Building Relationships Yields Cleaner Clean-up at Upper Michigan Mine

Building Relationships Yields Cleaner Clean-up at Upper Michigan Mine

By Bob Olsgard, Lake Superior Alliance

In mid-May of 1998, the Copper Range Company surprised neighbors and critics alike by announcing plans to dig up and landfill contaminated areas at its copper mine at White Pine, located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The new plan, to excavate all of the small dumps distributed throughout its mine site and stow most of their contents in a specially constructed landfill, offers better protection for local lakes streams, rivers, and wells. And it comes after months of meetings between company officials, environmental groups, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality technicians assigned to the mine closure.

This change of plans for Copper Range came as a surprise because it goes beyond what the company’s consultants laid out in their remedial investigation. The consultants plan suggested only that the numerous small dumps thought to contain oils and solvents from the heavy equipment used at the site should be treated by covering them with clay and monitoring them for any contamination that might leak out.

That initial plan didn’t sit well with Flintsteel Restoration Association’s Dave Anderson. Flintsteel was one of three Lake Superior Alliance member groups that had committed to watchdogging the Copper Range Closure. At meetings with the company Anderson argued repeatedly that by the time contaminants were found in the water, it would be too late for any easy clean-up. Anderson, a native of nearby Ontonagon, Michigan pointed out that the area’s new “Renaissance Zone,” a special tax incentive development area, was located just across the road and down stream in the path of any potential contaminants that might leach out of the buried debris. The special zone was one of several economic development measures meant to soften the financial loss suffered by the loss of the mine.

Because of the company’s decision to shut down, the Alliance’s work focused on persuading the state and the company to provide a thorough cleanup at the mine.

What level of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect your efforts?

The GLAHNF grant funded the Alliance’s initial information campaign, a high profile letter sent to a long list of local, state, and federal government officials, tribal governments, and private individuals involved in examining the company’s earlier and highly controversial proposal to perform acid leach mining at the site. The Alliance letter insisted that all state and federal resources be immediately mobilized on behalf of environmental and economic renewal there. The mailing of the letter was accompanied by a press release sent to media in and out of the Lake Superior basin who had been covering the on-going story of the mine. The resulting article in the Houghton, Michigan newspaper caught the attention of Copper Range president Eric Dudson, starting an important dialogue between Alliance member groups and company officials. In a follow-up to the article covering the Alliance’s letter to the governments, Dudson made reference to how indirect the process was, writing to all of the governments to ask questions only the company could answer. “Well he could have just phoned,” Dudson quipped to the reporter. Reading an apparent entree to talk, Lake Superior Alliance coordinator Bob Olsgard did just that, arranging a meeting with Dudson at the mine to go over the points in the letter.

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

At the same time, the state of Michigan began its own public information campaign, beginning with the mailing of its draft consent decree to begin reclamation and remediation at the site. That initial mailing, featuring 80 pages of legal and technical terminology with a request for comments, was soon followed by the consultant’s reports which consisted of two, four- inch thick notebooks crammed with the science of water and soil testing. The state has also held two public meetings to discuss the mine clean-up.

How many people were involved (initially v/s finally)?

The barrage of legal and technical documents and comment opportunities prompted the realization that Alliance members would need to devote significant time, energy, and funds to monitoring and responding to a protracted and complex series of interactions with both the company and the state. If Lake Superior and its nearby human neighbors were going to get the best in long term protection, a long term commitment of independent expertise would be required.

How was public education a component of your program?

The result of the initial meeting at the mine was an article sent to Alliance members’ email list describing the company response to questions about how the company would deal with massive and pervasive contamination at the site; the inevitable result of 50 years of mining. That article along with pictures of the desert-like vistas of Copper Range’s tailings disposal areas were also included in the Alliance’s special mining report issue of Superior Vision, giving readers a first hand look at the challenge of reclamation.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into (total project cost, public v/s private financing, specific sources, etc.)?

The fact that company officials and environmental groups were talking directly about doing the best job possible to protect the water was the result of a 1997 Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Fund grant made to the Lake Superior Alliance to build activism on mining issues in Upper Michigan.

Lake Superior Alliance
P.O. Box 472
Spooner, WI 54801

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