Battleground Michigan


The Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan is about the size of Denmark with shorelines on Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. There are 4,300 inland lakes, 12,000 miles of streams, and 150 waterfalls. 

The UP, as it is referred to, has a long history of native copper and iron oxide mining. Cleveland Cliffs Corp. has been in Marquette County of the UP since the late 1880s and currently has two active iron mines, that employ around 1,600 people. Various areas of the UP are currently being explored for minerals, including uranium. So far, only one mine permit (Eagle Project) is on the table. This is by Kennecott Minerals of Utah, a member of the international Rio Tinto network. The Eagle Project is a proposed underground nickel-copper mine which has been granted preliminary approval by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ), despite it being a controversial project with overwhelming local opposition. 

A desirable metal can be either oxide or sulfide, for example, iron oxide at Cleveland Cliffs and nickel sulfide at the Eagle Project. Sulfide mining has a legacy of watershed pollution dating back 2,000 years. While underground, sulfides will eventually oxidize. But, when sulfides are brought to the surface quickly as in metal mining, the PH changes and sulfuric acid (battery acid) is produced with the leeching of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, other heavy metals which are connected to the primary metals.

Salmon Trout River where the ore body is 150 feet down—photo from 

Eagle Project ore lies underneath the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, which is home to the last breeding Coaster Brook Trout on the south shore of Lake Superior. The Salmon Trout River flows into Lake Superior and the Coaster Brook Trout is a native Lake Superior fish. The Coaster Brook Trout is awaiting endangered species status. The mine site is on the Yellow Dog Plains—576,000 acres of undeveloped timberlands, wetlands, with no electricity, no paved roads. This area is used for hunting, fishing, blueberry picking, snowmobiling, dirt road cruising, camping, and logging. 

Over half of the ore body is on the Escanaba River State Forest land and is leased by the State of Michigan to Kennecott. The other 49 percent is owned by private individuals and is leased by them to Kennecott. None of the mineral rights are owned by Kennecott. In Michigan, in rural areas where people own acreage, they only own the surface rights, not  the mineral rights, unless the land had been in your possession for over 100 years. A mining company could develop a mine on your land, and it would be legal. 

Kennecott-Rio Tinto arrived in the UP in May 1994 and quickly purchased 600,000 acres of land from Ford Motor Company. They leased thousands of acres of public land, until they obtained 26 percent of all minerals rights in Marquette County, Michigan’s largest county. In addition, they secured 217,000 acres of mineral rights in neighboring Baraga County. 

This is the root of imperialism—controlling the land. It has created fresh regulations fostering expansionism, access to resources, and lack of responsibility. When the state of Michigan leased public land to Kennecott, John Engler, a darling of the Republican right, was the governor. Engler had slashed public school funding, decimated social programs for the poor, and promoted corporate interests. He split Michigan’s Dept. of Natural Resources and created the puppet agency DEQ. Since leaving office, John Engler became the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a corporate lobbying company. He also sits on the board of Northwest Airlines. 

In 2003 the public got wind that Kennecott had discovered an ore body on the Yellow Dog Plains. Michigan had no underground mining laws. Suddenly, there was a fast track process for not only underground mining regulations, but also rules related to sulfide mining. In 2004, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and the DEQ formed a stakeholder group to recommend improvements to state mining laws. On the surface, the group looked like local industry and local environmental groups. That was until Jon Cherry of Kennecott was invited to participate. To many, this was a conflict of interest. 

At the end of 2004, Gov. Granholm signed into law new sulfide mining laws and underground mining laws and promoted it as a “democratic process.” In reality, the mining industry wrote the new laws and promises made to the “greens” never materialized. There were no “special places in the UP” designated for no mining, no setbacks from water guidelines, no siting criteria, only typical tailings management, etc. The DEQ stated from the beginning they wouldn’t consider a “moratorium” on sulfide mining, like Michigan’s neighbor, Wisconsin. Wisconsin, like Michigan, has much water to protect and, when faced with the sufide mining question in 1997, voted in a sulfide mining moratorium, which placed in the permit process a requirement that the mining company be required to show examples/history of a sulfide mine that operated for ten years and closed for ten years without polluting air and water. No mining company has been able to open up business in Wisconsin, because there never has been a non-polluting sulfide mine. 

The mining industry is a dinosaur, never having been modernized for 21st century planetary goals. It tries to portray itself as the “real” environmentalist performing some type of sterile procedures instead of the reality of its explosive assault on the earth. A significant portion of the world’s acid rain is from the smelting of ores. The mining industry’s use of energy makes is a substantial contributor to climate change. The amount of solid waste produced by metal mining dwarfs any other industry, and this waste consists of heavy metals, persistent bioaccumulative toxins that are also carcinogens. 

Mining is the original dirty industry. Sulfide mining waste has polluted 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in this country and 12,000 miles of rivers, and created 500,000 abandoned mines in the United States. This should be cleaned up before any new mining permits are granted. The current metal mining mantra is “Technology is what makes the difference now.” The truth is that technology has mainly reduced the number of miners needed. Mechanization has replaced humans as shown in Kennecott’s job prediction for Eagle Project, which is 100 employees for 6-10 years, half of which will be miners. Instead of Kennecott being ashamed of these statistics, they are announcing them proudly. 

The Eagle Project is 3.68 percent nickel, 3.06 percent copper, and 0.1 percent cobalt. Gold, palladium, and platinum are present but at 1/10 of an ounce per ton. In coal mines, ore is 83-85 percent product, in metal mining 1-3 percent is product and 97 percent is waste. This ends up as millions of tons of hazardous waste for which the metal mining industry is exempt from treating like hazardous waste. 

A recent investigation by Great Lakes Bulletin indicates that since Kennecott filed for a mine permit in 2006, they have staged a well-crafted, pervasive campaign to sell its product to the communities near the mine, and have lobbied members of Michigan Gov. Granhom’s administration and lawmakers whose districts are in the UP. But the investigation has also revealed another activity that, while legal, is shrouded in secrecy. Kennecott has donated cash to non-profit organizations controlled by the state Democratic and Republican parties, but refuses to reveal the amounts. Business-friendly Michigan does not require financial disclosure by candidates for governor, lawmakers, or judges, so there is no real way to know if our elected officials are working ours or their own interests. 

Kennecott made an interesting choice for a public relations spokesperson, Deborah Muchmore, who has been a voice for the Canadian garbage industry as they have brought unregulated waste to Michigan landfills. Muchmore also promoted Nestle Corp., the transnational corporation which is diverting Michigan water to sell as bottled water. Nestle Waters of America recently won a decision by the Michigan Supreme Court making it almost impossible for citizens to sue for environmental degradation.

Protest on a UP barn—photo from

Kennecott has placed large ads in Marquette, Michigan’s only newspaper, and ran a heavy schedule of well-produced TV commercials, which it calls “educational” ads, and did extensive lobbying in the state capitol in Lansing. Unlike traditional campaign contributions, donations to these organizations, known as 501 (C)3s and 4s are unregulated in Michigan; individuals and corporations can give to them, even when operated by political parties or elected officials, without disclosing donation sources. 

In Big Bay, the little town closest to the mine site, there would be 80 mining trucks per day driving on the only road to Marquette. If you combine logging trucks and other commercial vehicles on this road, it will make any other traffic for tourists, local peoples’ trips for shopping, jobs, school, or medical treatment much more difficult to travel or commute. 

Around 100 miles from the mine site is a 4-year public institution, Michigan Technological University. One of the geology professors, Dr. Theodore Bornhorst, was invited by the DEQ to be a member of the mining work group which produced the guts of Michigan’s new mining laws. Professor Bornhorst ended up endorsing the mine in a public magazine and two professors are featured on a Kennecott television commercial in a pro-mine stance. They were identified as being from MTU, a public institution, which should be a violation of 501(C)(3) status. 

In 1980, due to competition from Japan, Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to patent the results of federally funded research. The goal was to offer universities the opportunity to license campus-based inventions to United States companies, earning royalties in return. Thus, Congress encouraged the complete privatization and commercialization of science and research without regard for the fact that the ethics of science doesn’t mix with business, necessarily. This is part of an ongoing effort to leverage educational institutions into the service of corporate interests. 

What are the effects on academic freedom when your research budget is from a transnational conglomerate? How can an institution of higher learning, whose tax status per the IRS is one of a public charity, who receives all sorts of federal and state monies from taxpayers, take a pro-mine stance for a controversial project that local residents oppose? 

The opposition to this acid mine includes former Republican Governor William Milliken, U.S. Democratic Representative Bart Stupak of the UP, the Huron Mt. Club—a private club formed in 1890 which owns 30,000 acres and most of the land the Salmon Trout River runs on. Also included are the Keweenaw Bay Indian community, a Lake Superior band of Chippewa Indians, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Save the Wild UP, Northwoods Wilderness Recovery, the Superior Watershed Partnership, a Marquette faith-based group—Earth Keepers, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Michigan Environmental Council, landowners, and private citizens. One-hundred-seventeen area physicians drafted a statement and signed a request for Governor Granholm to have the DEQ deny this permit request. Ten-thousand Michigan residents signed a petition urging the governor to deny the permit. A famous biblical author and scholar, Walter Brueggemann, is holding free public lectures giving a scriptural and faith basis for the denial of this dangerous mine. 

In the UP hundreds of miles north of and across a five mile bridge from the state capital, Lansing, people feel unheard and ignored by downstate agencies and the government. This is nowhere more evident than in the “public input” forums put on by the mine permitting state regulatory agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The DEQ was asked by 3,000 signatures of local citizens to have the United States Geological Survey do the hydrology studies for this project as part of the Environmental Assessment required. The USGS is the expert in hydrology and the Yellow Dog Plains actually has water flowing south to Lake Michigan and water flowing north to Lake Superior. The DEQ denied the public request and instead allowed Kennecott to perform all testing and provide all data for the permit process. The DEQ did hire several companies to review Kennecott’s findings but these companies had pre-existing business relationships with the Rio Tinto network. 

Michigan has become known as the place where pollution pays. Numerous external audits show clean water laws routinely violated without fines. Despite these economic realities, the Department of Geology inside the DEQ were obviously biased towards a mining operation. Comments made in public print and public forums by them were always pro-industry. 

The DEQ mine permit process was halted once for an investigation into missing documents. It had mining opponents asking the director of Geology at the DEQ to step down from the Eagle Project and had DEQ staff walking out of public input sessions while the public was still talking. The process left the local community feeling the reality of a state agency promoting sulfide mining, even under a state Democratic administration. 

Eagle Rock is a two acre outcropping of bedrock, possibly a billion years old. This is the location Kennecott would use to enter the earth. It would destroy Eagle Rock in the process. This is considered a sacred site by Native Americans and mining opponents. There has been a march to Eagle Rock, camping out on Eagle Rock—ground zero for this resource war. The nearby Salmon Trout River is a small river and any mistakes could easily destroy it. The state of Michigan has spent money to keep erosion from destroying these spawning grounds. There has been much federal research on this river and an all-out effort to protect it by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and other groups. It is insane to sacrifice it just because a corporation wants natural resources for profit. 

Ore lies below—photo from

Kennecott has posted a reclamation bond should the mine go bad, but how do you put a price on a river? How many geological years did it take to form the Salmon Trout River? Can technology make another river? Part of Kennecott’s reclamation after mining is finished would be a 120 acre site inside barbed wire fencing until 2042, unless pollution would require further monitoring. Then the land could be off bounds for the public even longer. Michigan does not have a history of fencing in natural areas for years and the locals don’t want that to start.

The Rio Tinto network has around 200 subsidiaries in over 40 countries. There is no continent (with the exception of Antartica) where they have neglected to establish a presence. They have uprooted and displaced native peoples, contaminated drinking waters, fouled the air, been involved in civil wars where 10,000 people were killed, and taken arrogance and greed to new heights. 

Rio Tinto has been around since 1873, so there is a written history of its violations and associations through the years. A global network of citizens, unions, greens called PARTIZANS published a book on the history of Rio Tinto called Plunder. There are campaigns for justice against Kennecott and Rio Tinto due to poor union and labor relations globally. There are websites dedicated to getting the truth out about Rio Tinto’s corporate abuse and many lawsuits. There are videos about Rio Tinto Network human rights violations. There are green groups dedicated just to keeping an eye on Rio Tinto. 

Rio Tinto is estimated to be worth $17 billion, while the state of Michigan is currently shutting down services due to budget deficits. How does a bankrupt state regulate a multinational corporation? How does a bankrupt state turn down a permit to mine when the mining company is promising tax monies? 

As the mine opponents and Kennecott Minerals ready for future litigation, Kennecott lobbyists have already raised the issue of “takings” lawsuits. If the state of Michigan sets up rules that are so stringent regarding mining, Kennecott would claim that they were a ban on mining masquerading as regulations and the company could sue the state for taking away the value of their land. A similar situation cost Michigan $94 million in 1995 when an oil company was prevented from drilling on a fragile site in the Nordhouse Dunes in lower Michigan. Kennecott has raised the issue to scare regulatory staff into granting a permit, yet a permit application should have the possibility of being rejected without the threat of litigation by a corporation, especially since the state of Michigan has been so kind to Kennecott. 

Michigan is going to be the target for resource wars for some time to come. Water will only become more valuable and the great lakes will need more watchdogs. Until the whole structure that subsidizes and assures special treatment for corporations is taken down, Michigan will continue to be the underdog. 

The Eagle Project proposed nickel mine is a textbook example of a system set up by corporations for corporations. Mining’s share of the Gross World Product is only 0.9 percent and its share of global employment is only 0.5 percent. There are 40 miners killed per day and mining threatens 40 percent of the world’s undeveloped tracts of forest. Yet it is subsidized by society. 

To encourage recycling would provide hundreds of times the number of jobs of metal mining. Recycling saves energy compared to virgin extraction. Copper, for example, can be recycled forever. Products that are designed to last, without built-in obsolescence, are what is needed on a planet with global warming. 

Both Democrats and Republicans are used by corporate America to achieve their goals. Boeing moves from Seattle to Chicago and gets $60 million in tax breaks and incentives while downsizing at the same time. Exxon-Mobil made record profits in 2006 while the country is at war, and Americans are paying all-time high fuel costs. General Motors, the largest manufacturer and seller of cars in China, demands historic concessions from Michigan workers, while turning the North American auto industry into a sweatsho while CEOs like Rick Wagoner pull in a $10.2 million salary packages. 

The U.S. economic system is based solely on growth and is dependant on the exploitation of natural resources and government handouts. The time has come for citizens of the United States—union members, faith-based groups, environmentalists, and anyone wanting justice—to join together and form a third political party. 


Chuck Gloseenger is a freelance writer and activist from Big Bay, Michigan.