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.
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The revival of mining in Michigan is driven by rising demand for metals on the world market, especially in developing countries like India and China. Michigan's neighbors, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Western states like Arizona and Utah have also seen increased mining.Skip to next paragraph
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"Everyone's hiring like crazy," says Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.
Mining has long been a part of the local economy in Michigan. Native Americans excavated copper from surface de-posits around Lake Superior and traded it as far as the Gulf Coast and the Rocky Mountains. Large-scale mines opened in the 1800s. But the heyday of mining soon passed; today just two open-pit iron ore mines survive in the Upper Peninsula.
Some communities, especially small cities like Houghton and Marquette, have diversified their economies and no longer depend on only one or two industries. Others, like Ironwood, a town of 5,494 in the western Upper Peninsula, have never recovered from mining's collapse.
James Oliver, a Gogebic County commissioner, says the town's population has fallen by two-thirds since the copper mines closed, and it's still shrinking. At a hearing in March, most of the nearly 400 people who showed up supported the new Orvana copper mine.
"It means a lot of jobs for us in the area, trickling down from the mine," says Mr. Oliver.
Still, the need for jobs has not eclipsed worries about mining and the environment. This conflict was thrown into sharp relief in March in northern Wisconsin, where mining company Gogebic Taconite proposed a $1.5 billion open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills near Mellon – but only if Wisconsin streamlined its application procedure. On March 6, the Wisconsin State Senate narrowly rejected a new mining law, whereupon Gogebic Taconite announced it was giving up.
"We're heartbroken," says Joseph Barabe, Mellon's mayor and the grandson and great-grandson of miners. "We wanted the mine." But the new law would have offered too little protection for local water and too few financial guarantees for communities, he adds. "We would get all these jobs, but it would bankrupt the town."
Mr. Bornhorst, who directs the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum in Houghton, says mining's environmental record is much improved. Stricter regulations, he says, have reduced its risks. "I think all mining companies are put on notice that they have to be as responsible as they can be," he says.
At the Kennecott Eagle Mine near Big Bay, mine operators are collecting runoff in lagoons and treating it to prevent acidified and metal-laden water from trickling into streams. Mine waste will be stored and put back in the mine when the mining is finished.
But around Big Bay, many residents aren't satisfied. They say officials have been too eager to please mining officials and that state regulations are lax.
"I'm not against mining," says Chauncey Moran, an activist who has been testing water near the Kennecott mine and taking regular flights over the site to watch for problems. "It's the health of the water and the health of the community that really matter."
Many also question the real potential for new mining jobs. Rio Tinto has pledged to give 75 percent of the jobs to local residents. But skeptics believe the jobs will be too few and shortlived to have much lasting economic benefit.
Even Jeff TenEyck wonders. He'd like his 26-year-old son to move back to Big Bay, too. But despite the new mine, he laments, "there's no work."
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