The Eagle Mine is on schedule to begin nickel and copper production later this year, but even if it does, it might not remain online for long. The Michigan Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in June in an appeal of Michigan DEQ permits for the mine.
The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has pursued the appeal since 2008 along with several environmental groups. About 500 KBIC members attended the Court of Appeals hearing in Lansing.
“Our attorney, Connie Sue Martin, was fighting for us,” KBIC vice president Carole LaPointe said. “It was so awesome to hear her be so literate and in tune to the case and how it affects us and how it affects our religion. One of the judges actually compared it to the removal of lands in South Dakota as well.”
The tunnel from the surface to the underground ore body passes directly underneath Eagle Rock, an Anishinaabeg sacred place. In 2010, KBIC members and others camped and protested there.
LaPointe asked, “What if everyone in the Copper Country or in the U.P. had to put a fence around their church? What if we just said, ‘OK, you can go in here at this time, and you have a fence around it and you can only go through that fence on this time’? People would have an uprising, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
In 2011, Ingham County Circuit Judge Paula Manderfield, an Atlantic Mine native, upheld an earlier DEQ decision that Eagle Rock was not a place of worship under Michigan mining law because it’s not a built structure.
“1960, my grandmother on the Indian side of my family took me to Eagle Rock,” KBIC member Jeffery Loman said. “I have a big problem with Judge Manderfield’s decision, but Judge Manderfield didn’t talk to me. What she had before her were work by some academics that didn’t show historical use by Indians.”
“It doesn’t have a cross on it like a traditional church, but it is still a place of worship for us and holds a special meaning,” KBIC director of cultural affairs Gary Loonsfoot, Jr. said. “I think it’s very defamatory on Eagle Mine’s part to drill their hole, their entrance, right into it.”
Loman believes Rio Tinto placed the tunnel there when it owned the mine project as a smokescreen.
“Hard rock mines have, historically, continuously had a problem, and that’s water pollution,” he said. “In order to get the kind of support from local politicians, our state legislator, Congressional delegation, they needed to take the focus off of water pollution.”
“The ground water, which is likely the future drinking water source for residents of Marquette County, it’s going to be venting into these fresh water springs and entering our surface waters unpermitted under the Clean Water Act,” KBIC mining technical assistant Jessica Koski said.
The KBIC’s own history suggests that they’re not at all opposed to mining in general.
“Native Americans were one of the first miners of copper around here,” Loonsfoot said. “We have records indicating 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and beyond that, pieces that were worked.”
Koski doubts the value of the trade-off that she believes may be required to get the Eagle Mine into production.
“How long are they going to be around? The Anishinaabe people are going to be here for centuries and centuries. This is our homeland and we intend to not go anywhere,” she said.
“If anyone thinks that that’s the end of litigation regarding this mine, they are wrong,” Loman said. “The litigation is endless, and it’s endless for one reason. It’s a regulatory fiasco. It’s not properly regulated.”
Eagle Mine officials declined to speak, saying they had nothing to add to an earlier statement that they’re confident the project complies with all state and federal laws and regulations for safeguarding the environment. The same statement noted that the DEQ’s review process has withstood previous challenges over the past eight years.
The KBIC has said it expects the Court of Appeals decision to be issued by early December. The mine can start production before the ruling comes back. If the court finds in the tribe’s favor, the mine will have to shut down until a new permit is issued that complies with the court’s decision.