Michigan Mine Clears Permitting Hurdles

Published March 8, 2010

The Kennecott Eagle Mineral Company in Michigan’s economically depressed Upper Peninsula has finally received the environmental permits necessary to reopen dormant Humboldt Mill, eight years after the company discovered rich nickel deposits  nearby.

Environmental Obstacles Overcome
Fighting off environmental activists’ challenges intended to halt all mining activity, Kennecott has obtained an Air Use Permit for air emissions; a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit for the discharge of treated process water to surface waters; a Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Permit for operation and reclamation of the facility; and an Inland Lakes and Streams Permit for placement of tailings into the existing Humboldt pit.

Humboldt Mill will crush and grind rock mined at the company’s Eagle Mine, located 25 miles northwest of Marquette. Nickel and copper concentrates will be separated from the rock and sent to processing facilities in Ontario, Canada. Kennecott will begin a brownfield cleanup of the property later this year, before building a new water-treatment plant to meet state and federal water discharge quality standards. Humboldt’s existing millworks will be upgraded or replaced.

Standards Exceeded
The Humboldt Mill previously processed ore from Michigan’s open pit iron mines until closing in 1972 and filled with water. In the 1980s the mill was reopened for processing gold ore. It closed in 1985.

The awarding of the Humboldt mill permits follows a decision last August by Michigan Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson upholding the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) state mine and water discharge permits for Eagle Mine, rejecting environmental challenges filed by the National Wildlife Federation, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and the Huron Mountain Club.

Among the concerns raised by these environmental groups was the potential of poisonous sulfides entering the Yellow Dog watershed and endangering the rare coaster brook trout. The ruling acknowledged Kennecott and MDEQ satisfied or exceeded all applicable environmental standards.

Jump-Starting a Depressed Economy
The Eagle Mine and Humboldt Mill projects—combined with the $50 million, 22 mile Woodland Road building project in which Kennecott is a partner—will create an estimated 500 construction jobs and 200 fulltime operations jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenues and wages.

In addition the Eagle Mine is expected to contribute between $25 million and $75 million to the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, millions in contributions to Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, and more than $100 million in state and local taxes.

All told, the Eagle Mine, Humboldt Mill, and Woodland Road projects represent approximately $350 million in local investments by Kennecott and its parent company, Rio Tinto.

Site Will Be Restored
Located near Big Bay, Michigan, the underground Eagle Mine is expected to produce 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper during its projected 10-year operation.

If all goes according to plan, the Eagle Mine is expected to begin producing by 2013 and will be the only primary nickel mining operation in the United States.

The ore body underground is approximately six acres in size. Kennecott’s post-mining reclamation plan, developed in concert with community representatives and regulators, calls for returning the area to its pre-operations conditions after mining operations are completed.

Breaking New Ground
The learning curve on the first permit was arduous, admitted Robert McCann, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment press secretary, but he believes the procedures required by the new law worked.

“I think the process worked as intended,” McCann said. “It was lengthy, but the amount of time we took was necessary because this was the first time a permitting process was pursued entirely based off a new law and there were certain points of uncertainty as well as questions of how to implement it. There were minor mistakes, but they were fixed and we resumed the process. In the end, I think we’re satisfied.”

“Opening a new mine in the United States—and certainly here in Michigan—is an extremely ambitious effort that requires serious commitment and the resources and expertise necessary to secure strict permits,” said Kennecott Michigan project leader Jon Cherry.

“Kennecott is extremely pleased to be leading investment in Michigan’s newest era of resource production, and gratified that our approach is consistent with the state’s tough laws and regulations for protecting the environment,” he added.

More Economic Activity Expected
The successful cooperation between Kennecott, the public, and state regulatory agencies serves notice the Upper Peninsula is open for even more mining business, McCann said.

“We’ve already been approached by other mining companies looking for opportunities in the UP [Upper Peninsula],” he said. “We’ll be ready. We’re satisfied with how the process worked. It’ll go much smoother the next time.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a Michigan-based writer and publisher of the Mackinac Center’s MichiganScience magazine.