Mining Resurgence Threatens the Wild U.P.

By Alexandra Thebert

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a living patchwork of wilderness, a land of undeveloped lakes, wild rivers, and remote forests. First-time visitors to Lake Superior, struck by its sheer size, often taste the water just to make sure it’s not salty. Running through the woods are spring-fed streams so pure that many residents drink straight and unfiltered from the source.

Our area has been ravaged by mining for a century. Many seemingly-beautiful lakes are so contaminated by mercury that eating the fish would be unthinkable and the tailings (piles of waste rock) are so large they’re visible from space. The boom-and-bust economics of mining have left ghost towns and desolate Main Streets where communities once thrived. And now the Upper Peninsula is under assault by a new resurgence of mining, which typically uses chemical processes and exposes dangerous heavy metals to our environment.

Enter Rio Tinto, the world’s second-wealthiest mining corporation, notorious for environmental destruction and human rights abuses. Rio Tinto is constructing Eagle Mine to extract a sulfide-rich deposit of nickel and copper 30 miles north of Marquette, our largest town, right along the shores of Lake Superior.

As a sulfide mine, Eagle Mine threatens Lake Superior and other major watersheds — over 20% of the world’s freshwater, with sulfuric acid drainage and acid rain when sulfides are exposed to air and water — a difficult thing to prevent. In fact, there is no similar mine that does not leak sulfides, including Rio Tinto’s own Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin which is now appealing a Clean Water Act violation.

In the U.P., where some counties face over 20 percent unemployment, mining companies like Rio Tinto promise jobs but deliver little. There’s no data supporting their claims of economic gains for communities near mines. The area around Flambeau Mine, for example, saw a stagnant economy up until a tornado blew through and recovery dollars were brought in to heal the community’s devastation. Locally, Rio Tinto laid off 11 workers at its nonunion facilities last month and downsized its contractor force by 20 percent citing market fluctuations.

The project itself is hazardous. Mine engineer and geologist Jack Parker declared Eagle Mine’s very structure unsound and susceptible to collapse in a report published in 2009. Coupled with the recent reporting of uranium at the site, former oil regulator for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,  Jeffery Loman has stated the risks associated with the project have just increased exponentially, potentially endangering the workers, community, and environment to radiation and radon exposure.

Further, Rio Tinto insisted on constructing the mine directly underneath land sacred to the local Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) tribe. Imagine a mine company drilling a portal beneath a church, asking worshippers to enter through company gates, sign company logs, and wear a hard hats and orange vests — that’s what going on there now.

The industry would like us to believe that mining is a part of our honored heritage, but that’s not the case. Mining killed people and forced them to work underground in terrible conditions. The pneumatic drill used for hardrock mining took so many lives to silicosis it was nicknamed the “widow maker.” Mining destroyed bodies of water and scarred miles of land, much of which continues to be polluted today.

Our true heritage is one that is also shared with Detroit — everyday people standing up for themselves and their fellow workers by forming unions. And that is the legacy that we see in our community spaghetti benefit dinners and 50/50 raffles for the sick, and retail and fast-food workers in Detroit demanding fair wages and conditions. As Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” We have the love — for our land, for our communities, and we ask you as our neighbors to join us in fighting for justice.

Thousands of people oppose Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine, including hundreds of health professionals and over 100 faith leaders, and we will not stop fighting to protect our community. Our cause is shared, and by working together all across the state, we’ll be stronger than ever.