Trout Salmon and Yellow Dog. "We're talking about water here. The Great Lakes isn't just a U.P. issue."
If the U.P. lives or dies by its water quality, say local activists, so does Michigan. In the fall of 2004, the state legislature and Gov. Jennifer Granholm agreed, passing a long-sought sulfide mining law with three major requirements. First, sulfide mines will need a permit - an obvious point, but Halley says that's an improvement over former Michigan law, "believe it or not." Secondly, the mining company must draw up an environmental impact statement that is reviewed by the Department of Environmental Quality. This provision also requires the company to leave the land in its pre-mining state.
To put teeth in this provision, the law also requires sulfide mining companies to post an enormous bond, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, to insure the state isn't stuck with the tab for reclamation.
But Halley and other mine opponents fear the law falls short. One oft-mentioned sticking point is the lack of provision for a thorough, independent hydrology study to map out the groundwater near the mine site. The law is now in the rule-making stages, and critics say the process of working out the devilish details - especially the researching and drafting of the impact statement - relies too heavily on the Kennecott's good faith.
A more egregious omission, in Halley-s view, is the lack of attention paid thus far to the social and economic impact of the mine on the surrounding population. The Kennecott company is promising to hire 75 percent local help, with about 70 to 140 jobs expected, but the company's record is spotty in this area, doesn't hire union labor. Moreover, the mine is only expected to last five to seven years before playing itself out. Companies like Kennecott swoop in to reap mega-profits, say mine opponents, while the Yellow Dog plain and surrounding community may be stuck with the environmental and social bill.
At another stop on the tour, an impromptu Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarty moment breaks out, as Halley and DEQ geologist Joe Maki stand on top of a roaring waterfall and spar over the department's allegedly inadequate budget and questionable will to enforce environmental regulations. "We're moving away from legislative control," Maki says, explaining that the department's money comes not from the volatile general fund, but from taxes on metallic mining, sand dune mining and oil and gas drilling from all over the state. "We just hired another person in anticipation of the Eagle mine."
Given the pro-business legacy of the Engler years and the current partisan alignment of the legislature, it's no surprise that trust is significantly lacking between environmentalists and the DEQ. The businessman
As thunderheads drift over the proposed mine site, the last speaker of the press briefing steps before the group. Russell "Rusty" Gowland belongs to Wolfpack, a consortium of local business leaders opposed to the Eagle project. Perhaps to balance the mystical strains often invoked by environmentalists, Gowland speaks in strictly economic terms. "Michigan is about to go into sulfide mining as a business," he says. "Do we have a good deal here?"
He starts in on the math: 70 percent of the mine's profit margin will go to shareholders of Kennecott's parent corporation, London-based Rio Tinto. "One-tenth of 1 percent of this company's shares are owned by people who live in the United States," he declares. Even the tax revenue reaped by the state, he adds, "must be netted against the expense of regulation. So the people of Michigan get a very small cut."
On the other side of the balance sheet, Gowland says, is a "risk profile," with water as the state's main stake.
"In the long term, water is the most important resource in Michigan," Gowland says. "It's clean. It doesn't have salt in it. It doesn't have sharks in it - and that's relevant! People come from all over to experience the world's greatest wealth of fresh water." "After the first one goes through, it will open the door for others to follow," he says. "We are setting a precedent for Michigan to become a sulfide mining region."
"Based on the limited information we have, it doesn't seem like a good deal.