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Can a Community Keep a Mine Safe for the Environment?

On the shores of Lake Superior, the nonprofit Superior Watershed Partnership has spent years working to protect and restore watersheds around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

So when an international mining company proposed opening a copper and nickel mine in Marquette County, the group was against it, fearing water pollution.  Now that same organization is charged with a unique task: environmental testing of Eagle mine, all paid for by the company it once opposed.  It’s called CEMP – the community environmental monitoring program.  Some point to it as a model for Northern Wisconsin, but not everyone’s happy about the alliance between environmentalists and industry. 

When the idea of collaborating with mining company Rio Tinto entered the conversation, Superior Watershed Partnership Director Carl Lindquist said many were shocked by the idea.

“This teeny little local nonprofit dealing with one of the world’s largest companies," he said.  "But we were adamant that it had to be truly independent."

The Canadian Lundin Mining Corporation now owns Eagle Mine, and doles out $300,000 annually to pay for the monitoring.  The funds are routed through a foundation, that serves as a buffer to help keep the program free of influence.  In its first year of existence, CEMP passed its first test of independence:  it found uranium in some of the mine’s excavations.  State permits didn’t even regulate uranium, but the mine had to deal with it when it went public.    

“The fact that we found it, before the state of Michigan found it," Lindquist pointed out, "what does that say?”

Lindquist knows there will always be skeptics.  Among those are members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, an Ojibwe tribe on the shores of Lake Superior.  A seat reserved for a tribal member on the CEMP board sits empty.  The tribe has been involved in multiple lawsuits against Eagle Mine, which sits a few steps away from a sacred site called Eagle Rock.  Lundin says tribal members can visit the site whenever they want, as long as they give advance notice and don’t stay overnight.  But Mining Technical Assistant for the Keweenah Bay tribe Jessica Koski says the tribe doesn’t want to play into the company’s PR game. 

“Them touting to the public how they have allowed so many members to come and visit Eagle Rock – really neglecting  our perspective of what Eagle Rock means," she said, "and how we used to have traditional rights to practice our ceremonies in private, and without all the destruction surrounding the area.”

Destruction from one angle is just construction from another.  And that means jobs.  

The estimated price tag of building the mine could approach a billion dollars, and Lundin is still hoping for a hefty profit.  That’s because the ore discovered in 2002 is so high quality, the company thinks it’s worth it to build a mine that will last less than a decade. 

Lundin Geologist Bob Mahin is pointing to a 3D computer graphic of the mine plan.  

“The red zone here is about 6 percent nickel, and about 4 percent copper," he says. "And that ranks it easily in the highest echelon of copper nickel deposits in the world.” 

Right now it’s only about halfway built - with crews busy blasting and hauling rock out of the underground tunnel. 

Going down the 13 percent grade into the mine requires a specialized mining costume: steel toed boots, yellow safety vest, a hardhat with a spotlight, and a 10 pound safety belt with an oxygen supply.  The trip does not require a specialized vehicle: any heavy duty diesel truck with Kevlar tires will do.

Seven hundred feet underground, in the dark of the mine workers communicate with headlamp signals and truck horns.  Two honks means you’re going forward.  Three honks means backing up. 

Mine Superintendent John Mason has worked in underground mines since the tender age of 18.  

“I actually feel safer underground because I know how the ground's been taken care of, I know how it's been bolted and back bolted," he said. "And you're never gonna have an airplane fall on your head underground."

He said this one is the cleanest. 

“Things have changed a lot.  Permits have gotten stricter.  Which they should.  I mean, I like eating the fish I catch and shooting deer with one head," he chuckled.

Mason and other mine officials have faith in the environmental protections on site.  Lundin spokesman Dan Blondeau led a tour of the onsite water treatment plant. 

“The big blue tank that’s in that room that the water gets filtered through, it’s called a nutshell filter because it’s ground-up nutshells," Blondeau explained,  "that absorb the petroleum.”

Blondeau says after being thoroughly filtered, water that comes out of the mine will be clean enough to drink.  But that doesn’t necessarily allay concerns about water pollution.   

Actual mining of metal hasn’t even begun here yet, and when it does there will be tailings to worry about– that’s material leftover after the copper and nickel are processed at a nearby mill.  The rock in Eagle Mine contains sulfide, which could leach into area waters and create sulfuric acid. 

Northern Wisconsin and other mining communities will certainly be tuning in as CEMP monitors are further put to the test, when Eagle Mine opens for business next year. 

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