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Decision looms for controversial mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Brian Bienkowski

Decision looms for controversial mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A proposed open-pit mine in Michigan is pitting a tribe and locals against a multinational company and is a reminder that modern conveniences have costs.

Michigan officials are weighing the possibility of an open pit mine in the western Upper Peninsula, and Native Americans, residents and environmental groups fear it will pollute water and cultural resources.

They are pleading with the state to reject the permit, but they're running out of options.

The mine would provide the metals that drive our technologically saturated lives. It is also emblematic of the societal struggle over who gets a voice in how and where we yank valued resources out of the Earth.

The mine, dubbed the Back Forty, straddles the Michigan-Wisconsin border and has been in the works for more than a decade. It is in the final stretch of permitting: the company, Aquila Resources Inc., recently responded to questions from the Michigan Department of Environmental and a decision could come down any day.

The mine would sit within 150 feet of the biggest river system in the Upper Peninsula, the Menominee River, which forms the Michigan-Wisconsin border and is a crucial waterway for fish such as lake sturgeon, bass and walleye.

“The beginning of our very nation starts at the mouth of the Menominee River.”-Guy Reiter, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Within the broader footprint of the mining site are burial grounds and former raised garden beds from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, who used to live in the region before an 1856 treaty forced them onto their current reservation, 60 miles southwest of the proposed mine site.

For the tribe, the river is the center of their creation story. The mine is affront to all they hold sacred.

“The beginning of our very nation starts at the mouth of the Menominee River,” said Guy Reiter, a Menominee and member of the tribe’s Conservation Commission. “The creator gave us responsibility for watching out for that water thousands of years ago.”

The mine would be about 83 acres and the plan is to pull metals such as gold, zinc, copper and silver out of the ground, said Cliff Nelson, vice president of U.S. operations at Aquila. He said the burial mounds, while on company owned land, aren’t where the actual pit will be.

Aquila estimates 532,000 ounces of gold, 721 million pounds of zinc, 74 millions pounds of copper, 4.6 million ounces of silver and 21 million pounds of lead from the mine—metals that are crucial to the Western lifestyle, going into our cell phones, computers, cars and other modern day conveniences.

Nelson said in addition to geomembrane-lined pits to keep tailings, waste and wastewater at bay, there would be a 1,300-foot wall between the water and the river.

Beyond the resources, Nelson also cited a local economic boost: 450 new mine jobs, 1,330 construction jobs and royalties of more than $16.5 million, according to a Aquila-commissioned study from University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In addition to the burial mounds are former Menominee raised garden beds in the footprint of the mine site—the “largest, maybe only remaining portion, of raised agricultural fields in the state of Michigan,” said David Overstreet, a consulting archaeologist at the College of Menominee Nation.

The state of Michigan decides on mine permitting with little federal involvement. Joe Maki, head of the mining division of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, is leading the team that will ultimately make the decision. “We’ve reached out to the Menominee and we recognize that these cultural resources and their oral history are not something that non-native people have a handle on,” he said.

The challenge is how to incorporate that into a permit, he said. “We take these things into consideration but Michigan made mining legal, that was a Legislature decision,” he said.

Ron Henriksen of the Menominee River Front 40 environmental group visits the proposed mine site. (Credit: Brian Bienkowski)

Opponents worry there’s a dearth of mining experience in the immediate area and the economic numbers are inflated.

“Of course there will be some jobs when there’s construction but after that, ‘see ya’, ” said Ron Henriksen, a spokesperson for the Menominee River Front 40 environmental group, comprised of locals fighting the mine.

Instead, Henriksen said it would upend the lives of retirees who moved to the area for the solitude, like Jim Voss, who moved back home with his wife where they met many decades ago. Voss and his wife, who spent much of their life downstate in Kalamazoo, Michigan, moved home to the area where they met decades ago in nearby Stephenson while in high school. “We retired and came back home,” said Voss, a soft-spoken former teacher.

“At first I was like ‘why me, God?’” Voss said. “Our idyllic hideaway became the center of controversy.”

“Our idyllic hideaway became the center of controversy.”-Jim VossThey are the nearest year-round residents left living near the potential mine. “Of course my number one concern is water,” Voss said.

Water used at the mine and processing plant would be sent to a wastewater treatment plant then discharged to the river, or seeped into groundwater. Nelson said they haven’t yet decided on what type of water treatment system but most of the water will be recycled and re-used. “The rest will be cleaner than rainwater before we’re allowed to discharge,” he said.

The current permit spells out two stages of chemical treatment for the water, after which it will pass through a membrane filter before discharge. Sludge will be removed, condensed and sent offsite.

The mining method itself has stoked concern—extracting metals from sulfide ores. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. The acid can then release harmful metals and drain into nearby rivers, lakes and groundwater sources –called acid mine drainage.

Aquila estimates about 53 million tons of waste rock and 11 million tons of tailing waste over the life of mine. And locals worry about the location: the river is one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the Midwest and is the spawning ground for roughly half of Lake Michigan's sturgeon, said Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

Lake sturgeon are threatened and rare in the Great Lakes. The long-living fish had their populations plummet a century ago due to overfishing, dams and pollution. In recent years there’s been a large push—and millions of dollars spent—to protect and bolster the threatened sturgeon population in Lake Michigan.

“To bring back lake sturgeon to Lake Michigan, we have to help them in the Menominee River,” Caneff said. “Any mistake, a heavy rain storm, anything unanticipated, puts silt and contaminated waste, metals, sulfides into the Menominee River, and could be really destructive.”

Starting in the mid-1800s, mining, namely copper, was to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula what the auto industry is to the Lower Peninsula. From 1845 to 1960 Michigan produced about 11 billion tons of copper, said Allan Johnson, a professor emeritus at Michigan Tech University’s geological and mining engineering and sciences department.

After a century of grabbing the low hanging fruit, many mines starting closing up the 1960. Labor strife and the need to go deeper and deeper for paydirt made the mining uneconomical.

But mining interests have resurged in the area, and this isn’t the first to raise the hackles of tribes. A four-hour drive to the north, near Lake Superior, is the Eagle Mine, an underground sulfide mine that the Keweenaw Bay Indian tribe fought, losing the battle in the end.

But as an underground mine, Eagle is different than the Back Forty, which would be an open pit. Maki said the closest example is the former Flambeau Mine is Wisconsin, which, although much smaller at 32 acres, was an open pit mine that was backfilled in 1999.

Wisconsin has touted Flambeau as a model of success, but it “should not inspire any confidence for Back Forty reclamation,” said Al Gedick, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, whose focus is on mining and Native American communities.

Since Flambeau closed a little less than 20 years ago state officials have reported elevated levels of copper and zinc in nearby waters, which can harm fish. In 2012, a trial court ruled Flambeau violated the Clean Water Act by discharging too much pollution into the Flambeau River and tributaries, although the ruling was later overturned on a technicality.

Maki couldn’t say when the permitting decision might come. But for Reiter and others in opposition, their river and all it stands for hangs in the balance.

“I’ll be devastated if it gets approved—it’ll be a somber day,” Reiter said. “That river means a lot to me and our [Menominee] Nation.”

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