Opinion: New mine could harm Menominee watershed

Al Gedicks and Eric Hansen

Will the Menominee River watershed, the largest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a significant tributary of Lake Michigan, remain a land of sky blue waters? 

Or will an ill-advised metallic sulfide mine proposal, located a mere stone’s throw inland from the river and the Michigan-Wisconsin border, lead to contaminated waters and threaten drinking water supplies?

Downstream communities that depend upon the river for their drinking water, fishing and tourism doubt the mining company’s assurances of safety.

When mining exposes sulfide minerals to air and water, the result is acid mine drainage (AMD) pollution. AMD dissolves toxic heavy metals into ground or surface water.

The proposed construction method, known as upstream dam design, uses crushed waste rock and sandy soil — not steel and concrete — to build a retention dam for mine tailings, the waste material left over from the crushing and chemical processing of mineral ores.

The tailings often contain residual minerals — including lead, mercury, cyanide and arsenic — that can be toxic when released to the environment. The proposed mine would produce 70 million tons of acid-producing waste rock and milled tailings.

Common sense tells us that a dam made of sandy soil and crushed waste rock is not a safe way to secure these dangerous materials long term. Aquila Resources claims that the finely ground chemical-laden wastes, along with millions of gallons of water mixed in a slurry, can be stored safely next to the Menominee River in perpetuity. The mine’s proposed tailings facility is a gigantic 123 acres, the size of 100 football fields.

Downstream communities that depend upon the river for their drinking water, fishing and tourism doubt the company’s assurances of safety. Eight counties, four towns, three cities and dozens of tribal governments have passed resolutions against the mine project.

A reasonable citizen would also question the location of the mine’s open pit, where excavation of the ore happens.

Picture a hole that Detroit’s tallest building, the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, could fit inside. The depth of the massive pit, a mere 150 feet from the Menominee River, would exceed 700 feet. The pit would be 2,000 feet wide and 2,500 feet long.

Fundamental human decency also calls for a halt to the mine proposal. Burial mounds, village sites and important cultural resources of the Menominee Indian Tribe are within the proposed mine's boundaries. The Menominee River country is their historic homeland and they lived there for millennia. Forced off that land by an 1836 treaty with the United States, the tribe now lives 60 miles west, in Wisconsin. Their reservation’s 234,000-acre forestland is widely renowned for its beauty and sustainable forestry practices.

Now is the time to stand up for not just clean water and common sense, but also common decency for the burial mounds of the Menominee Indians. Insist that the sacred sites of Native Americans should be “no-go-areas," protected from destructive mining projects. Future generations will thank you.

Al Gedicks is emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse and executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.

Eric Hansen, an outdoor writer and commentator, is the author of Hiking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.