Sulfide Mining Development Allowed to Continue After Absence of Federal Decision

It looks like the development of a sulfide mining operation in the Upper Peninsula by Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company will be allowed to continue, for now, after a three-hour long hearing on June 6 concerning a preliminary injunction on the development ended with no decision from the judge. According to officials with Kennecott, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell said that the issue will be taken under advisement. He did not indicate when a decision would be made on the granting of an injunction.

Who is Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company?

Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company is a subsidiary of major mining corporation Rio Tinto. According to its website, the company has been exploring the Upper Peninsula in search of valuable mineral deposits for nearly a decade. In 2002, a sizable deposit of nickel and copper was discovered in Michigamme Township and given the name “Eagle.” It should be noted that Michigamme Township is located about 25 miles northwest of Marquette on the Yellow Dog Plains; both the Yellow Dog River and the Salmon Trout River flow through this area.

The Eagle mine has received widespread support in the region due to its job-creating potential. What some of these supporters do not realize is that mining is typically a boom-bust industry. This means that, in the short-term, jobs will be created and economic benefits will be apparent but this does not often last. In many cases, communities are left more destitute than they were before any mining developments were introduced into the area. According to reports, Kennecott has said that jobs at the mine will last about eight years.

Environmental effects of mining on the Yellow Dog Plains

While the potential for economic harm is apparent, this is not the only worry–there are some major environmental concerns, as well. In addition to the presence of both the Yellow Dog River and the Salmon Trout River, Lake Superior is only 10 miles away from the Yellow Dog Plains, putting several sources of fresh water at risk for contamination. According to Save the Wild UP, “[i]t takes approximately 190 years for contaminants to cycle through Lake Superior.”

Contamination is a very serious concern as the likelihood for metallic sulfide mining to create acid mine drainage (AMD) is extremely high. AMD begins when mined sulfide ores and other mining refuse are exposed to air and water; this exposure allows for the creation of sulfuric acid which is drained from the site when precipitation falls. In addition, AMD can lead to the dissolving of heavy metals such as mercury, copper, zinc, and lead. These heavy metals as well as the aforementioned sulfuric acid can then be carried into nearby sources of surface and groundwater.

The Salmon Trout River
Photo courtesy of Save the Wild UP

Due to AMD, red, orange, or yellow sediments may form at the bottom of water sources such as the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout Rivers. These sediments can kill aquatic plants and animals and may disrupt the growth and reproduction of fish. By allowing Kennecott to open this sulfide mine, the citizens of Michigan are placing the highly-valued tourism industry of the Upper Peninsula at risk as it could exacerbate several environmental issues, including the declining population of rare species of fish such as the coaster brook trout. The Salmon Trout River is one of only two places where this fish breeds in the United States–the other is near Isle Royale.

The question is this: Are the potential environmental and economic costs worth the short-term benefits of a mining development?

Organizations have been resisting

Since development began, many groups have been fighting against this mine. A lawsuit filed by the Huron Mountain Club suggests that the construction of the Kennecott mine is illegal because proper permits were not obtained by the company and they were not required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior have also been named as defendants in the suit which seeks for the construction of the mine to be stopped.

In another case of resistance, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has filed a complaint with the United Nations that claims that sulfide mining infringes on its indigenous rights and lands. Currently, the tribes involved in this complaint have had no say in the approval of this mine. They believe that, under the international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, they have a right to be included in the discussion because this area is a traditional territory to them. In addition, a sacred site to local tribes known as Eagle Rock is located on the land that will be mined. This has inspired some activists to work even harder against the Kennecott mine.

TAKE ACTION through Save the Wild UP, an organization seeking to preserve and protect the wildlife, landscape, and freshwater resources of the Upper Peninsula through public awareness and education.

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