Will Rio Tinto's Copper and Nickel Mining Efforts in Michigan Be Worth It? – Part Two

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Continued from Part One.

The good fortunes related to industrial metal mining in the UP, hoped for by mining conglomerates like Rio Tinto, Michigan’s state coffers, new mine workers and the surrounding towns could, however, backfire in a major way.

Michigan’s economy has made national and even international news for how much it has suffered from the most recent recession. The state has become a poster child for the decline of US manufacturing (even though the auto sector has slowly been coming back over the past year or so). However, in welcoming new mining, Michigan may be the worst suited to prevent or deal with mining pollution, not to mention potentially large environmental mining disasters.

From the Free Press: “Critics say the state has suffered such deep budget cuts that it doesn’t have the funds or staff to do a good job protecting the environment. They also say the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] has become a booster rather than a watchdog over mines.

There’s no doubt that Lansing is keeping its fingers crossed for a tax revenue boost, and economically, environmental groups don’t/won’t ever represent such a significant chunk of potential recovery. However, Michigan’s mining laws are lax to begin with, because they place no restrictions on where mining can occur, according to a National Wildlife Federation attorney. Also, the DEQ has cut 75 percent of its staff between 2003 and 2010, according to the article, and reportedly only has two staff members dedicated to overseeing existing iron mines.

Rio Tinto maintains that its water treatment systems will be up to the task of protecting rivers and lakes, and that its technologies are well-equipped to handle acid rock drainage (the result of exposing sulfide ore, in which many of these metals are found, to air and water). Even still, the mix of a bad state economy, the eagerness to restart it, and weakened mining oversight — to say nothing of proximity to the world’s largest collection of fresh surface water, the Great Lakes — may be a bad combination, especially for what seems a marginal amount of production.

In the meantime, however, the metal commodity boom continues to resurrect areas such as these in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Minnesota and Wisconsin, for better or worse. Whether the investment on the front end and the total volume of ore on the back end will be worth it remains to be seen. The only thing we know for sure is that companies such as Rio, Orvana and HudBay appear to be banking on future metals demand and putting their money (and time, and effort) where their mouths are.

–Taras Berezowsky

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