Today, TV screens, newspapers and the Internet are consumed worldwide with the horrendous British Petroleum oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico, now believed to be the greatest man-made environmental disaster in our history, if not that of the planet.
But something eerily similar is going on, far from the cameras, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the tiny village of Big Bay.
There, a company with a history as one of America’s greatest polluters is now planning to mine for copper and nickel right under one of Michigan’s most uniquely famous trout steams.
The design for this mine has been attacked by independent mining engineers, who see it as all too likely to cave in. If that happens it will kill the trout, and release a pulse of dissolved copper and nickel into a stream flowing into Lake Superior. It takes only tiny amounts of these heavy metals to wipe out fish and plants.
Michigan needs jobs, true. But under the best of scenarios, the mine would employ maybe 200 workers – many from out of state – for less than 10 years. That would bring big-time industrial development to one of Michigan’s most pristine wilderness spots and threaten long-term tourism, fishing and hiking resources, perhaps forever. Worse, the mine would also defile Eagle Rock, a site sacred to Native Americans. Members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and local residents are camping there, watching in frustration as crews clear-cut the timber from the surrounding area.
What’s going on here, anyway?
Welcome to the so-called Eagle Prospect mine, a project of Kennecott Eagle Minerals Corp., a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, Ltd., a vast London-based mining company. The Rio Tinto board of directors announced last week it would invest $469 million in the mine. That may sound like a large sum, but it’s a pittance compared with the $5-$10 billion worth of ore they believe is there.
The mine will be dug directly under the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, one of Michigan’s best trout streams. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also one of the world’s last remaining spawning sites for the Coaster Brook Trout, a variant of the native speckled trout that behaves like a steelhead and comes near it in size.
Recent research suggests there are less than 400 of these iconic fish left in the river. Kennecott plans to blast through the Eagle Rock into the ore body which is located in sulfide rock, which when exposed to oxygen and water produces “acid mine drainage,” including sulfuric acid and dissolved heavy metals.
Every such “sulfide mine” ever opened has produced long-term acid mine drainage – some dating back to Roman times.
What if the mine does, in fact, cave in?
Alas, Kennecott has no known disaster plan for managing the resulting environmental damage. The trout will all die, of course — and that may not be the worst of it. Sound like Michigan’s version of the BP disaster in the making?
How could this have come about?
Approval of the mine was recommended by the Michigan Office of Geological Survey, which used to be a division of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and is now part of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Survey is our equivalent of the now-infamous U.S. Minerals Management Service that oversaw BP’s operations in the Gulf of Mexico. The head of the Survey Office’s mining team called the Kennecott project “my baby” and identified the company as “my customer.” During the review process, he admitted suppressing an expert memorandum that spoke to the risk of a mine collapse. Another member of the state’s mining team formed a business partnership with Kennecott employees to offer mining services to the private sector; the partnership was dissolved after it became public. And Governor Jennifer Granholm’s UP representative who helped her formulate her position in support of the mine has left government service to work — you guessed it — for Kennecott.
There have been efforts to stop it, including several lawsuits, one of which came before a state administrative judge who was caught sending a note to a top official at the DEQ asking how he should deal with the resulting appeal.
Permits for the project have been issued by the DEQ and confirmed by the DNR, supposedly in accordance with a newly passed law governing metallic mineral underground mining.
That statute required Kennecott to submit environmental baseline studies on both the actual mine site and also the “affected area,” the nearby land and water that ran the risk of being environmentally compromised if something went wrong.
Kennecott’s permit applications ignored that provision, among others. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the work group that wrote the statute, and I am a member of the Huron Mountain Club, a UP group that is suing to try to halt the mine.)
Kennecott has not yet received a federal permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to inject treated water from the mine into area ground water. Yet the company is proceeding full speed ahead, as if no permit was needed.
And no evidence has been produced that Kennecott has a disaster plan in place to cope with the environmental trouble that many experts see as likely, if not certain.
In the BP/Gulf of Mexico oil spill scandal, it has become clear the agency with regulatory oversight of the offshore drilling industry – U. S. Minerals Management Service – had been “captured” by the very industry it was supposed to oversee.
And we now have seen the result. The Kennecott Eagle Prospect mine is exactly the same kind of disaster just waiting to happen … for similar reasons.
This is a true outrage. But so far nobody seems to be noticing.
Mine opponents have tried to talk with DNR director Rebecca Humphries, but she hasn’t been responding. Concerned readers who might want to make their opinions known can email her at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics and a former chairman of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank which is sponsoring Michigan’s Defining Moment, a public engagement outreach campaign for citizens. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.