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Mining boom in Michigan: economic boost or environmental nuisance?

Demand for metals on the world market is prompting a mining boom in Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula, where jobs are scarce. But possible environmental damage to forests, lakes, and rivers alarms some locals.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / March 27, 2012

A December 2011 photo from the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. shows the entrance (large metal tube) to the nickel and copper mine the company began drilling in Michigan in September.

Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co./AP/File


Big Bay, Mich.

Jeff TenEyck was glad to come home last year. He had left Michigan for a small trucking business in South Carolina but returned to work at a new mine just outside Big Bay, the little mill town where he grew up.

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"This is the biggest shot in the arm for the economy here since Henry Ford was here," says Mr. TenEyck, whose grandfather worked in a lumber mill that Ford bought in 1943.

Driven by a worldwide surge in demand for metals, mining is on the rebound in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, bringing the hope of jobs to remote and economically depressed rural communities. A dozen miles south of Big Bay, London-based mining giant Rio Tinto PLC and its subsidiary, Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co., are digging a shaft beneath a pine-covered flat called the Yellow Dog Plains. They plan to begin extracting nickel and copper early next year. Rio Tinto says the Eagle Mine will be the largest nickel mine in the country and will create as many as 700 new jobs.

Meanwhile, Orvana Minerals Corp., a Canadian mining company based in Toronto, is close to final approval for a copper mine expected to create hundreds of jobs in the sparsely populated western Upper Peninsula. Next in line, Aquila Resources Inc. and HudBay Minerals Inc. plan to apply for a permit later this year to mine zinc, gold, and silver at a small, open-pit mine along the Menominee River called the Back Forty Project.

There could be more. Mining companies have been busy prospecting for new deposits, crisscrossing the Upper Peninsula by plane and helicopter, drilling exploratory holes, leasing land, and buying up mineral rights. They've revisited old mines to see if new technology might make it profitable to reopen them.

"It's like flies to honey," says Theodore Bornhorst, professor of economic and engineering geology at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. "It's got a lot of people interested."

The prospect of jobs has also excited the hopes of residents. "It's a no-brainer for most people," says Amy Clickner, head of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, an economic development corporation in Marquette, Mich. "We do have a culture used to mining here. And the people who live up here do have to have jobs."

At the same time, many residents worry that new mining could damage the environment and threaten the natural abundance that they enjoy as hunters and anglers.

Around Big Bay, opponents of the Eagle Mine, including a local group of Ojibwa Indians, have packed hearings, gotten themselves arrested, and traveled to London to speak out at meetings of Rio Tinto shareholders. They have sued Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality for granting a mining permit in 2007. Most recently, they have been fighting the construction of a haul road through a wild area south of the mine.

"Of course we want jobs back in Baraga County," says Susan LaFernier, tribal council secretary for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which lies west of the mine in a county with 18 percent unemployment. "We'd be crazy if we didn't. But we think the harm isn't worth those jobs."


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