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Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) has been resolute towards one goal for an entire decade. Their supporters now reach into the thousands, 70 to 100 of them are active volunteers. The mission: to stop Lundin Mining Company’s Eagle Mine project. This isn’t an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ breed. They operate with organization, information, and conviction. Save the Wild U.P. is financed almost entirely through small donations from individuals and small businesses, and the non-profit group is still gaining support in the community.
Two full time staffers, five interns, hundreds of volunteers, and a membership pool of thousands of ‘supporters’ all consort with an advisory board and a board of directors. SWUP is a grass-roots organization led by a botanist, a chemist, a mechanical engineer, and an environmental sociologist, just to name a few. This is a well-educated bunch, a scientific dream team. They are professors, military veterans, business consultants, authors, and lawyers – not the radical environmentalists you’ll ever see locking arms with fellow hippies to protect a Sequoia tree’s soul. They are made up of reluctant activists, motivated not by power, money, or political gain. As they bear witness to an industry undermining their land, supporters join the cause out of necessity. Save the Wild U.P. means real business.
It’s part of what fuels their argument, a better business outlook and a real strategy for economic sustainability in the U.P. They say they’re equally concerned about jobs for working-class Yoopers as they are for environmental protection; a message often diluted in their uphill battle against the Goliath-like mining machine. A catharsis of SWUP’s struggle against an industry that many Yoopers have depended upon for centuries is eminent. It’s crunch time. Similar to how it all played out in the book of Samuel, Save the Wild U.P. executive director Alexandra Thebert would remind us that despite Goliath’s size advantage, “David wins.”
In what could be an epic climatic crescendo of an underdog story, SWUP is conceding nothing to the Lundin Mine Company. Even as operational readiness of the Eagle Mine project counts down to just a few short months, the group is still vigilantly concerned about the day-to-day progress of the mine. More than ever, they are holding events, fundraisers, knocking on doors, and spreading their message.
Last week, Save the Wild U.P. hosted one of their most “un-sexy” events – a discussion on permit violations, and tonight, a public hearing. It’s no hipster concert at the Ore-Dock, but an essential piece of their arsenal is to educate the public, even if that means charting out in milliliters the very severe environmental impact the Eagle project could have in the U.P.
The Eagle Mine construction is slightly more than half way complete with initial production expected to commence by autumn of 2014. Released in December of 2013, Lundin Mining’s Summary Report says that annual production over the first three full years (2015 – 2017) is expected to average approximately 23,000 tonnes of nickel and 20,000 tonnes of copper per annum, with additional by-product credits of precious metals and cobalt.
“Tonne”? “Annum”? These miners talk funny. Tonne is a British term. American English speakers generally have no use for tonne, and the spelling rarely appears in U.S. publications. It’s pertinent because Lundin claims to care about our local environment, our community, and creating jobs in the U.P., but they operate out of United Kingdom with corporate offices in Canada. Despite their message, Lundin has no actual local roots in the Upper Peninsula. This is not entirely uncommon for large corporations. Many industrial based companies run on a tangent from outside the area. It gives weight to more concerning variable: beyond the Eagle project, Lundin does not own or operate any other mines in the United States. The Eagle Mine is their first U.S. operation, ever. Currently they only have mines oversea, located in Spain and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The latter of which presumably has a slightly looser definition of environmental protection than the U.S.
It’s hard for a community to keep up with the arguments for/against the Eagle project, but the fight for SWUP endures. Why? The science irrefutably says the potential risk to the environment could be catastrophic. Many even say permanent harm is almost a certainty. As presented by Save the Wild UP, damage to the environment is already evident. SWUP’s most recent claim is that the Eagle Mine violated the EPA enforceable limit for Chloride in groundwater. According to a letter sent form Eagle Mine to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, chloride levels in groundwater are up 10,000%.
The Eagle Mine’s water permit shows a number of minerals that are above the recommended amount from the EPA, but these regulations are changing to accommodate the mine. There are 47 exceedances at the mine’s compliance wells, including copper, lead, and arsenic.
Arguably, Lundin inherited an onslaught of these unforeseen problems after they purchased the mine in June of 2013 from Rio Tinto. The mine was discovered in 2002. Rio Tinto invested over a decade into its existence and hundreds of millions on construction. Just a year before it would become operational, they handed it off for $325 million. The quick and seemingly abrupt decision to close on the acquisition may be telling.
Lundin will invest another $400 million, totaling over $770 million before a single profitable rock will surface. Based on reported production estimates and current metal prices, on average Eagle will kick out $557 million in Copper and Nickel annually. Within the first three years, the mine could produce $1.67 billion in these primary metals, which should translate into a pretty hefty profit margin. Lundin says the project’s entire life-span is eight years, with additional revenue generated by gold, cobalt, and platinum by-products. So why would Rio-Tinto so quickly orphan this cash cow?
Chris Lynch, chief financial officer of Rio Tinto said, “The sale of Eagle demonstrates our renewed focus and discipline in the way we allocate capital. We are making good progress on a number of other potential divestments as part of our goal to achieve substantial proceeds from divesting non-core assets.” Amid lawsuits, controversy, and community backlash, Rio-Tinto found the continuation of their 10 year investment to be financially unfeasible in the long-term, and handed it off to Lundin. Lundin is considered a much smaller, mid-sized mining company, a company maybe more appreciative of a risk-free $1.6 billion.
Rio Tinto left the ‘asset’ on good terms with local politicians. In a public statement printed in the Mining Journal, Representative John Kivela said to the “folks” at Rio Tinto, “Thank you for your commitment to the community. Thanks for providing opportunities for Michiganders to employ themselves. Thanks for running a safe, clean, environmentally sound operation. That means a lot to the folks here.” He added a welcome to Lundin. “To our good friends from Canada, welcome to the community. Thank you for your investment. Thank you for taking a chance in Michigan and in the United States in this operation and I wish you all the best.”
Save the Wild U.P.’s executive director Alexandra Thebert said, “We would love for elected officials to look at the science, and the long-term economics of this one particular project.” Publicly, politicians often dance around this issue without much reference to science. Statements by publicly elected officials often regurgitate a wishy-washy canned response about Sulfide mining. To summarize: ‘Mining is important to our economy, but it needs to be done safely.’
SWUP isn’t protesting mining. What may be confused for a blanket environmentalist approach to protecting wildlife, SWUP’s key focus is to fight one particular type of mining in one particular location in the Upper Peninsula.“We’re not against your grandfather’s mine,” Thebert said. “There are several mines around here that are not on our radar.” The Eagle Mine, located 30 miles North of Marquette, was the first sulfide mine to be permitted in Michigan, despite being beside the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers, and only 10 miles from Lake Superior. Save the Wild U.P. is focused exclusively on shutting it down before the repercussions of sulfides wreck havoc on the environment.
Metallic sulfide mining (aka hard rock mining) is the practice of extracting metals such as nickel, gold and copper from a sulfide-rich ore body. Sulfides are a geologic byproduct of mining in this area, and by exposing sulfides to the air and water in our atmosphere; sulfuric acid can be created — threatening to poison the nearby water, environment, and communities.
Familiar with the decade long debate between environmentalists and Rio-Tinto, Lundin came in to the community with a well-crafted PR strategy ready to unveil immediately upon their arrival. The Eagle Project’s website states, “The Upper Peninsula’s economy has historically relied on its natural resources and we’re proud to be leading the resurgence of mining activity. In building Michigan’s first new mine in decades, we’re dedicated to safety protecting the environment and to putting area people to work.”
From a public-relations standpoint, it perfectly addresses everyone’s concerns. It talks about U.P. history, implies a resurgence of a bustling mining economy, promotes jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s safe, and they care about the environment. Perfect! Their strategically crafted mission statement is one Upper Peninsula residents can relate-to, even rally behind.
Yoopers are saturated in the culture of mining, our grandparents dug up rock with pitch forks and shovels, our home-town high school mascots are Miners. We have mining museums filled with folklore, history, food, and stories. Our heritage is built upon hard-hats, sooty overalls, and an honest blue collar hard work. Many of us live in towns and communities that exist today solely because of a mining industry boom long ago. Naturally, we look at this industry as a historically trending boost to our economy. It’s an investment into our community, and something we should appreciate, even take pride in. Yoopers, inherently, are proud of mining. Lundin’s commitments to resurge our historic traditions are pretty attractive.
But, when is enough? At what cost do we continue this tradition? San Francisco isn’t still holding on to a Gold Rush that peaked in 1849. Times change, communities innovate, cultures adapt, job-markets adjust, and industries evolve. The Mayans depleted every natural resource around them until their entire society deflated. We’re wiser than that. So, to what extent do we risk our environment just to tap-out every last natural resource? Supporters of Save the Wild U.P. would argue that the promises of Eagle Mine are not worth it. It’s just not in our long-term best interest.
What about jobs? We need them; we’re desperate for new jobs. In this market, even a left-winged environmentalist would concede that a job is worth more than a tree, but these aren’t life-time career positions. They’re contracted non-union positions. Many of which are already filled. Lundin Mining Company says the Eagle Mine will produce “250 jobs, and generate substantial economic activity for area communities.” 100 or so are already employed by local contractors, leaving a maximum additional 150 employees to hire over 8 years. It’s 20 jobs a year, and even though Eagle Mine’s previous owners Rio Tinto pledged that 75% of the positions would be hired locally, Lundin makes no such promises. Construction of the mine will finish up this fall. Upon completion, the need for local contractors will dissipate. We associate these types of mines with the thousands of miners who worked them in the early 20th century. Today, a massive labor force armed with pick-axes and shovels are easily replaced with robots and machinery. By the sounds of their three year projected production plan, employees Lundin does hire will soon be looking for work again after the short-term spike boom of the Eagle Mine fades away.
Ultimately, the ethical argument for Eagle is a simple capitalistic philosophy of the ends justifying the means. Resources! Americans use cell phones. Despite our technological capability to manufacture products that last decades longer than they do, society’s addiction to consumption and waste generate a demand for mass-extracted low-cost resources. We get new cell phones once a year. The innards of our plastic gizmos and gadgets are filled with precious metals like nickel, copper, silver, cobalt, and gold. The modern day world is full of minerals and materials we dig up in our back yard, ship and sell to China, and await their arrival back into the palm of our hands via a brand new iPhone. This is a global economic reality. When someone discovers these universally used resources in our woods, who are we to tell a demand-driven industry to go fetch them from someone else’s backyard?
The Eagle Mine has tactfully played community concern like a fiddle. In a November interview with ABC 10, VP of Projects Paul McRae said, “Community support is absolutely essential to our operations. And, on a personal basis, it’s really satisfying to give something back to the communities who support you.”
Lundin made an investment of $750,000 for start-ups and existing local businesses who work with Northern Initiatives. The hope is that between the entrepreneurial endowment and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in community funding, Eagle Mine can be perceived as a driving force in the local economy for years to come.
Some would argue that it’s all in-kind, it’s all economically neutral. The County has paid to build and maintain Eagle Mine’s temporary road system. Non-profit organizations and elected officials have rolled over as Lundin steamrolls their operation into reality. It’s all on top of tax-payer paved asphalt. Is the Eagle Mine paying for community support? Lundin funnels over a quarter million dollars a year through the Marquette County Community Foundation (MCCF) toward the Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP), in a partnership that supposedly personifies their environmental responsibility.
At the request of local residents and business owners, Lundin says they are “opening their doors” to MCCF and the SWP. “Working together, these organizations will monitor our environmental performance at the Eagle Mine, Humboldt Mill and chosen haul route… The Community Foundation also acts as the independent umpire should any differences arise about independent monitoring.”
One could assume that a +$250,000 annual paycheck influences the outcome of these differences, but as Lundin puts it, MCCF also takes a cut of the cash to “ensure [Lundin’s] funding of the program, as well as any additional third party funding, is at arm’s length from Superior Watershed Partnership.” The meaning of that ambiguous statement isn’t clear. The process of their partnership isn’t transparent. The third party funding, if any, isn’t disclosed. All that can be inferred here is that the entire existence of this independent environmental monitoring program is at the sole discretion of the mine.
In a 2012 publication by Peter Sandman, a Risk Communication Public Relations specialist, he offers strategies on how large corporations should best handle public outrage. Intended or not, the mining industry’s communication tactics are straight out of Sandman’s playbook. They respond to community outrage like an untamed beast grateful for the stewards, and enforceable standards, to help resolve a mutually destructive crisis. It keeps the community off message. A ‘we’re all in this together’ approach helps the culprit cast away blame or fault. Accountability cannot be enforced if the ones responsible for the problem act like leaders of the solution. Lundin partners with environmental organizations, offers transparency, invests into the community, and bombard the public with sponsorships, community-oriented public messages, and claim they care about the area.
The debate is heavy, the EPA is MIA, politicians are easily swayed, and money talks. Beyond that it’s located directly atop a sacred Chippewa landmark, or that rumors and allegations of corruption are slowly emerging, it’s overdue that the community really asks ourselves, “Do we even need this?” “Is it worth it the risk?”
Learn more about Eagle Rock and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in “Undermining the Upper Peninsula – The Chippewa take a stand against the return of the mines to Michigan” – by John Collins (inthesetimes.com)
Mining is a boom industry, no doubt. But, with it comes fall out, consequences, repercussions, and effort into recovery. Recovery is an investment no one can ensure Lundin is willing to make beyond eight years. Some say the Eagle Mine by Lundin Mining Company is a temporary economic solution that does permanent damage to another essential natural resource – the environment. Environmental protection is not important just because dreadlocked vegetarian hippies want to save the trees. It’s important to our economy. Healthy, sustainable growth of our natural resources is essential to tourism. Tourist aren’t here to kayak a mine’s drainage ponds. The amount of lifelong cash brought in by adventurists, hunters, fisherman, and outdoor recreational enthusiasts bring far more cash flow to the Upper Peninsula than 3 to 8 years of mining. Tourism entirely depends upon the health and vibrancy of our wildlife.
We risk setting a precedent of sacrificing pristine wilderness for short-term jobs – jobs that can be created by developing community economic zones and investments into small business development. Small businesses generate 60% of the country’s work force. Elected officials have footed a long-term bill to tax-payers for maintenance of roads that could go to real long-term, local economic sustainability.
Many call the mine a reality, but the debate continues, and it’s an important one. Permit violations, concerns about the use of our bypass, and measurable excess of unwanted chemicals is now sparking up a more heated debate than ever before.
Whatever the outcome, it’s important to not be so quickly persuaded by the historical nostalgia of the mining industry and assume Eagle is a ‘resurgence’ of anything long-term. Yoopers take pride in mining not because of its modern day contribution, but because our ancestors endured through the trenches of it. Similarly to why we’re proud of our military veterans – it’s because they survived battles, or died trying; but we aren’t battle-hungry war profiteers just to turn our unemployed into soldiers.
Company towns that sprouted across the Upper Peninsula were exclusively dependent upon the mining industry out of desperation. Alexandra Thebert says, “Yoopers are proud of mining because of the people that persevered through it. It’s historically significant because it put food on the dinner table. Mining work fed starving families, but it was during a time when we had nothing but this one industry to depend upon.” Today, it’s third on the list of economic boosters, behind lumber, and tourism. The Eagle project threatens both. Sulfide mining isn’t a sign of economic recovery; it is exploitation, it’s short-term, it’s not sustainable, and the potential environmental risks may be irreversible. The economic justification to allow the project to continue sinks the U.P. deeper into a hole of the past. Lundin Mining Company’s Eagle Mine project more than threatens our streams, lakes, fish, and wildlife; it is poisonous to the long-term growth of our economy.