The Upper Peninsula watches mining jobs disappear

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published October 1, 1996  | October 1996 issue

The good mining news for Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.) is iron ore, the bad news is copper. The U.P. is second only to Minnesota in producing most of the nation's iron ore, provided by two mines near Ishpeming. Despite the substantial production by these mines, the region has seen a drop in mining operations: From 1956 through 1994 the U.P. supported six separate pellet plants, now there are two.

The U.P.'s only large-scale copper mine, the White Pine mine in Ontonagon County, laid off about 1,000 workers last year, causing the county's unemployment rate to soar from 6.6 percent in September 1995 to 19.3 percent in October and to a high of 20.2 percent last November. July unemployment figures showed a drop to 13.8 percent.

Still, many area residents are hopeful that the mine will resume production. White Pine had begun a pilot project on solution mining as a way to obtain copper economically from a waning reserve. However, that project is on temporary hold until some regulatory hurdles are cleared, And while the Copper Range Co. may never again employ 1,000 at the White Pine mine, up to 200 might regain their jobs if solution mining becomes a full-scale activity.

But it comes down to copper prices in the long run. The planned Great Lakes Minerals copper mine in Keweenaw County is on hold indefinitely. Great Lakes missed its window of opportunity when copper prices were high enough to make the venture profitable, says Mark Roberts, professor of mineral economics at Michigan Tech University.

U.P. copper and iron mining in 1995

  • Until September of '95 the White Pine copper mine in Ontonagon employed 1,000; now about 100 work in the refining operation. White Pine produced 35,900 short tons of copper.

  • The Tilden and Empire open-pit iron mines produced a little more than 13 million tons, about 25 percent of all U.S. iron ore.

  • The two iron mines directly employed about 2,000 and indirectly are responsible for 6,000 to 10,000 other jobs in the area.

  • The annual average payroll for both mines of $127 million.

  • The mines paid $155 million in local services and supplies, and $5.8 million in state and local taxes, including a specific ore tax of more than $4.7 million annually.

Source: Copper Range Co. and Cleveland Cliffs Inc.