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Upper Peninsula nickel-copper mine moves ahead

The Eagle Mine (aerial photo from October 2010).
Photo courtesy of Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co.
The Eagle Mine (aerial photo from October 2010).

For ten years, Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company has been pushing to mine nickel and copper near Marquette. The company started underground blasting of the mine in September.

The Department of Environmental Quality issued permits for the mine in 2007. But several of those permits have been challenged in court.

A circuit court judge in Ingham County recently upheld the mining permit.

Michelle Halley is an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. It’s one of the groups that challenged that permit. She says they’re concerned about the type of mining that will happen in the Eagle Mine. It’s sometimes called sulfide mining.

“The rock at Eagle is extremely acid producing, very high in sulfides and so once that rock is exposed to air and water, there’s really no debate it will begin producing acid.”

That acid is sulfuric acid. According to the Environmental Protection Agency... that acid can cause heavy metals to leach from rocks. The resulting fluid can be highly toxic to people and wildlife.

This is called acid mine drainage. On its website, Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company says there is a risk that it can happen. But the company says it’s taking a number of steps to reduce that risk.

Matt Johnson is with Kennecott. He says the company will use a state of the art water treatment plant to purify the mine water using reverse osmosis.

“The entire mine site is designed to control water with water protection in mind. Which is why it’s the company’s commitment not to discharge any water back into the environment until it meets safe drinking quality water (sic) standards.”

And he says the state is also requiring them to do that.

But critics are still concerned about the nearby Salmon Trout River and Lake Superior.

Michelle Halley says the treated water from the mine will eventually be discharged to groundwater.

“The wastewater treatment plant is unproven technology. There is no wastewater treatment plant that uses the components that are at Eagle on mine water. And so whether it will work, how those components will respond under the pressure of the metals that are there and the other constituents in the water, it’s an unknown entity.”

Those unknowns about possible water pollution have divided the surrounding communities.

“People are looking for dollars now. There’s not a lot of jobs. So any job is a good job.”

Daryl Wilcox is the Powell Township Supervisor. The company’s estimating there will be about 240 mining jobs available. They say the jobs will last seven or eight years. Wilcox says he knows a lot of people who are planning to apply for those jobs.

“Everybody agrees we need the jobs, everybody agrees we need the clean water. You have people feeling the water’s more important than jobs and you have people who feel the jobs are more important than water, not that it’s totally 100 percent on each side. It’s hard for everybody, including myself, how do you find that middle road?”

Wilcox says the mining company took him on a tour of their new water treatment plant. And he says he’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

“That the mine does their best to hold to their word, and we need people to watch the water to make sure it is done the way they say.”

The company is expecting to start pulling minerals out of the ground in 2013.

Many people have been watching what happens with the Kennecott Eagle Mine. It’s one of several companies hoping to tap into potentially billions of dollars worth of nickel, copper, gold, and platinum in the Upper Peninsula.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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