The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, usually called the DEQ, last week announced tentative approval of Kennecott Minerals Co.'s application to dig a mine in the middle of one of the Upper Peninsula's most beautiful, pristine and environmentally sensitive regions, the Yellow Dog Plains.
That was big news in the sparsely populated "UP," where a coalition of residents, Native American tribes and environmentalists have been fighting the "Eagle Prospect" mine for years.
Downstate, however, the story was small beer.
That's too bad, because this case will have a profound impact on the entire UP — and, by extension, on the entire state of Michigan.
Right now, the Upper Peninsula is experiencing a land rush of sorts from mining companies which are panting to exploit deposits of nickel and copper embedded in sulfide rock. The big problem with "sulfide mines" is that sulfide rock, when exposed to air and water, produces sulfuric acid and dissolved heavy metals that kill fish.
Kennecott claims it will take safety precautions. Opponents, however, note that no sulfide mine in history has ever been operated without discharges of this "acid pollution." Worse, the mine is located smack dab under the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River.
This is a famously pristine trout stream that supports the last remaining spawning population on the south shore of Lake Superior of the Coaster Brook Trout, a colorful relative of the Brook Trout that can reach 25 inches in length. Fishermen and scholars alike fear once the Eagle Prospect mine starts up, the Coasters are toast.
Three years ago, Michigan had no law — none! — regulating "nonferrous metallic mineral mining," or sulfide mining. A group of stakeholders (I was one) worked out a consensus statute and set of regulations, which the state adopted.
These rules are widely regarded as among the toughest in the country. Robert McCann, a spokesman for the DEQ, said, "I think it's safe to say this (Eagle Prospect) proposal has received more scrutiny than all but a few the state has ever looked at."
And in the cash-and job-starved UP, any prospect of good paying jobs is normally greeted with enthusiasm. Except in this case, besides the environmental hazards, there's another downside. By Kennecott's own admission, the 120 or so mining jobs would last only a decade or less while the mine is being built and in operation.
And economists and businessmen wonder and worry what would happen to recreation, tourism, hunting and fishing — the long-term economic future of the region — if the mine pollutes the area.
"People up here aren't opposed to mining, they accept mining," says Marvin Roberson, a Sierra Club official who lives in the UP. "What they are opposed to is reckless exploitation of the land's most sensitive areas for a few dozen temporary jobs."
Final approval of the mine is not yet a done deal. The DEQ will consider additional public comments at hearings held March 6 to 8 at Northern Michigan University in Marquette before a decision.
But the stakes are very high. The map of the UP that shows in red land leased for mineral exploration makes the entire area look like it has the measles. The Eagle Prospect mine is the first to go through the permitting process set out in the new state law.
Any decision is bound to set an important precedent that will determine the future of sulfide mining activity throughout an area which is the heart and soul of Michigan's glorious natural resources.
The new mining law sets out the various criteria the DEQ is to follow in composing a mining permit, if it decides to issue one. But the draft permit itself is — and will be until it is issued — a secret, now being concocted by bureaucrats inside the DEQ. Opponents of the mine wonder whether the Office of Geological Survey, the division of the DEQ that is overseeing the process, has a corporate culture that prefers facilitating mining to rigorously regulating it.
Some think that public oversight of a project as important as this one would be improved if the draft permit is made public before it is issued. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in a letter to her appointee, DEQ director Steven Chester, instructed the department to "give thorough and rigorous review to Kennecott's permit applications and ensure that they meet each and every aspect of the new regulations ...
"While this project has the potential to provide significant economic benefit to the local community, the irreplaceable natural resources of the Upper Peninsula constitute an extraordinary endowment that we hold in trust for the benefit of our citizens. This sacred trust must be protected," she added.
The stakes are high for the governor, politically and as a matter of good public policy. It's everybody's bad luck that this particular ore deposit wound up in the middle of some of the most environmentally valuable and sensitive woods and waters in all of Michigan.
But merely because rich metals exist in a uniquely priceless and fragile environment is no necessary argument those metals should be mined. Suppose a valuable gold deposit were to be discovered right at the foot of Mount Rushmore.
Would it really make sense to open a mine there that might destroy a national monument? Does it make sense to allow a mine that would destroy a natural treasure?
Phil Power was a member of the work group that drafted the new mining law and is a member of the Huron Mountain Club, whose lands are near the site of the proposed mine. He is also president and founder of The Center for Michigan, a moderate think-and-do tank. These opinions and others expressed in his columns are his own and do not in any way represent official policy positions of The Center for Michigan. Phil would be pleased to hear from readers at email@example.com.
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