In the 1980s, the Summitville Mine in southwestern Colorado contaminated the Wrightman Fork tributary and the Alamosa River. The acid drainage stemmed from poor holding areas and tailing leakage. Ground water in that area is not used for drinking. But the Alamosa River below the site still cannot support aquatic life.
The Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota was a gold mine that an insolvent company abandoned in the late 1990s, leaving behind 150 million gallons of acidic heavy-metal-laden water, as well as millions of cubic yards of acid-generating tailings. The Strawberry and Bear Butte creeks have been contaminated.
“Sure, historically there have been issues, but there are techniques today to deal with all of that,” Schulz said.
Now-shuttered Wisconsin mine
Under the Treaty of 1842, the Chippewa gave the U.S. government land bordering Lake Superior in what is now the western half of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northeast Wisconsin. The tribes were paid and allowed to continue hunting, fishing and gathering on the ceded land.
Kennecott now owns about 1,600 acres, including the mine site, within that territory given to the government 170 years ago. Over its seven- to eight-year lifespan, the mine will produce 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper, and directly employ about 300 people, according to Kennecott estimates.
In recent years, the land surrounding Lake Superior has been a hotspot for companies seeking to mine, process and sell metals. A similar copper and nickel sulfide mine proposal in St. Louis County, Minn., by Polymet Mining, has come under similar attacks by residents concerned about the water supply.
The Eagle mine will be the first to use sulfide extraction in Michigan. The state has had copper mines in the past but it was native copper, not copper tied up in sulfide, Schulz said.
“There are no examples they can point to of sulfide mines that haven’t caused pollution,” Koski said.
But Kennecott points to its now closed Flambeau Mine that operated in Rusk County, Wis., from 1993 to 1997. Reclamation of the copper and gold mine was completed in 1999, when it was filled back in.
“We have not found any violations of mining permits or state law, have not issued any violations at the Flambeau in compliance,” said Phil Fauble, mining coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Kennecott is responsible for the Flambeau site in perpetuity. During mine backfill and site cleanup, the company found a few areas where there was copper contamination. The company took care of the contamination right away, Fauble said. His department hasn’t yet completed studies to see if these areas could harm wildlife or people.
Emily Whittaker, executive director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, an environmental group that is also fighting the Eagle mine, said Flambeau is a reason not to trust Kennecott. She pointed to an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Wisconsin Resource Protection Council that charges Kennecott under the Clean Water Act.
Whittaker said the preparation for mining has already altered the environment in Michigan. Road widening for trucks is probably to blame for increased sedimentation of the Salmon Trout River, she said. Portions of the mine will be drilled directly below the river.
“Our main concern is the condition of the environment. Our secondary concern is the communities that depend on this environment,” Whittaker said. “Water is the lifeblood of this area.”