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Mineral Mining and Its Risks Set to Make a Comeback in Michigan

The Yellow Dog Plains sit atop valuable mineral resources, but some locals want them left in the ground.
In the Upper Peninsula, a relative newcomer fights for the "plain-ass beauty" of the land she loves

When Cynthia Pryor was in her 20s, she picked up a map of her then-home state of Michigan and looked for green open spaces with no roads. The Yellow Dog Plains of the Upper Peninsula caught her eye, and then her imagination. But it wasn’t until the age of 41 that Pryor, a well-traveled former Army brat and telecommunications executive, actually visited the area.

"The air was crisp, the lake was a wonderfully deep blue," she recalls of that October day. "I rented a Jeep and explored all the two-track roads I could find. In all my travels, I’d scarcely seen anything like it." She knew she’d finally found home. In 1994, after her two sons went off to college, Pryor and her husband moved there.

Today, shuffling through the open spaces of Lake Superior’s southern shore on her cross-country skis, Pryor comes to a land bridge overlooking a shallow valley. The Yellow Dog River flows beneath snow and ice, winding through the plains and out to the lake. Months from now, in midsummer, the plains will be teaming with wildlife -- with warblers, black bear, and trout -- but for now, scraggly Jack Pines stand lonely sentinel as snowflakes alight on Pryor’s Gore-Tex jacket.

She fears the spring’s arrival (which comes late in the UP), because she knows that as soon as the snow thaws, Kennecott Minerals, a subsidiary of the UK-based mining giant Rio Tinto, will resume building surface facilities at an underground mine the company is sinking to tap a small but rich mineral deposit here in the heart of the plains.

Eagle Mine, valued at an estimated $5 billion or more in copper and nickel, is six miles from Pryor’s house, and she intends to stop what she considers the destruction of the place that she’s still enamored with 17 years later.

"It’s the plain-ass beauty of it," she says with a sigh. "What would you do to protect the place you love?"

***

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is no stranger to mining. Any look at a map will tell you as much. Towns called Iron River, Iron Mountain, Copper Harbor, and Copper City dot the page. The area was home to the nation’s first mineral rush, back in the 1840s, when prospectors flooded here in pursuit of thick veins of pure copper. The peninsula’s western portion was once America’s leading producer of the mineral, enjoying boomtown prosperity for more than 100 years.

There were plenty of problems along the way. In 1973, acidic runoff from piles of waste-rock, known as tailings, at the abandoned Dober Mine on the Michigan-Wisconsin border leached into the blue-ribbon trout-fishing waters of the Iron River, killing aquatic life for a seven-mile stretch. Today the tailings continue to contaminate the river, whose water requires treatment for fish to survive.

In 1987, Torch Lake, in the heart of the U.P.’s old copper-mining district, became a federal area of concern after fish there were discovered with tumors a decade earlier. The lake and surrounding areas -- 368 square miles in total -- were contaminated with mercury, arsenic, copper, and lead, the result of more than 100 years of copper-mining waste. The federal Environmental Protection Agency currently is overseeing remediation efforts in the area.

The last copper mine in the U.P. shut its doors in 1995, around the same time Pryor moved in, as mining companies turned their attention to larger, less-depleted, and easier-to-reach deposits in the American West and overseas. But rising prices and an insatiable demand for metals in developing countries such as China and India are now bringing the industry back, in search of whatever deposits might remain. And residents expect the new mines to bring more problems with them.

Metals such as copper, nickel, lead, and iron combine naturally with other minerals in the ground to form ore. When mined, the valuable metals are extracted from the other components, such as sulfur. But when sulfide ores come into contact with air and water -- as often happens at old, filled-in mine sites -- sulfuric acid can form, and the runoff can cause toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium to leach from the ore.

If this combination of sulfuric acid and heavy metals, called acid-mine drainage, finds its way into groundwater and nearby rivers and streams, it can wreak havoc on aquatic organisms and water quality. Fish, amphibians, aquatic plants, and invertebrates are sensitive to even the slightest changes in acidity, while the leaching of potentially toxic metals can leave water unsafe to drink.

"In an ecosystem as water-rich and pure as the Yellow Dog Plains," says Michelle Halley, a U.P.-based attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, "contamination from acid-mine drainage is a major concern."

***

Back in the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve’s cozy log-cabin office, Pryor holds up two plastic bottles she recently collected from the Iron River -- the one where pollution has been flowing from the tailings of the old Dober Mine since 1973. The water taken from upstream of the mine’s tailings basin is clear as glass. The other, collected downstream, is murky, reddish, and clumpy.

"Acid-mine drainage is what we don’t want in Yellow Dog," says Pryor, who started volunteering with the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve in 1995, shortly after the organization was formed. Its members were originally concerned about unchecked logging and the division of property rights in the watershed. The organization, which now consists of more than 250 members, focuses on water issues.

Pryor’s managerial skills came in handy as she worked with the preserve to acquire and protect land in the organization’s early years. So when Kennecott began exploring for minerals in the late 1990s, she wasn’t going to sit by quietly and watch. "My stepfather, an Episcopal minister, instilled in me two things: Stand up for what you believe in, and take care of the places on this planet you love," she says. 'I knew I had to stand up for this place."

Deborah Muchmore, a spokesperson for Kennecott, says the company is taking care to minimize the impact of Eagle Mine. It’s building an onsite water-treatment facility that she says will keep pollution out of the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers, each of which claims headwaters in the Plains. (A portion of the Yellow Dog is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, and in 2006, the Salmon Trout -- home to the last known breeding population of coaster brook trout in the U.P. -- was named by American Rivers as the fourth most-endangered river in America, thanks to the Eagle Mine proposed for its headwaters.)

"Our goal is to prevent the potential for acid-rock drainage right from the start," Muchmore said by email. Kennecott points to the former Flambeau site, a copper, silver, and gold mine in operation in neighboring Wisconsin from 1993 to 1997, as an example of promises kept. That mine was operated and reclaimed in full compliance with Wisconsin regulations, which, Muchmore says, are regarded as some of the toughest in the nation. But local groups have filed a citizen’s lawsuit against Kennecott for ongoing heavy-metal discharge into the Flambeau, which they say violates the federal Clean Water Act.

And then there is Kennecott’s Bingham Canyon mine near Salt Lake City, Utah. The open pit copper mine, one of the largest man-made excavations on Earth, is so big it can be seen from outer space. A seventy-plus square mile plume of lead and arsenic has seeped out from the site and polluted groundwater near the operation, making it unsuitable for drinking. The EPA recommended the mine as a federal Superfund site in 1994. The Natural Resources Defense Council is also targeting Kennecott’s parent company, Rio Tinto, for its efforts as part of an international consortium of mining companies seeking to build the largest complex of gold and copper mines in America in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. NRDC says the mine would create some 10 billion tons of toxic-laced waste near some of the largest salmon runs in the world.

In 2004, Michigan enacted new regulations designed to prevent mines from contaminating rivers and water supplies. The Kennecott project is the first to be developed with the new rules in place, but Pryor and other advocates are concerned that the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment won’t be able to enforce the law, due to recent budget and personnel cuts. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as NRDC and the Sierra Club are suing the state for issuing industry air permits that fail to comply with the Clean Air Act.

"The Upper Peninsula has the potential to become the next big mining district," says NWF’s Halley. "So we need to get this law right the first time." Two other companies are expected to begin the application process for mine sites in the region later this year, and many more are actively prospecting for minerals.

Last July, Halley, Pryor, and other environmental groups appealed Kennecott’s application permit, asserting that the company isn’t doing enough to prevent acid-mine drainage from seeping into surface and ground water in the wetlands. Attempts to mitigate such drainage have never proven fully effective anywhere, they say, and 85 to 90 percent of similar mines do violate water-quality standards. The appeal is still pending.

Whatever the outcome, Pryor has no intention of giving up. "There’s always been mining up here," she says, "I get it. But some places are just worth protecting." On her skis, she looks out over the snow-covered stillness and adds, "This isn’t over yet."


This article was partially funded with a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism.

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Lindsey Konkel is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a master's degree in science, health and environmental reporting from NYU, and her work has appeared at Environmental Health News, Discover magazine, Reuters, and elsewhere.