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Mining Exploration Begins in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains

Michigan is divided over a mining company’s plans to drill for copper in a beloved state park

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced last week that it has issued a permit to the mining company Orvana Resources, reports Alyssa Parker for WLUC. The company will start exploratory drilling for copper in a one-square-mile area of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, which spans some 60,000 acres. If Orvana determines that the area is worth mining, its parent company Highland Copper would study the feasibility of constructing a mine underneath that part of the park. 

Punching roughly 21 holes into the rock of Michigan’s heavily forested Upper Peninsula normally wouldn’t be a big deal. But in a state divided over the recent comeback of what once appeared to be a long-gone economy, Porcupine Hills has struck a nerve. By allowing exploration in such a beloved state park—one of the largest wilderness areas in the midwest—the recent permit has brought mining in this region back into the spotlight.

Brad Garmon, director of conservation and emerging issues at the Michigan Environmental Council tells Garret Ellison at MLive that the exploration in the Porcupine Mountains is a “big wake up call,” pointing out that the Porcupine Mountains are gaining more and more attention as national-caliber recreation spot. “We’re not anti-mining, but this is the wrong place," says Garmon. "It’s the old economy versus the new in a lot of ways"—the new economy being the redevelopment and tourism that took over after mining petered out in the 20th century.

That old economy is still looked upon fondly by many in the Upper Peninsula, an area that was known as “Copper Country” after the booming mining industry came on scene in the mid 1800s, reports Ellison. The last copper mine in the area closed in 1995, and only one iron mine still remains in Michigan today, Ellison reports. But in recent years Highland Copper and other companies have begun plans to reopen some of the mines and create new ones. In fact, the Eagle nickel and copper mine opened in 2014 in Marquette County. 

For locals, the resurgence of mining is a mixed bag. While it does bring hundreds of jobs to the area and boosts the local tax base, the boom and bust cycle of mining makes residents wary of relying solely on the industry. “Adding mining back into the portfolio is great, but we've learned not to make it the be-all and end-all,” Amy Clickner, director of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, an economic development group, tells the Associated Press.

John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center, a non-profit group that works on renewing Michigan’s economy, tells Smithsonian.com that he was disappointed when he heard the news about the drilling in the Porcupines—not necessarily because it will cause much damage, but because he believes it’s the wrong direction for his state's economy.

“Part of my work has been to make the economic argument that Great Lakes are a huge economic engine for Michigan, as long as they are not wrecked,” he says. Redevelopment of industrial lakefronts in cities like Marquette, Michigan and Milwaukee have attracted new jobs and new industries to those areas, he points out. Mining and other heavy industries, however, have led to pollution of the lakes and waterways, jeopardizing that developing economy.

“The risks associated with mining dwarf the economic benefits it might bring," says Austin. "Saying yes to 50 jobs today might risk hundreds of jobs tomorrow."

It’s not just Michigan that is seeing increased interest in mining. Mark Fink of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental law group, tells Smithsonian.com that recent advances in technology means that even low-grade copper is now economically feasible to mine. In Minnesota, where he’s based, the Duluth Complex alone has four billion tons of copper-nickel ore worth about a trillion dollars. Two proposed mines in the area have received big pushback from environmental groups for fears they would contaminate the North Shore of Lake Superior, which has become a popular tourism area, as well as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the most-visited wilderness area in the United States.

Though the state owns the Porcupine Mountains, it does not own all of the mineral rights, which is why Orvana was able to lease the rights from a local land company. According to Parker, the mining company says it is taking pains not to disturb the park.

"Highland Copper has worked closely and cooperatively with the DNR, making every change to the company’s drilling plan the DNR has requested," John Pepin, DNR spokesman tells Parker. "Several provisions have been put in place to minimize the impact to the land surface during the drilling project and to provide proper protections to natural resources to the greatest extent possible."

These provisions include only driving its drill rig on roads or frozen ground, not filling in any streams and limiting the number of trees cut down. Parker notes that the company plans to compensate the DNR for any trees it does need to take down.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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