New technology could preserve U.P. copper industry

Michigan State Roundup

Published April 1, 1995  | April 1995 issue

When the Copper Range Co. in White Pine shut down its 40-year-old smelter in March, that might have signaled the end of the U.P.'s (Upper Peninsula) only currently active copper mine. Instead, stable copper prices and new mining methods may extend the life of the mine and bode well for the industry's future.

Copper Range Co.'s smelter ceased operations to comply with Clean Air Act regulations, affecting about 100 employees, most of whom have been placed elsewhere in the operation. What is of larger concern is the future of the entire work force of over 1,000 at the mine.

To keep the mine profitable the company hopes to build a $200 million state-of-the-art smelter, which could be operating within three years.

In conjunction with construction of a new smelter, Copper Range wants to use a solution mining technique to retrieve copper ore from previously mined caverns. Traditional mining methods will continue, but adding solution mining to extract ore from the cavern pillars would ensure greater production and would extend the life of the mine up to 40 years. "A byproduct of the smelting process could be turned back into solution mining," says Robin Johnson, Copper Range's employee and public relations manager. "One is dependent on the other," Johnson adds.

And the UP's economy, while not dependent on copper mining, does benefit from the industry. A 1994 economic impact report issued by Copper Range indicates that its UP combination of purchases and payroll was over $60 million. In Ontonagon County alone, where the mine is located, 597 employees and 92 vendors earned nearly $22 million from copper mining. At the end of February Ontonagon County's unemployment rate of 7.2 percent was among the lowest in the UP, which had an overall unemployment rate of 10.9 percent for the same period.

"The mine is critical to Ontonagon County and the whole western UP," says Dorothy Bussiere, administrative secretary of the Ontonagon Economic Development Corp. "If Copper Range were to close it would be devastating," Bussiere says. When the mine closed for a time a number of years ago, county unemployment rose to over 40 percent. "But it's not just mining jobs, it's families, school children, everyone who uses services in the western UP," Bussiere says.

"As long as copper prices stay up, [mining] will always have a place," says Phil Musser, executive director of the Keweenaw Industrial Council. Musser is watching the development of another copper mine in his own backyard, Keweenaw County. Great Lakes Minerals, a Canadian company, is preparing to open a small mining operation that will employ 40 to 50.

According to Musser, Great Lakes will also use a new technique, "decline ramp" mining. Instead of digging deep shafts or creating open pits, mine operators will use bidirectional trucks to dig into the ground on a slope that turns back on itself like a switchback road on a mountainside. This technique will allow Great Lakes to develop smaller copper deposits economically and profitably.

Kathy Cobb