Since its beginnings, the Kennecott Eagle Mine Project has inspired intense discussion in the U.P. community. Arguments presented by those opposed and those for the mine have often blurred the lines between fact and rumor. Needless to say, when News Editor James Dyer and I received an invitation to tour the construction of the mine, we jumped at the chance to learn about the mine firsthand.
We were escorted to the mine site by Matt Johnson, a 1994 NMU grad and manager of government and community relations for the mine. During the hour-long drive to the site, Johnson talked to us about the controversy of the site and said that oftentimes misinformation and assumptions are considered facts. According to Johnson, mining companies have an extensive history in the UP, but in the past they weren’t as aware of the negative environmental impacts to the area. This is an image Rio Tinto is conscious of and works to change, he said.
“There’s a greater emphasis on being socially responsible,” Johnson said.
We approached the construction site as the workers ended their shifts. A small bus passed us of workers who hitch rides back to towns in the area, including Marquette. For safety reasons on the unpaved roads, the mine encourages all of its employees to take the bus and not drive personal vehicles to the site. The construction site as we approached looked like an enormous sandbox in the middle of the woods. Upon entering the fenced-in site, James and I sat through a safety induction by the head of security, Ray Kenny – a Champion, MI native hired by Rio Tinto. All workers and visitors to the mine are required to sit through the induction, be it employees, reporters, or even the president of Rio Tinto, Kenny said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to go through the safety induction. It’s a team effort for everything we do. We want to get the job done safely,” he said.
Johnson described mandates like this to us as not a safety practice, but more a safety culture that is apparent in all operations of the mine. Even though the workday was nearly finished, we were required to wear hard hats, construction vests, safety glasses and steel toe slip-ons over our boots at all times while touring the construction site.
We left the security booth and began our actual tour of the mine site. The construction area spans more than 100 acres of land off of county road 510 and the AAA road near Big Bay.
When complete, the area will include three structures: a security building, an office complex (that includes an area for trucks to be stored and maintained) and a water treatment plant, Johnson said the treatment plant will filter contaminated water through a process called reverse osmosis and feed it back into the water table in a condition suitable for drinking.
A major portion of the above-ground land will also be taken up by what is called a Temporary Development Rock Storage Area (TDRSA), a place where rocks extracted from underground containing sulfide deposits will be quarantined to prevent acid rock drainage. Acid rock drainage occurs when oxygen and water mix with the sulfide deposits and can hurt the watershed.
We stood at the brim of the TDRSA where they have begun lining the enormous pit with a thick black material. This is just the beginning. According to Johnson, there will be multiple layers of material and then two feet of sand and three feet of rock in order to prevent water contamination.
Throughout the process of applying for permits for the mine, Kennecott has strived to address the issues of community members who are opposed to the mine, Johnson said.
“It’s important for Rio Tinto to understand the complaints that people have. We don’t want to seem like Goliath coming down on some grassroots organization,” Johnson said.
The construction site isn’t directly above the ore body that the mine will extract nickel and copper from. Johnson said this is in order to prevent damaging the Salmon Trout River that runs near the site. Unfortunately, moving the location means getting closer to Eagle Rock, a Native American holy site.
Eagle Rock was a part of the construction site to some degree, fenced off and determined a “no touch” area. According to Johnson, Rio Tinto has offered to allow access to Eagle Rock during the mining process to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC). Discussions with the KBIC are still happening, he said.
As we drove back to Marquette, Johnson talked to us about his time at NMU and how much he loves living in the U.P., that even though he’s had a number of job opportunities throughout the country, he can’t imagine leaving a place he considers home. He said that he likes working for Rio Tinto so that he can bring facts about the Kennecott Mining Project to the Marquette County community.
Editor’s Note: News Editor James Dyer helped in the reporting of this article.