By Jeff Alexander/Bridge Magazine contributor
Ron and Carol Henriksen retired to the kind of place most people can only imagine — a riverfront house in an area of the Western Upper Peninsula that is so serene, the dominant sound is often the whisk of trees rustling in the wind.
After living in suburband Chicago for three decades, in the path of jets coming and going from O’Hare Airport, the Henriksens coveted peace and quiet.
“Our dream was to retire on our six acres of land along the Menominee River,” Ron Henriksen said. “I was going to fish, maybe raise some chickens; we were going to live happily ever after.”
Instead, they found themselves drawn into a raging debate over what could become a 21st century mining boom in the Upper Peninsula.
Five foreign mining firms are targeting deposits of nickel, gold and other valuable minerals at as many as 14 sites in the Western Upper Peninsula. One of the planned mine sites is a half-mile from the Henriksens’ personal paradise.
Unlike the copper and iron mines that made the U.P. one of the nation’s most prosperous regions in the late 1800s, the new mining companies are pursuing precious metals that are trapped in bedrock containing high concentrations of sulfide ore. When exposed to air and water, sulfide ore produces sulfuric acid, which can poison streams and groundwater if allowed to drain off a mine site.
The potential boom in metallic sulfide mining has divided the U.P.
Supporters claim new mines will provide sorely needed, well-paying jobs and help meet increasing global demand for copper, nickel and other metals.
“People can’t have cars and other modern necessities without metal,” said Theodore J. Bornhorst, a professor of economic and engineering geology at Michigan Technological University and director of the university’s A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum. “Many people don’t realize that the computers and cell phones they use have nickel, copper and other metals in them.”
Critics fear metallic sulfide mines will pollute many of the high-quality rivers and lakes that make the U.P. special.
“This is a water-rich environment; this is not the place for any mines that produce acid mine drainage,” said Kristi Mills, co-owner of Big Bay Outfitters in Marquette County and executive director of Save the Wild U.P., an anti-mining group.
Bornhorst and state officials who regulate the mining industry disagreed.
“Can this type of mining be done and companies keep their discharges below acceptable limits? Yes,” Bornhorst said. “We have the technology to do it right and do it safely.”
Digging under way near Marquette
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality already has approved one controversial metallic sulfide mine, the $469 million Kennecott Eagle Minerals project near Marquette. That project also withstood a court challenge.
Crews in September began digging the shaft at the Eagle mine, which will pursue a lucrative ore body located directly under the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River. The mine could yield 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper, which could be worth $5 billion.
At least three other Canadian firms are exploring possible mining sites in the western U.P.
One of those firms, Aquila Resources, wants to open a gold and zinc mine about 20 miles north of Menominee, near the Henriksens’ house.
Aquila announced in September that the mine, called the Back Forty Project, could yield 902,000 ounces of gold, 11 million ounces of silver, 961 million pounds of zinc and 78 million pounds of copper.
State officials said the Back Forty Project would be Michigan’s first open-pit metallic sulfide mine. It would include the requisite pile of mine tailings and a processing plant where rocks would be pulverized. Cyanide would be used to extract gold from the crushed rock.
Residents near the planned mine site fear it may disrupt a way of life in a peaceful area of cabins and hunting camps.
“We came up here to recreate and get away from the noise of society — now this mining company is bringing it to us,” said Mike Boerner, whose family has owned a house and large tract of land adjacent to the mining site for more than a century.
Officials from Aquila Resources didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment.
Many people who oppose metallic sulfide mining in the U.P. base their concerns on problems at similar mines in other states and nations.
“Severe worldwide ecological consequences, especially for aquatic resources, have resulted from mining ore deposits with acid forming minerals. The track record of industry is replete with problems,” according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But Michigan Tech’s Bornhorst said mining gets a bad rap because companies in the past often left unsightly reminders of their existence — gaping craters and large piles of mine tailings, some of which were toxic.
“Modern mining has a very small footprint,” he said. “Mining’s footprint is much smaller than forestry’s footprint.”
Scenic areas becoming flashpoint
On Michigan’s official state map, there is an area of the Upper Peninsula that is devoid of lines marking the location of paved roads; the only features denoted are rivers and moose.
The remote area is found in western Marquette County, south of the resort town of Big Bay and north of the former mining community of Champion. It is where the state of Michigan in 1985 deposited 29 moose that were airlifted from Canada in a daring operation called Operation Moose Lift.
That area was selected for the moose reintroduction effort because the majestic animals thrive where there are few people and nature predominates.
Until recently, western sections of Marquette County were known primarily for its stunning array of natural features: Extensive forests, countless waterfalls, the scenic Yellow Dog Plains; the rugged McCormick Tract Wilderness Area; and two spectacular rivers — the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout — that flow into Lake Superior.
Now the area is also known as ground zero for the debate over metallic sulfide mining in the U.P.
Kennecott Eagle Minerals in September begin blasting and digging the shaft at its $469 million Eagle mine, located south of Big Bayon the Yellow Dog Plains. Other companies also hope to build mines in the area.
Hal Fitch, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Geological Survey, said there is intense interest in mining for mineral rich sulfide ore in the Baraga Basin, a geologic formation in northern Marquette County.
“I think there is a quite a bit of potential for finding (economically viable) deposits,” Fitch said.
Several state lawmakers from the Upper Peninsula want the state to make it easier to open new mines.
“We need to spur interest in exploring the commodities of the Upper Peninsula because in both the timber and mining industries the current regulations make it difficult and expensive to get the raw materials they need to be successful,” said state Rep. Matt Huuki, a Republican from the community of Atlantic Mine, in a recent press release.
Balancing jobs, environment
Dozens of copper and iron mines were scattered across the Upper Peninsula in the 1800s and early 1990s. Just two are left at the Cliffs Natural Resources facility in Marquette County.
DEQ Director Dan Wyant said the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder is “very open” to creating new jobs by promoting extractive industries such as mining, logging and oil and natural gas exploration.
We are full partners in economic development,” Wyant said of the DEQ. “We’ve got to have a clean environment and protect the citizens of Michigan, but without economic activity and more jobs, we’re not going to be able to do that.”
Wyant said Michigan could support more mines, logging operations and more oil and natural gas wells without ruining the natural resources that are the foundation of the region’s industry.
Extractive industries and tourism are core elements of the Upper Peninsula economy. One-third of all Upper Peninsula jobs are tied to the extraction and processing of natural resources, and those jobs pay above average wages, according to a state study.
That same study found that half of all jobs in the U.P. are tied to tourism, but many of those jobs are part-time or seasonal and most pay below average wages.
Mining was one of the sectors of the Upper Peninsula’s economy to add jobs in recent years, according to state data.
Statewide, however, mining is a relatively small part of Michigan’s economy. Michigan’s $17 billion tourism industry was eight times more valuable than the $2 billion mining industry in 2010, according to state data.
Tourism employs about 193,000 people in Michigan, about 30 times more than the number of direct mining jobs and five times more than all jobs tied to mining, according to state and industry data.
But the average pay of a mine worked, about $85,000, dwarfs the income of most people working in tourism.
Ron Henriksen said he supports job creation. He even supports mining, provided it can be conducted without polluting the environment and jeopardizing human health. He doesn’t think that’s possible at metallic sulfide mines
But after spending seven years of his retirement fighting the Back Forty Project, the Henriksens recently threw in the towel. They and several of their neighbors along the Menominee River recently sold their homes and land to Aquila Resources, the company that wants to build the open-pit gold mine.
“We bailed because the stress of fighting this mine was getting to me and my wife, it was affecting our health,” Ron Henriksen said. “This fight over the Back Forty mine will last another 10 years. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.”