Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Still waiting for the mining money fairy

The S.O. and I have had to do some driving around our end of the Upper Peninsula lately -- south to Stephenson, west to Ironwood, and east to Marquette -- and have noticed one constant: yard signs supporting mining. There seem to be a lot of people who are fantasizing about a magic mining fairy waving a wand and showering local communities with a sudden infusion of ca$h.

Granted, there has been more interest shown in mining in the U.P. in recent years -- Rio Tinto is developing a nickel and copper mine in northern Marquette County, and there are rumors other sites are being explored. This isn't really news; there have been rumors for years that mining is coming back to areas that boomed 100 years ago. Ever since Calumet & Hecla closed its last mine in the Copper County in 1968, there have been rumors that abandoned mines were going to be dewatered and reopened "soon." The same has been true of various played-out iron mines: talk of a possible open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin has folks in Gogebic County fantasizing that mines will re-open in Jessieville or Ramsey or Wakefield. Lots of people don't seem to understand that copper and iron ores don't grow back; malachite and hematite aren't mushrooms that pop back up if they're left in the dark long enough. Nonetheless, the dreams continue.

And so do the nightmares. A local environmental organization, Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (aka FOLK), has been researching mineral rights in Baraga County and creating a publicly accessible database with the information, an action that was inspired by reports that Rio Tinto has been quietly buying up those rights as they continue to explore possible mining sites. FOLK quite rightly worries about the environmental consequences of mining, particularly for copper sulfides. Still, I'm not sure why FOLK is building its database (most landowners already know whether or not they own the mineral rights) but if they want to pay fees to the county for the privilege of searching land records, I'm sure the county can use the money. The folks at FOLK are rather naive most of the time so it probably hasn't occurred to them that their work could have unintended consequences. The end result of their labor -- a publicly accessible database -- might be more useful to mining companies than it is to individual property owners. It'll save the mining companies the work and expense of having to do title searches themselves for blocks in which they may be interested.

In any case, without much overt fuss, the local community is splitting into two camps: people who fear the environmental damage that inevitably accompanies mining and people who fantasize about jobs that pay more than minimum wage and don't depend on tourism. The Chamber of Commerce as a whole lusts after the flood of dollars mining might bring in or new industries it might spawn; individual Chamber members worry about mining hurting their existing tourism-oriented businesses.

Given the rather weak mining history that Baraga County has compared to surrounding counties in Upper Michigan, I have a hunch both camps are wasting their time imagining a future that's never going to happen. Through some geological fluke, Baraga County manages to fall between the copper range to the west and northwest and the iron ranges to the east and south. There have been mines in Baraga County in the past, but they weren't particularly productive. The Taylor Iron Mine only lasted a few years; the ore body simply wasn't good enough to be economically viable. The Ohio, Webster, and Spurr mines on the eastern edge of the county (and the extreme western end of the Marquette iron range) operated longer, but played out decades ago.

Every so often, though, rumors will start that the trace amounts of mineral found in Baraga County are going to lead to a mining boom. Back around World War I, the discovery of vanadium in Arvon Township had speculators briefly excited. In 1950, there was a uranium boom: a minute amount of uranium was found and suddenly geiger counters and speculators were popping out of the woodwork. Roads were renamed to reflect the coming boom, newspapers as far away as Milwaukee touted L'Anse as the next mining boom town. It never happened. No uranium mines, no sudden wealth. The story of mining in the U.P. has been one of steady decline, and Baraga County's been no exception to that pattern. Where Baraga County is an exception is it never really had a boom to begin with. Ontonagon, Houghton, and Keweenaw Counties all had copper in massive amounts; Gogebic, Iron, Dickinson, and Marquette had iron. Baraga County had fantasies.

Minor piece of trivia: where do I fit into the map? In the general vicinity of the arrrow under the M in Marquette Iron Range..


  1. Mining was always a good way to make a small fortune out of a large one, unless you were doing it on a scale to make Gargantua jealous, but even gargantuan mines don't add much to the community nowdays. Just ask Trona, California which is next door to a giant borax mine and just over the hill from a giant gold mine, and is the closest thing to hell on Earth that you'll find. The mines combined only employ maybe 150 people, and most of those are low-wage jobs. The mining companies (and yes, Tinto Rio is one of them) make a small fortune, but the town and the workers... not so much.

  2. I'm reminded of the Bunker Hill mine in Kellogg Idaho. It did produce for years and provided wages to a lot of folks, but when it closed down it left a big mess and become a superfund site that the taxpayers got stuck paying for.

  3. The U.P. is full of toxic waste dumps created by past mining activity, but the people fantasizing now about the mining money fairy tend to conveniently forget about the Super Fund sites.

  4. Previous messes left behind by mines are nothing compared to what the new methods will leave behind - but as you say, it is the dancing dollar signs that people focus on.

  5. Everything's automated now, with minimal work by humans(basically a handful of heavy equipment operators and a few explosives experts) and everything is an open-pit mine (again low manpower requirements), so basically a mine today employs only a couple more people than a landfill -- and its operations look a lot like a landfill, except in reverse. People remembering the old days with thousands of guys with shovels and wheelbarrows are living in the past, the only people who get rich in modern mining are heavy equipment dealers, and even there companies like Rio Tinto often shutter some other mine and shuttle the heavy equipment to a new site when they decide to shift operations, so even that's not a big money thing.

  6. The same dumb-ass stuff is going on on this side of the lake, too.


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