For the 3,552 members of the Keweenaw Bay tribe, it’s more than just water at stake. “It is a living thing that provides for us – physically and spiritually,” Koski said.
Whyte said this view of water and the surrounding area is unique to tribes and should guide governance. “Part of it is admitting that some groups have a different conception of sacredness than we do,” he said.
"Almost more pure than rainfall"
The newest controversy is over the Eagle Project, an underground nickel and copper mine just west of Marquette, Mich., a few miles inland from the shores of Lake Superior. Mine development began in 2010. It is now 75 percent complete and is scheduled to operate in 2014, according to Kennecott Eagle Minerals, owner, developer and future operator of the mine. The tribe, however, hopes to derail it with pending lawsuits.
The concerns about water contamination stem from the method, sulfide mining, which extracts metals from sulfide ores. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. The acid can then drain into nearby rivers, lakes and ground water sources – a phenomenon called acid mine drainage.
Company officials say they have addressed environmental concerns.
Any water, including rain and snow, that comes in contact with mining activities is sent to a $10-million water treatment plant that will use a cleansing technology called reverse osmosis, said Daniel Blondeau, communications and media relations advisor at Rio Tinto, the London-based mining company that owns Kennecott.
The water is then either recycled into the mining process or returned into the ground. Blondeau said mining effluent will be tested every day and results will be sent to the state monthly.
Those tasked with keeping Michigan’s water clean say they are confident that this treatment method, already used in many places to purify drinking supplies, will work.
“We actually really don’t expect a lot of water in the mine … I mean there will be some,” said Hal Fitch, director of the office of oil, gas and minerals for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Once that water goes through reverse osmosis treatment, it comes out almost more pure than rainfall … In fact, they have to have a roof over treatment plants so the treated water isn’t contaminated by rainwater.”
Experts tout the reverse osmosis and reuse as an example of technology overcoming environmental obstacles.
“The way Eagle will process the material, there will be no smelting onsite, so there’s very little likelihood for contamination,” said Klaus Schulz, a senior research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “As long as they aren’t putting tailings (leftover mining material) into the streams there should be no problems.”
Tailings will be stored in an offsite temporary holding area double-lined with leak detection and collection systems, according to Kennecott officials. The tailings will also be mixed with limestone to neutralize the acid potential.
Schulz said historically mishandled tailings have been to blame for contamination.
“The reverse osmosis is leaps and bounds over what used to happen, which was water being dumped in lakes and rivers,” Schulz said. “Plus they’ll be recycling and reutilizing the water in the process, which lessens the withdrawal.”
Western states have seen the most sulfide mine contamination, Schulz said. Two of the most well-known examples are the Summitville and Gilt Edge mines.