By Dan Wiitala, Professional Geologist, Marquette, MI

There often exists a false dichotomy of choices that are presented for any new project development. This is especially true of resource extraction projects, such as mining for metals. Our experience has been that both sides of the issue are often presented just that way. On the pro-business side, the argument has historically been made that regulations ruin business. On the pro-environment side, the argument is typically that business ruins the environment. It then becomes “jobs versus the environment” and we are led to believe we can’t have it both ways. In actuality, both sides hold a piece of the truth, but neither is a whole truth in most cases.

Yes, regulations drive up the cost of doing business, but the upside is reducing community risk. Yes, we can easily point to places where unregulated business has resulted in environmental damage, but environmental control technology, best management practices, and cultural changes in workplace safety have greatly reduced these problems in modern project development. Both sides certainly play on fear to rally their base supporters but what can we actually expect to result from a modern mining project in our backyard?

Eagle Mine in northern Marquette County provides a case study where we have the opportunity to look back on what was predicted and what has occurred. Supporters of the mine rallied behind the economic gains that would result from a relatively large project in the county. In fact, Eagle has resulted in hundreds of local jobs, state royalties, and local taxes that have had a clear and measurable economic impact. For full disclosure, as a scientific and engineering consultant to the project, we have directly hired several employees due to the workload that our small company has had with Eagle. In turn these employees are paying rent, buying houses, and purchasing other goods and services to support a thriving local economy. Of course, unless the company makes a new discovery the mine will close in several years and the jobs, royalties, taxes, will no longer be provided by the mine. This may result in an economic contraction, so other new projects (mining or otherwise) will have to take up the slack. Change isn’t easy but inevitable, and without allowing new projects to move forward there can be no economic or community progress.

Opponents predicted many problems if mining were allowed to happen at Eagle. At the very least they suspected the project would change this remote location by making it busier, more accessible to people, and thereby diminish its remote character and qualities. Making worst case predictions, the mine permit was contested by opposition ‘experts’ who testified that the sulfide mineral orebody was so reactive that exposing it at the ground surface could result in a complete degradation of the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout River watersheds. Some feared and promoted the idea that the acid rock drainage (“ARD”) from the mine site would literally cause these rivers to run red with similar effects that would be visible in Lake Superior.

Truthfully, we can now see the mine has changed the character of the area somewhat. The most visible change is that an all-season road now leads right to the mine, with a pavement so smooth and shoulders so wide that you may see NMU’s Nordic Ski Team roller skiing out there this summer. Finally, the new road has also changed stream quality for the better by repairing many sections of the old Triple A Road that produced a lot of sediment runoff to Salmon Trout tributary streams historically.

Eagle Mine’s operation has had absolutely no impact on surrounding watersheds. The stream quality remains excellent. Water quality is highly monitored by both Eagle and the independent Community Environmental Monitoring program. Groundwater levels and quality are also highly monitored at and around the mine site. Groundwater quality is monitored so tightly at Eagle that we have been able to detect just a few parts-per-billion concentration change in naturally occurring vanadium over one hundred feet beneath the surface of where treated water is returned to the environment. Keep in mind that the water they discharge has to be cleaner than drinking water.

As for the Back Forty project in Menominee County, the narrative of opposition has been that ARD will get into the Menominee River and destroy the water for fisheries and recreational use. This is a scare tactic and simply not true. Just like Eagle, the Back Forty project received its permit to mine under Michigan’s Part 632 Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining regulations. Extensive background data, mine site design, water treatment plant design, and on- and off-site monitoring, financial assurance, and reclamation plan are just some of the conditions included in the mine permit. If the company doesn’t meet the conditions – they don’t mine.   

A very high bar for environmental responsibility has been set through the Eagle Mine and its regulated permit conditions. Even with such regulations, the mine is profitable as reported by its owner – Lundin Mining. Local and regional stakeholders have come together to realize the benefits of the mine, reduce associated risks, and adapt to the changes that any new project brings to an area. I expect that same performance can be achieved at Back Forty through diligent work of all stakeholders.