As Residents Fight Back, Sulfide Mining Strikes Again

Kennecott Eagle Mine, Orvana Copperwood Mine, Sulfide Mining, Upper Peninsula

by Alicia Prygoski, Special Projects Associate

Although countless Michigan residents have made it clear that they don’t want their pristine natural areas - and sacred Native American land - decimated by sulfide mining, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), unfortunately, continues to issue disastrous permits.

In the same week that the Huron Mountain Club filed another legal challenge to oppose the ever-controversial Kennecott Eagle Mine, the DEQ has gone ahead and unleashed another sulfide mine on the Upper Peninsula. This new mine would be permitted only 200 feet from the Lake Superior shoreline and discharge waste into a stream that flows directly into the lake.

The consequences of sulfide mining are huge; both environmentally and economically. As the Pure Michigan tourism campaign depends on preserved resources and healthy Great Lakes, the environmental damage from sulfide mining cuts straight to Michiganders' health and wallets. When exposed to water or air, the waste products from sulfide ore create acid mine drainage, a form of sulfuric acid. Acid mine drainage then seeps into nearby lakes and streams, killing aquatic plants and animals and completely poisoning wetland ecosystems. It has decimated thousands of miles of waterways across the country, and according to Save the Wild UP, there has never been a sulfide mine that hasn’t polluted the surrounding watershed. Trout fishing is particularly impacted.

The Huron Mountain Club (HMC) has shown that citizens and organizations are serious about protecting the UP's treasured natural areas from sulfide mining. HMC has not given up the fight against Kennecott since the DEQ issued the Eagle Rock sulfide mine permit in 2007, Michigan's first. Just this past week, HMC filed a federal lawsuit to halt the construction of the Kennecott Eagle Mine until the company obtains necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. Although District Judge Robert Holmes Bell rejected the request for injunction, a hearing is scheduled for June 6th. While an immediate halt to the mining process would have been preferred, at least the hearing will give UP residents a voice.

Now, though, as members of the Huron Mountain Club await their next chance to stand up against Kennecott, the DEQ has ignored the strong opposition to sulfide mining by approving a permit for another sulfide mine in the UP.

The DEQ, the regulatory agency that is responsible for ensuring environmental protection, has quickly and haphazardly approved a permit to Orvana Resources US Corp., a Toronto-based mining company, for a sulfide mine in Ironwood and Wakefield Townships. Already, we are witnessing similar well-warranted opposition across the UP as when the Kennecott Mine permit was approved in 2007.

The Orvana permit specifies that the Company’s plans will meet all necessary criteria to operate the mine (named the Copperwood Mine) in a responsible manner, and that it complies with the standards set forth in Michigan’s mining law. There is only so much that this law can prevent though, and in this case, it’s doubtful that it will really protect Michigan’s forests and waterways from the devastation of sulfide mining, especially since the long term effects of acid mine drainage are difficult to predict.

There are a number of problems with the proposed Orvana Copperwood Mine, but the most concerning, perhaps, is its proximity to Lake Superior. The mine will sit on land that is less than 2 miles from the shores of Lake Superior and, as noted above, the permit stretches to a mere 200 feet from the shore of Lake Superior. Since acid mine drainage is an inevitable effect of sulfide mining, it is extremely likely that sulfuric acid will leach into nearby rivers and streams that feed directly into Lake Superior.

In addition to the danger of contamination from the initial mining process, Orvana Resources plans to store its waste in a tailings pile on the mine site instead of backfilling it into the mine. What is backfilling and what is the difference? Backfilling waste - or redepositing material in previously excavated space - is considered to be industry standard, and it minimizes long term damage to the surrounding environment. Backfilling would also decrease the risk of land shifts and collapse above the mine, another serious risk of sulfide mining that could lead to further groundwater contamination and runoff into Lake Superior.

Instead of this more responsible option, Orvana’s permanent tailings pile would cover over 300 acres, destroy 8,000 feet of streams, and pose an ongoing risk of contaminants seeping into the surrounding soil and water. There is also question on whether the planned waste collection system will underlie the entire tailings pile. If it does not, it will be in violation of Michigan’s mining law.

The location of the Copperwood Mine is problematic for another reason; it is within the territory that the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and several other tribes retained in the Treaty of 1842. Placing a sulfide mine on this traditional land will threaten cultural resources.

Fortunately, this permit is only the first step in the process. The DEQ needs to issue additional permits to Orvana, including permits for water discharges, air emissions, inland lake & stream modification, and wetland impacts before construction of the mine could begin. We can only hope that the DEQ seriously considers the environmental impacts of the Copperwood Mine when deciding whether to go even further and issue these permits as well. If not, it looks like we'll need to get prepared to fight the Kennecott Eagle Mine fight all over again.

We're ready for that fight, but we need your help. Sign up now to stay informed on this issue and help us fight back against this looming threat to Lake Superior, itself.

Photo courtesy of michiganradio.org.