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Michigan's Nickel Mining Industry and Environmentalists Find a Way to Coexist
Science & Health Technology

Michigan’s Nickel Mining Industry and Environmentalists Find a Way to Coexist

The tale started out as a well-known and traditional narrative.

During the early 2000s, the multinational company Rio Tinto arrived in the untouched areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the intention of excavating a nickel mine.

Environmentalists were concerned about pollution. The company guaranteed employment opportunities.

The typical boundaries were established and the expected legal disputes followed.

However, this time something else occurred.

The mining company has extended an invitation to a reputable environmental organization in the area to act as an impartial overseer, carrying out pollution tests that exceed the standards set by regulators.

Over ten years have gone by without any significant pollution issues arising. The community’s resistance has decreased.

Maura Davenport, the chair of the Superior Watershed Partnership, a group conducting environmental tests, stated that she was strongly against the mine but has since had a change of heart.

Due to the increasing demand for nickel and other metals used in eco-friendly technologies, the partnership between the mining corporation and environmental advocates is proving successful. However, there is significant opposition from communities around the world towards the mining operations that provide these essential metals.

Historic mines, polluting history

Transitioning to more environmentally-friendly energy sources requires the use of various metals such as copper for wiring electrical grids, rare earth elements for wind turbine magnets, and lithium for electric vehicle batteries. In order to meet the targets set by the 2015 U.N. Paris climate agreement, there will be a significant rise in demand for these metals, with a projected fourfold increase overall and a 19-fold increase specifically for nickel by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

This indicates an increase in the number of mines. However, mines are seldom opened without encountering controversy around the globe. Two copper-nickel mine projects in close proximity faced significant obstacles this year due to environmental issues.

According to a survey conducted by consulting firm EY, mining companies have ranked environmental, social, and governance concerns as the top risk for their businesses for the third consecutive year.

Mining is not new to the Upper Peninsula, the northern tip of the state of Michigan that is mostly surrounded by the Great Lakes. The region was the nation’s leading copper and iron producer until the late 1800s. An open-pit iron mine still operates about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of the college town of Marquette.

The Eagle Mine is located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The Eagle Mine can be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The majority of the old copper mines ceased operations in the 1930s. However, the remnants of their waste continue to contaminate the environment today.

The remnants of crushed copper ore, called stamp sands, are still being carried into Lake Superior, releasing high amounts of poisonous copper into the water.

Davenport expressed concern about the negative impact of mining on the environment and the importance of protecting our land.

Rio Tinto was looking for a type of ore called nickel sulfide. When this type of rock comes into contact with air and water, it creates sulfuric acid. This acid mine drainage is responsible for contaminating numerous water bodies throughout the United States, spanning thousands of kilometers. In severe cases, it can even lead to the death of aquatic life in streams.

According to Davenport, the community was divided when Rio Tinto suggested constructing the Eagle Mine approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Marquette.

She stated that the Marquette community opposed the mine, while the iron ore miners were in favor of it.

Mining dilemma

According to Simon Nish, who was employed by Rio Tinto at the time, the situation is the same worldwide.

According to Nish, communities are confronted with a difficult decision. On one hand, they desire employment opportunities and economic advantages. However, they are also concerned about the long-lasting impact on the environment. They lack confidence in the regulatory body, the company involved, and even the activists. Without reliable and trustworthy information, their response is likely to be a rejection of the proposal.

Nish, who originated from Australia, witnessed a legal dispute in the 1990s regarding the land ownership of the country’s native population. In his earlier professional experience, he served as a mediator for the National Native Title Tribunal. His role involved facilitating negotiations between Aboriginal communities and corporations seeking to utilize their land.

It was a learning experience.

According to the speaker, while it may be possible to quickly secure a deal on the resource company’s end, it ultimately does not benefit anyone. To achieve a long-term solution, it is essential to fully comprehend the interests of both parties involved.

“Absolutely skeptical”

In 2011, when Nish came to Michigan, the construction of Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine was ongoing, however, it was met with numerous legal challenges from community members who were against it.

To resolve the dispute, Nish was aware that Rio Tinto required a reliable partner that the community would have faith in. He reached out to the Superior Watershed Partnership with a unique proposal. The organization was already conducting tests on nearby water sources for contamination. Would they be open to considering overseeing a program for monitoring the mine?

Davenport expressed surprise and skepticism, stating “We were absolutely skeptical.” However, they still agreed to have a discussion about it.

Nish stated that SWP demanded complete and unrestricted monitoring access to “anything, any time, anywhere.”

According to the speaker, SWP’s stance on Rio Tinto was unambiguous. He remembered saying, “We have worked hard to establish our reputation and credibility here. We will not compromise it for your benefit.”

After a few months, which is considered “remarkably fast” in these situations, Nish stated that the environmental organization and mining company were able to reach a compromise.

SWP will track the water bodies, such as rivers, streams, and groundwater, for any contamination caused by the mine and the ore-processing mill located 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the south. Additionally, it will analyze the food and medicinal plants that hold significance for the nearby Native American community. The results of all of these tests will be made available to the public online.

Rio Tinto will cover the cost of the work, which will be managed by a reputable community foundation. The funding from Rio Tinto will be kept separate from SWP.

Richard Anderson, former chairman of the SWP board, stated that they did not want to be employed by them and that was not a possibility within their organization.

Not over yet

The Community Environmental Monitoring Program was officially established in 2012 through an agreement. Despite over ten years passing, there have been no significant instances of pollution discovered.

However, some environmentalists in the area are exercising caution.

Rochelle Dale, the leader of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and a local environmental organization that has opposed the mine, stated that she believes Eagle Mine is making a genuine effort to prioritize environmental considerations.

“In contrast, many previous sulfide mines did not encounter issues until after they were shut down.”

She stated that this is something that will be passed down to our grandchildren.

The demand for metals is increasing, but opposition to new mines remains strong. It is believed that mining companies are becoming more aware of the importance of gaining support from local communities. Eagle Mine has implemented a Community Environmental Monitoring Program as a potential solution, but it also has its drawbacks.

Things are going well up to this point. However, the story is not finished.