Michigan DEQ Gives Tentative OK to Nickel, Copper Mine in Michigans Upper Peninsula

Michigan DEQ Gives Tentative OK to Nickel, Copper Mine in Michigans Upper Peninsula

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tentatively approved a proposal Tuesday to drill a nickel and copper mine in the Upper Peninsula.

The department’s ruling is a crucial step for Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co.’s plan to operate the mine in the Yellow Dog Plains region of northern Marquette County. A final decision will be made later this year, following a public comment period.

The proposed mine has drawn heavy opposition from environmentalists, who say it would endanger the sensitive Salmon Trout River headwaters and pose other ecological threats. Company officials say they would take extensive steps to protect the environment.

DEQ Director Steven Chester said the agency would take public reaction seriously as it works to “ensure this project is as protective of the environment as it can be.”

Company officials say they would take extensive steps to avoid polluting the river and its surroundings. They say the mine would provide jobs and boost the economy in the struggling Upper Peninsula.

Michelle Halley, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, said the group would file a lawsuit if the DEQ ultimately issues permits for the mine.

“We certainly think this is a very bad decision by the governor and her staff, and we expect the DEQ will take a much harder look at the science. The final decision still needs to be a denial,” Halley said.

The mine would be the first to win approval under a set of nonferrous mineral mining regulations adopted by the DEQ in 2004, which the agency says are among the nation’s most stringent.

“I think it’s safe to say this proposal has probably received more environmental scrutiny than all but a few that the state’s ever looked at,” DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said.

The rules were prompted by concerns that the Kennecott mine would extract metals from within formations containing sulfur.

When sulfide rock is brought to the surface and exposed to air and moisture, a chemical reaction generates sulfuric acid laden with dissolved heavy metals that can leach into surface or ground water.

McCann said Kennecott would be required to contain the sulfide rock and prevent the chemical reaction. The ores “will never see the light of day,” moving from underground directly to enclosed buildings, then to covered trucks and finally to covered rail cars, he said.

The proposed mine would be near the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, which flows into Lake Superior. It is believed to be the only stream on Superior’s southern shore with a native, naturally reproducing population of the rare coaster brook trout.

The mining law sets “strict and comprehensive requirements for all aspects of the mining operation, including storage, treatment and disposal of ore, waste rock and other materials,” the DEQ said in a statement.

Kennecott will be required to submit a detailed plan for operating and eventually closing the mine, including monitoring of the site afterward and restoring the area, the DEQ said.

Editor’s Note — John Flesher is the AP correspondent in Traverse City and has covered environmental issues since 1992.

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