Local historian offers thoughts on potential sulfide mine in area, by C. Fred Rydholm

It seems that no matter how much is said, or who says it, no matter how the facts are stated or documented at public hearings, nothing can dissuade the DEQ from their headlong course of granting permission to Kennecott Minerals Co. to proceed with their mining operation on the Yellow Dog Plains, even after listening to overwhelming testimony against such action.
In the three hearings I have attended, no more than three or four people spoke in favor of the mine. Two of them were the same person, a man from 0703btAlger County, the other was brought in by the company from Schoolcraft County. I did not hear one person from the local area speak in favor. But the result of these hearings was the temporary granting of a permit and a call for more public hearings. Perhaps this is in hopes that someone will come forth in support.
It appears that no matter what is said at these hearings, the message—though loud and clear—is not getting through to the right people. Kennecott, of course, would have us believe that their courtship of our pristine rivers and lakes these last few years will lead to a happy and mutually-fulfilling marriage—and never mind the string of abusive relationships, all well documented, which the company has left over the course of its questionable past.
But let’s focus on the real story: the mine on the Yellow Dog Plains. What are some of the things that make this area so delicate and special? First and probably foremost, it is located on a high flat glacial moraine (1,340 feet above sea level) that contains a huge aquifer supplying the headwaters of five or six rivers and dozens of springs. All of this water flows down to Lake Superior. It also is the location of the huge Yellow Dog wetlands.
Bordering the proposed mine site on its eastern and western sides is the oldest tree farm (held by one owner) in the State of Michigan. It consists of many thousands of hand-planted trees, and some machine-planted trees. This planting has gone on in various amounts for the last fifty-eight years. It was chosen as the Tree Farm of the Year in 1989.
To the north and to the south of the mine property are two of the most protected and pristine forests east of the Mississippi River. To the south is the Cyrus McCormick Experimental Forest, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, which involves many lakes and thousands of acres. To the north are thousands of acres and more pristine lakes belonging to the Huron Mountain Club. Both of these areas have been protected for well over a century.
Two rivers involved are both unique and special. The one most vulnerable is the Salmon-Trout River. Its headwaters run exactly over and through the areas of the mine. Within fifty or 100 feet of the river, Kennecott proposes an air vent to the ore body. The Salmon-Trout River is the last remaining breeding stream of a most remarkable and rare fish in the United States—the coaster brook trout. Coasters are a species of brook trout that may grow to ten or twelve pounds or more. The Huron Mountain Club and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been working for years, at much cost, to save this rare fish and get it established in other Lake Superior streams, where it once flourished. At one time, this fish was plentiful and could be caught easily along any shore, even along sand beaches of the world’s largest and, at one time, purest body of fresh water on earth.
The other river, known as the Yellow Dog, starts in the McCormick property, but is fed partially by the same source as the Salmon-Trout as it runs for miles through the Yellow Dog wetlands. It has been declared a part of the Wild and Scenic River system, passing through miles of public lands. It has spectacular waterfalls.
The trees surrounding the proposed mine site include red and white pine, but mostly are jack pine. These jack pines are special. At one time, when they were first noticed in the 1930s, they were suspected of being a separate subspecies, as they were 110 to 130 feet tall. Jack pine were not known to grow that tall. The circumference of these trees is forty to sixty inches or more.
We have not mentioned the rare sedges, mosses, flowers and the Kirkland warbler, a bird in the precarious position in its evolution of either being just established, or on its way to extinction. The Yellow Dog Plains may be its salvation. These plains were home to sandhill cranes, pine martins, wolves, fishers and moose when they were thought to be on the verge of extinction in the Upper Peninsula. Cougars have been sighted, and the last Canadian lynx known in Michigan was shot there a few decades ago.
Today, the region is in ecological balance—all the unseen organisms in the soil, and on up the chain of life for both plants and animals. They now live in harmony and go undisturbed.
My family would be more severely affected than anyone else. We own the tree farm mentioned earlier. No one has spent more time in this place nor knows the history of it better than this writer. I have bought, sold and traded land on and near these plains for 60 years. I wrote an in-depth history of the whole region that was published twenty years ago, Superior Heartland, A Backwoods History. I knew most of the characters that were involved in its history personally. We even once owned the land where the proposed mine is to be situated. We built a camp which is within a mile of it about sixty years ago. Because of this, our family has many concerns, many of which have never been addressed. In fact, Kennecott has never attempted to communicate with us, and we are their closest neighbor. Finally, on February 7, 2007, we got a paper from the MDEQ with no answers to the following questions.
We would like to know if the acid dust will kill our trees. Will we be able to use the road we always have to reach our property? Will we lose the water in our ponds that depend on the water table? Will the glaring lights from the operation hide the stars we are used to watching, and will the noise of the rock crusher and heavy trucks moving day and night, replace the tranquility that was one of the most endearing features of our stays there? Also, I remember well how the earth shook and the houses cracked when I lived in Republic, from the drilling and blasting going on in the nearby Republic Mine. Will we be subject to this also?
We don’t even know where the settling ponds will be, nor how big or where they will leach. We don’t know how high the tailing piles will be, or how Kennecott hopes to protect them from acid runoff. “There is another, more subtle, more long-lasting and more difficult effect to mitigate,” wrote Bruce Marsh, Professor at John Hopkins University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
“This is the effect of disruption of the subsurface water system in an area as delicate as this. The real challenge in mining is the management of subsurface water. In many ways the mine is like a severly leaking ship.
“The mine goes deep into the groundwater table and the water must be vigorously pumped out to keep the mine dry. History has documented over the past 100 years in this area that even logging greatly disrupts the ground water table. Water levels in ponds increase, streams change their drainage patterns, fish habitat is forever affected.
“But mining of the magnitude, which is not, in and of itself, enormous, will alter the water system in ways that will almost certainly severely damage this land forever. The forest may die; streams may dry up. Regardless of the adherence to environmental laws, this mine will irreversibly damage singularly beautiful and majestic Michigan wild land. Michigan can no longer afford this extravagance.”
Marsh has spent considerable time hiking and observing this area of mostly original forest lands.
There has been no explanation as to what roads or routes Kennecott will use to transport this dangerous product. No one has told us how they plan to protect the transfer points, loading and unloading. If by rail, will they use the same cars that now haul pellets which spill for miles, even though this sulfide ore could contaminate streams and forests all along the route.
There are other troublesome concerns, too numerous to mention, but we think mistakes already have been made. If I lease a piece of property to someone for twenty years, when the lease is up, I get my property back. But when Kennecott leases the mineral rights for twenty years, when the lease is up, the minerals are gone. Those minerals belonged to the people of the State of Michigan. Why weren’t there public hearings when those leases were let? And as our land values go down, will our taxes also be reduced?
Why hasn’t the DEQ, Kennecott or some other government agency conferred with adjoining neighbors and close-by landowners when a project like this is being contemplated? Most government entities notify the neighborhood, out of shear courtesy, if not by law.
Before any permit is given, every question of every citizen who already has been established in the area should be acknowledged and answered, with every warning and penalty spelled out.
This potentially dangerous project is not being handled properly by our state agencies. It looks as though the DEQ can’t wait for the mine to get started so they can see what happens.
—C. Fred Rydholm

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