Ready to swim in sulfuric acid?

Jan 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

What do you think of this idea?

Kennecott Minerals Co., a huge multinational firm based in Utah, whose parent company is in England, wants to dig a highly dangerous nickel and copper mine underneath an environmentally sensitive trout stream in Michigan.

This is off in the Upper Peninsula, in a picturesque part of Marquette County called the Yellow Dog Plains, where there are more deer and bear and, well, trout, than people. As a matter of fact, the stream is the only place in the state where the coaster brook trout, a rare and colorful fish, still breeds.

What Kennecott wants to do is tunnel under the river and extract sulfide rocks that are full of nickel and copper. They would stuff them in railroad cars and ship them off to Ontario, where they'd get the money-generating minerals out.

They would go on with this for six to eight years, or until the metal gives out. Kennecott says that while their "eagle mine" is going good, it will create as many as 120 well-paying jobs. The UP badly needs jobs, all right.

Yet here's the problem. If everything doesn't go exactly as planned, there could easily be a disaster. When sulfide rock is exposed to air and water, it produces sulfuric acid and heavy metals, which, if they get into water, kill pretty much everything, including, certainly, the fish.

Phil Power, the former newspaper publisher and environmentalist (chair of the Nature Conservancy) notes that "no sulfide mine in history has ever operated without discharges of this 'acid rain drainage.'"

Which says to me that there is a good chance that drilling this mine means saying goodbye to the trout, not to mention whatever else lives in the Salmon-Trout River, which we may want to rename the Sulfuric Acid River.

Frankly, I haven't paid much attention in recent months to this proposal, which has been out there for well over a year. In November 2005, I did an hour-long radio program on the mine, and thought there was no way the state would let this happen. The Upper Peninsula was up in arms over it. I couldn't imagine that the state would risk a major environmental disaster for a few temporary jobs that would last a few years at most. Well, I could imagine Dick DeVos or some other "business-oriented" Republican allowing that.

So, evidently, could the people of the Upper Peninsula. Jennifer Granholm won every county there, in a region that voted for George W. Bush. Marquette County, where the proposed mine would be located, went for her by close to 70 percent, far more than the statewide average. But guess what?

To my shock, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, gave tentative approval to the mine a week ago. It does, if you didn't realize it, what the governor wants it to. Kennecott was thrilled, of course.

Environmentalists were stunned and horrified. Many of them said the mining company's application for a permit was deeply flawed. Three years ago, the state worked out new regulations for such mines, "legislation which requires a company to demonstrate that it can undertake this inherently dangerous type of mining safely," said James Clift, of the Michigan Environmental Council. "Kennecott's permit application falls short of meeting that test."

There was wide agreement on that from a broad assortment of people who care about the planet — including Phil Power, who now runs a nonprofit outfit called the Center for Michigan, of which I am on the (unpaid) steering committee.

Why should the Detroit area care? There aren't any massive known deposits of copper and nickel in this part of the world. Nothing for us to worry about ... except our state, which it is, and our world, and our environment. Not to speak of: If they get away with this, who knows what the hell they'll do next?

More mining will come next, if Kennecott has anything to say about it — and who knows where the limits will stop? This, comrades, is the test case.

"This sets the bar for what may well be a rush to extract minerals from across the Upper Peninsula, so it's not just another permit application," said Andy Buschbaum, of the National Wildlife Federation. What he finds amazing is that "Governor Granholm's people appear — at least preliminarily — unwilling to set that bar at a level which protects water resources and the tourism-related jobs."

Fortunately, this is not a done deal — not yet. The entire Upper Peninsula seems to be hopping mad, except for a few chamber of commerce types. But the whole UP has a mere 300,000 people, 3 percent of our population.

Yet if enough downstaters get into the act, it could make a difference. The Department of Environmental Quality is holding public hearings March 6, 7 and 8 at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. The more people giving them a hard time, the better for all of us.

But you don't have to go there. You can study this proposal in depth (don't take my word for it) and let your government know. Write to or call the governor, write to or call the Department of (so-called) Environmental Quality. Let your state legislators know.

They may protest they can do nothing, which is bullshit. They can stop this environmental raping of the land, if they want to. The Upper Peninsula has been devastated before — by loggers and copper miners in the 19th century.

Now, a new generation of exploitation threatens to unleash a new form of deadly pollution. I am no bark-sandal wearing kinda guy. I would like camping much more if it had comfortable beds and hot showers. But you don't have to be the greenest environmentalist on earth to know that risking destroying the environment for a few temp jobs and a big multinational's profits is stupid.

Let's shame our government into stopping this. Now.


Never too early to run for anything: Two days after the just-elected Michigan Legislature was sworn in, I got an e-mail from one Doug Skrzyniarz telling me he wanted to run for a state House seat in Macomb County in 2008 and inviting me to send him $500 now! With my usual mordant wit, I asked why he wasn't gearing up for the 2010 state Senate seat instead.

"I really want to get into state politics right now," he candidly replied. Well, something to be said for a man who knows what he wants, though there is even more to be said for holding onto your money. Though most of the media attention next year will undoubtedly be riveted on the Skrzyniarz campaign, there will also be a presidential election, don't ya know. Most Michigan elected officials are still on the sidelines, and will be, till they smell a winner.

If you missed it, however, David Bonior, a major power in Congress till he left in 2003, is running John Edwards' national presidential campaign. On the Republican side, there is a quiet but powerful behind-the-scenes groundswell building for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who grew up here when his father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan. Compuware's Peter Karmanos has sent out a letter asking people to give Romney money and support.

Here's a prediction: Romney will be the nominee. Why? Simple. He has no Washington connections. Nobody is going to want to touch anyone with any relationship to the Shrub, his administration or his sick, evil and lost war.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]. See the relevant DEQ documents referenced in this story here.