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Strong demand has U.P. digging up its past

Michigan State Roundup

January 1, 2006

Strong demand has U.P. digging up its past

Long gone are the full-bore days of mining in the Upper Peninsula. But strong worldwide demand for a variety of minerals and metals has led to increased activity—exploration, mostly—in the U.P. for mining operations. That has some excited, but not everyone wants to return to the old mining days.

It's not like the mines ran out of material, but low prices and comparatively low-quality ore put the shutters on much of the industry by the end of the 1980s. That has changed over the past half-decade as high prices and better technology and processes are now bringing more exploration to the region. The Marquette Mining Journal reported that five firms were exploring the U.P. for opportunities in nonferrous mining—materials other than iron ore—mostly nickel, copper, zinc and gold. However, one firm is reportedly running tests on the region's uranium potential. There also has been interest in kimberlite formations—the precursor to diamond mining—in Iron County.

But mines can take years to open. Unlike in the boom years, mining firms today have to expend considerable time and resources convincing officials and the public at large that they should be allowed to mine.

Kennecott Minerals, for example, wants to dig the only underground nickel mine in the country. The proposed site is in northern Marquette County near Big Bay and the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River. Core samples by the company estimate around 5 million tons of nickel, copper and gold in the underlying ore, with a processed value of $2 billion to $3 billion. Local officials get excited because mine construction and local employment in good-paying mining jobs would mean tens, and possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars.

The firm drilled its first test holes more than a decade ago, and accelerated exploration with core samples in 2003. Environmental activists have been vehement in their opposition to the mine, saying that the risk for environmental damage outweighs any economic gains. The company also faces other difficult, if more mundane, obstacles. For example, the local visitors' bureau has asked that the company build a "tote roadway" rather than using major highways for the 40 or so daily truckloads coming from the mine that are traveling to regional rail hubs for other further transport.

Ronald A. Wirtz