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Mining Michigan Part 1: UP copper mine bulldozes ahead with destructive agenda

July 26, 2010

Retrieving the belongings of those arrested for occupying Eagle Rock.

This is the first of a three-part series . Look for Part 2 on August 2.

Corporate greed, government corruption, the promise of new jobs . . . this familiar formula for destruction and injustice is yielding the predictable results right here, right now in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Rio Tinto/Kennecott Minerals has begun its destruction of Yellow Dog prairie’s pristine public lands and Eagle Rock, a sacred Ojibwa site, in Marquette County.

The destruction here means more than the loss of a beautiful view. The mine will irreversibly pollute the entire Yellow Dog Water Shed, which feeds into Lake Superior. The waters that have sustained fish, turtles, birds and human beings for thousands of years will become a toxic dump site within the next decade.  Why? So Rio Tinto, a British company with an extensive history of destructive mining practices, human rights violations and labor abuses, can produce profits for its shareholders.

“The two hallmarks of Rio Tinto are, one, they violate indigenous rights more than any other mining company, and two, they violate workers’ rights, in Australia, Canada and Utah,” says Gabriel Caplett, a local resident who has worked hard to stop the mine. “They do not like unions and they like contracting the work out so they don’t have to pay benefits or deal with organizers.”

A bulldozer operator who was clearing the site complained he wasn’t given enough of a gas stipend to get to the job site without using his own money.  He was also concerned that his wages for the work were going to get cut—Kennecott is proposing new wage cuts for the contractor’s currently working for them. Many of the other workers that Kennecott refers to as having “Marquette County addresses” we’re brought in from other states. While 200 to 300 contractors may be kept busy during the pre-construction phase, specialists from Canada and South Africa will be brought in to do the actual construction of the mine. If Kennecott follows the common practice of the industry, the promised 200 permanent jobs created for locals will dwindle by half.

Sadly, locals are divided on the issue. While many are active, vocal opponents, others need work and find it easy to dismiss the ruin of their own habitat. “There’s a nostalgia for the past here, when a mine would employ hundreds and hundreds of people for years and years,” Caplett says. “This mine will probably only be open for five to six years. The mining companies like to come in and get out quickly. They make more money that way. Today’s mines don’t employ a lot of people and, don’t pay a lot of taxes.”

The promise of employment is just one of the tactics Rio Tinto used to access the mining site. To get the legal ball rolling, they used a strategy they found successful in other states. They crafted new state law, HB 6432 section 632, under the ruse of involving environmental groups to create more protections. In essence, the new law permits mining companies to mine on any site, be it a protected wetland, forest, sacred site or vital water source. While the first pages of the legislation seem to offer environmental protections, exceptions added later on give mining companies free reign to ravage Michigan’s natural resources.

Even with the law changed in its favor, Rio Tinto feared public outcry. In 2008, the firm hired Matt Johnsonaway from his job in Governor Granholm’s office. From 2003 to 2008, as director of the Governor’s Office for the Upper Peninsula, Johnson was the Governor’s contact and communications point person on metallic sulfide mining.

“He was the one that citizens spoke to (about the mine) up until 2008. He could have used the information to his advantage. He could have influenced Granholm on it,” Caplett says. ”Now he works for the company. It’s another one of those revolving door stories.”

Similarly disturbing, a 2009 ballot proposal campaign that sought to better regulate mining throughout all of Michigan fizzled amid squandered funds and questionable leadership. “A ballot initiative could be a useful democratic tool for protecting our water, public land and economy if it weren’t too costly for the regular citizen to pull off in Michigan,” Caplett says.

Then there’s geologist Joe Maki, from the DEQ’s Office of Geological Survey.  According to Headwaters, “In court proceedings regarding the DEQ’s approval, Maki admitted under oath that neither he nor his review team applied a central tenet of Michigan’s new metallic mining law in approving Kennecott’s application.”

Maki also purported that he had lost a report that analyzed the mine’s proposed design as dangerous. Most disturbing of all, Maki remains the person responsible for inspecting the Kennecott mine and others in the UP.

“There has never been a mine of this type in a water-rich area that has not polluted the environment. The water here is very clean. This is one of the cleanest and most sensitive aquifers in the lower 48,” Caplett says. “A (proposed) hydrology study by the US geological service never happened. There’s no baseline data. Impact will not be able to be measured. It’s really a shame. The Yellow Dog Plains are really quiet, still really gorgeous. There are blueberries, clean rivers. It is a unique place. It will not be that way much longer.”

For more information, visit Stand for the Land and Lake Superior Mining News. Or, attend the 3rd Annual Protect the Earth Gre

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