A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports.
The price of nickel has tripled in recent years. It’s needed for electronic produces such as computers. It’s used to produce cars. And nickel is even used in air pollution control equipment. If it’s approved, this would be North America’s only active nickel mine.
Kennecott Minerals Corporation says it’ll mean 120 jobs for local workers over a 10-year period. The state of Michigan has been lagging behind the rest of the nation in job recovery and in the northern reaches of the state good jobs are really hard to find.
The mine will cost 100 million dollars to set up. But the value of the nickel ore in the ground is somewhere between one and three billion dollars. So the company could make hundreds of millions in profit.
Scientists and activists say that this nickel mine could be even worse than the iron and copper mines of the past.
That’s because it would require mining through sulfide minerals. When they mix with water and oxygen, they can become sulfuric acid, just like battery acid. The industry calls the problem acid mine drainage. It can kill fish and wildlife and pollute water.
Michelle Halle is a lawyer for the National
Wildlife Federation and a local resident. She’s got one question.
“I’m always interested in the answer to the question about whether he believes that a mine can exist with 100% perfect track record.”
It’s a rhetorical question. She’s confident that the company won’t be able to meet the newer, stricter standards for getting a permit to mine.
“No human error, no design flaws, no natural disasters that are going to cause an impact… I don’t think that any company can say yes to that honestly.”
The mining company says there’s always some risk. John Cherry works for Kennecott Minerals Corporation. Cherry insists the company’s design is the best, and the safest. Although he says it’s impossible to guarantee against accidents at the mine.
“We can get in a crash on the way home today too. You design it with a safety factor built into your design. You have a very robust design. That’s your first step. You make your system as structurally competent as you can. Make it as bulletproof as you can.”
Cherry says the next steps are to install a monitoring system to detect the smallest problems. And if there are any problems, the mine will have a contingency plan with the right materials and properly trained people on hand.
State law requires the company to pay all of its accident insurance up front. They can’t just pay in installments. That way, the company will pay to clean up any mess, not the state or the community. Minnesota has a similar law. And In Wisconsin, People Against Mining got the state to establish a moratorium on sulfide mining
David Chambers used to work as a geologist for a mining company. And now he works for the Center for Science in Public Participation. He says, at the nickel mine planned in Michigan, groundwater contamination is possible and would be dangerous.
“Probably the most likely event is an accidental release from the mine. All mines have problems. It’s likely that somebody won’t turn a valve the right way or a big storm comes and there’s an overflow.”
Chambers says a mine collapse would be the most destructive. But, he says, even for the accidents that will not devastate the environment, the company and the community should plan, because they will happen.
(Sound of trucks)
On the road leading into the wilderness area where the mine would operate, local road crews are doing routine maintenance. Right now, most people who use the road are hikers, kayakers and fishermen. The pristine waters of Lake Superior and surrounding lakes and streams attract them here.
Kristy Mills is a store owner. She thinks a sulfide mine would only mean heavier traffic of trucks carrying away nickel ore. She says it wouldn’t bring in the tourist dollars the area needs.
“We don’t like to see that kind of growth. I think it’s a poor way of investing into our future. You know, we need to encourage tourism and visitation, not mining and hauling ore around in big trucks. It’s gonna be interesting.”
Many local residents and environmental activists feel the area should have learned lessons from the region’s past mining heritage. The precious ore is removed. People somewhere else get rich. And the legacy of pollution is all that remains when the mines are closed. So now, they’re hoping if it comes, this mine will be different.
For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.