Michigan gives final OK to nickel, copper mine

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Michigan regulators gave final approval Thursday to a nickel and copper mine for the Upper Peninsula, despite opponents’ fears it would pollute streams that feed Lake Superior and provide habitat for a rare type of trout.

Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. said it hoped to begin construction this year on what would be the nation’s only mine where nickel is the primary target, not just a byproduct from extraction of other minerals.

But foes were planning court appeals, insisting the project would violate environmental standards set in recent years as mining companies stepped up explorations of deposits in the state’s mineral-rich northlands.

“Strong Michigan laws were written specifically to protect Michigan’s waters, including the Great Lakes, from toxic byproducts this mining will create,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The state Department of Environmental Quality granted two permits — one to build and operate the mine in the remote Yellow Dog Plains region of Marquette County, and the other to discharge treated wastewater underground.

The department tentatively approved the permits in 2007. Final approval followed a lengthy hearing by an administrative law judge, who endorsed the DEQ’s handling of the matter.

“Based on our reviews and the hearing, their project meets the requirements of one of the most environmentally protective mining laws in the nation,” spokesman Robert McCann said. “It will be up to Kennecott to live up to those standards, and we’ll make sure they do that.”

The company, a subsidiary of London-based Rio Tinto PLC, is targeting a six-acre underground deposit expected to yield 250 million to 300 million pounds of nickel and about 200 million pounds of copper.

Nickel is used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products, such as stainless steel and batteries.

“It’s been a very long and thorough process, and the judge and the DEQ have reached the correct decisions,” said Jon Cherry, Kennecott Eagle’s general manager. “We’re excited to get this project started and create jobs in Marquette County.”

The mine will employ about 200 full-time workers, while about 500 contractors will be hired during the construction phase, he said.

Kennecott still needs a groundwater permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cherry said he expects approval sometime this year. Meanwhile, the company will begin clearing land and building a plant to treat water that comes in contact with the ore body.

Opponents say the minerals are in sulfide ore bodies that could cause acidic pollution of groundwater and nearby streams, including the Salmon Trout River, home to the rare coaster brook trout. Cherry said the permits spell out preventive measures.

The National Wildlife Federation and other mine opponents will appeal the DEQ decision in circuit court, attorney Michelle Halley said. Also pending is a legal challenge of the state’s lease of public land for mine facilities.

The administrative law judge had urged the DEQ to weigh further the possible damage to Eagle Rock, a 60-foot-high outcrop that the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community uses for spiritual ceremonies.

McCann said the department concluded it wasn’t legally required to consider spiritual issues. But under the permit, Kennecott will leave the outcrop untouched above the surface, although the mine opening will be drilled beneath.

Even so, Halley said, “It’s still degradation of the sacred nature of that place and will ruin the spiritual use of Eagle Rock.”