Up Close: Iron Mining in the Upper Peninsula

Nov 26, 2013

Controversy continues over a proposed iron mine in Iron and Ashland counties.  

Iron pellets from Empire and Tilden mines is sent to the Marquette Ore Docks on Lake Superior.
Credit P. Gordon / http://www.flickr.com/photos/pgordon/5264273065/sizes/m/in/photolist-92bLYH/

While Wisconsin hasn’t seen an open pit mine in a while, some neighboring states have.  Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is home to a pair of open pit iron mines that have been operating for several decades.   

Standing on the edge of Empire Mine is like looking into an amphitheater far too big for any performance.  It’s a mile wide and a mile across.  1200 feet deep.  I start wondering how many swimming pools it would take to fill it. 

“You have to mine large quantities of low-grade ore to be able to upgrade that ore into a concentrate that’s 65 percent iron.”

That’s Cliffs Natural Resources company spokesman Dale Hemmila. 

“So to do that, you have to move a lot of material.  Not only the ore – but you have to move a lot of material to get to the ore."

To move that much material, you need big trucks.  Peering down the mine’s terraced slope, the trucks hauling rock at the bottom look like toys.  But in reality, Cliffs Spokeswoman Jennifer Huettl explains they’re two stories high and some can carry more than 300 tons. 

"If they were on a regular road, they would take up both lanes."

No pictures are allowed of the trucks, or of Empire, or of the Tilden mill next door where the iron is extracted from chunks of rock.    

Ear plugs are required against the roar and clang of machinery.  It’s hot and humid in the mill. Steam rises through the iron grate floor. It feels like stepping back into the nineteenth century.  A fine brown dust coats everything from giant machines to workers’ faces.  When I run my finger along the railing it comes away with a dark smudge like graphite. 

“This is all part of that separation process.  The rock part we don’t need, the ore part is what we want.”

Huettl  explains how the milling process grinds up big chunks of rock from the mine to separate the valuable metal.  Once extracted it heads to the one-thousand degree furnace.

The end product is heaps of iron ore pellets piles into railroad cars, usually headed to a steel plant. 

Back in the relative fresh air, Dale Hemmila explains the company employs about 1600 people…between Empire and Tilden mines, the mill, and the mine railroad.  A job here pays well.  But there aren’t as many workers as there once were. 

"My dad was shift foreman here.  His operating crews here were about 40, 44 people here in the 1970s and 80s.  Right now that same crew is about 9-10 people.  The technology has changed, there’s a lot more automation."

If nothing changes Empire Mine is scheduled to close late next year, which could affect hundreds of jobs. Neighboring Tilden mine will remain, as will the mill.  But the biggest question may be what kind of environmental legacy will be left by the pair of giant mines. 

“Certainly the selenium fish consumption advisory is the major issue with those mines right now.”

That’s Michigan DEQ’s Steve Casey, water resources supervisor for the Upper Peninsula.  He explains that in recent years high levels of selenium in nearby streams and lakes have been linked to runoff from mine waste rock piles.  Cliffs Natural Resources has paid fines and is building a series of reactors to reduce selenium discharges.  Several fish advisories are in place.  But Casey says the selenium doesn’t appear to be affecting wildlife populations or human health.  So he doesn’t see the mines as polluters. 

“They’re a major earth disturbance.  There’s no getting around that open pit mining is that.  But once you get outside the fence so to speak, iron mining has a pretty good track record in Michigan.”

But not everyone is so easily satisfied.  Alexandra Thebert is Executive Director of the environmental nonprofit Save the Wild U P

“Mercury is also a big problem.  The water draw downs are a huge problem.  So no, selenium’s not the only issue, there are many more issues.”

Thebert takes a longer view of mining in the UP.  She points to mercury contamination of Deer Lake discovered in the 1980s, linked to decades of Cliffs company mining in the area. 

“What our community wants is to just have clean water.  And that is our biggest priority.  We don’t want any pollution in our water.”

Remediation work for Deer Lake has been underway since 1987.  The Environmental Protection Agency plans to de-list the lake as an area of concern next year.

Meanwhile reclamation plans for Empire Mine are still up in the air.