There can be no Pure Michigan without pure water

 by Babette Welch

“Michigan’s very name is rooted in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian word for ‘large lake,’ and its handprint on the earth, the mitten-like Lower Peninsula and jagged-edged Upper Peninsula, is shaped by four of the five Great Lakes. They’re called lakes, but sailors referred to the planet’s largest bodies of fresh water as “Sweetwater Seas.”
So begins the successful advertising campaign for attracting millions of visitors and dollars to Michigan. A study commissioned for Travel Michigan concludes that every dollar Michigan invests in out-of-state tourism advertising generates $40.81 in total spending by tourists and $2.86 in new sales tax revenues for the state, according to Traverse City Record Eagle.
What a great return. And so much of that return depends on Michigan’s water—from trout streams to the Great Lakes, water is the central theme. Michiganders love their water. Now it is time to raise our voices to protect it and make sure it is pure for future generations.
lake-michigan-216309__180Water is indeed a hot topic in the news, from commodities markets to our health. We can read about:
• NASA hunting for water on the moon
• Water as the oil of the twenty-first century
• The Great Lakes Compact limiting water extraction
• Congress discussing Great Lakes Cleanup
• Around the world, 884 million people do not have access to safe drinking water
Water can become a blurry background in our daily lives. Living here in the Great Lakes State makes concerns about running out of fresh drinking water seem a distant elsewhere. With so much water, we can lose a bit, pollute some of it and still have enough for drinking, swimming and fishing. Agreed?
Maybe that was true in the last century, but new risks threaten the entire Great Lakes Basin, which holds twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. And we are smart enough to know water is the most valuable resource we have.
Growing up almost anywhere in Michigan makes it natural to fall in love with large bodies of water. We drank it, swam in it, fished in it and listened late in the night for the deep bellow of the freighters’ horns as they passed.
The story goes that each massive boat has a distinct horn, and often calls to a crew member residing nearby. When a boat passes, the horn will sound a friendly ‘Hello, how are you?’ We like the sound of the boats and it fosters our commitment to live near water.
Actually, there is something grand about people who live near large bodies of water. They have a freshness that gives them a spark in life. Remember Michigan license plates that said “Water Wonderland,” then “Water-Winter Wonderland?” Finally, during 1970s, we were labeled “The Great Lake State.” Oh, such sweet memories when water seemed important to the state. Actually, it still is important.
We all live downstream from the proposed sulfide and uranium mines in the Upper Great Lakes basin. Water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan to the drinking water supplies of Detroit and Chicago and then flows to the rest of the Great Lakes. If you look in the background, you can see why this is all about water. Michigan is defined by water not only as its boundary but in its heart too. As the heart of the Great Lakes, what happens in Michigan impacts the entire watershed.
Congress is debating spending millions to “Clean Up the Great Lakes.” The EPA reports that one of the significant environmental problems for the Great Lakes basin is toxic sediment. It’s estimated that toxic sediment clean-up will cost at least $2.25 billion, according to the EPA. But what sense does it make to clean up the Great Lakes while allowing new pollution to enter the Lakes? Why is there so little focus on prevention?
Exploration and permit applications are being processed for a new and different sort of mining at the headwaters of the Great Lakes. This is not the traditional mining of iron-in-oxide ore that still brings good income to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The backers of the new mining in sulfide ore try to confuse the issue by promoting sulfide mining as the same as mining oxide ore. The two types of ore are extremely different. Lucky for the Upper Peninsula and the state of Michigan, most of the iron deposits are in oxide rock. Regional iron mining has slowed in recent decades with only two mines operating in the U.P., but iron oxide mining is familiar and traditional. This iron mining has a strong and lasting legacy in the U.P.
The proposed new version of the mining industry has two problems: (1) its focus on mining uranium, and (2) mining any metal from sulfide ore. Neither type of mining mixes well with water, and we live in Earth’s only Great Lakes Basin.
Uranium mining brings with it a whole new set of impacts on water and the environment. Mining for low-grade uranium ores typically is done by a process called in-situ leaching (ISL).
This method does not bring any ore to the surface, but rather pumps chemically-treated water into and through the ore body to dissolve the uranium and bring it to the surface. The solution is evaporated, uranium is extracted and the water is pumped through again to dissolve more uranium, according to
Sounds simple, but where is the water going to come from and where will it end up? Uranium deposits suitable for ISL are found in permeable sand or sandstone, usually covered above and below by impermeable rock; the deposits usually sit below the water table. This means that if there is any connection or leakage into a drinking water source, it will be contaminated with uranium.
Even worse, the water used in the ISL process can’t be effectively restored to natural groundwater purity.
The Jacobsville sandstone formation at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula is being explored for uranium right now, according to the Bitterroot Resources Web site. Earlier this year, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department issued a statement that some private wells tested in the Keweenaw already contain the EPA maximum allowable concentration for uranium in drinking water, and suggested that other wells in the area be tested, according to the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department. This is bad news for any of us who drink the water.
When you hear “sulfide mining,” you may ask, “What do they use the sulfide for?” The answer is nothing. Sulfide is not the targeted resource. Sulfide mining—what is called “hardrock mining” in the west—refers to extracting any metal embedded in a sulfide rock. It is the sulfide in the rock that creates sulfuric acid, leeches heavy metals and causes grave concern.
The rock is broken apart, above ground or below, and the rock surface comes in contact with air and water, which causes a chemical reaction that produces sulfuric acid. The acidic water leaches arsenic, lead and mercury from the rock. The result, a highly toxic chemical brew, is called Acid Mine Drainage or AMD for short.
Some people try to hide the problem by calling it “Acid Rock Drainage,” implying that it occurs in nature, which it does. The difference is the amount of exposed surface area of rock that interacts with the water and thus the volume of acidic water.
Take a one-foot cube of rock: there is about six square feet of surface area for water to have a chemical reaction with the sulfides in the rock. Crush that same cube, and the surface area goes up exponentially, which causes much larger amounts of acidic sulfides to dissolve into the water. Once the water becomes acidic, it transforms and pulls additional toxins from the rock. Remember the great push to remove lead from the paint? Remember Michigan’s efforts to reduce mercury from smoke stack exhaust? With AMD, there is a new large source of lead and mercury potentially coming your way.
Once AMD begins, virtually nothing can stop it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the headwaters of more than forty percent of western watersheds are contaminated by mining, much of it related to acid mine drainage. There are mines in Europe, worked by the Romans prior to A.D. 476 that still are seeping acid mine drainage, according to the University of Washington Center for Streamside Studies, College of Forest Resources and Fishery Sciences.
To date, no mining company has been able to respond to the simple request: “Please, name one metallic sulfide mine near water that hasn’t contaminated water.”
The risk of Acid Mine Drainage is severe, and the people of Wisconsin love their water enough that in 2006 they passed a “Prove it First” legislation. Their law means no company can mine sulfide ore in Wisconsin until it proves mining sulfide ore can be done without contaminating water. Sounds reasonable, yet so far no company has qualified under this law.
Bingham Canyon copper mine, for instance, has suffered environmental and safety problems, including high levels of lead and arsenic in Bingham Creek and Butterfield Creek, a hazardous spill of sulfuric acid (second largest in the United States for 1996), and a “tailings scandal” in which the company was exposed for jeopardizing human lives because the liability would be less expensive than the protection. Bingham Canyon is run by Kennecott Mining Company, the same company proposing a sulfide mine in the Yellow Dog Plains.
“[F]ew communities have been as welcoming of large industrial-scale mines as Salt Lake has been of its longtime neighbor, the Rio Tinto-Kennecott Bingham Canyon copper mine. This open pit copper mine has provided welcome jobs and endeavored to demonstrate model reclamation techniques on its massive waste rock piles (easily visible as one flies in and out of the Salt Lake airport). Beneath the Bingham Canyon mine, however, lies the largest known plume of contaminated groundwater in the world. While trying to remain positive and nonconfrontational, area residents and conservationists must be constantly vigilant to ensure the plume is not accidentally (or intentionally) released from its pocket beneath the mine site and into the fragile and unique ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake.” (
Jon Cherry, now manager for Kennecott’s Eagle Project, worked in management at the Bingham Canyon Copper mine during that same period, according to DEQ documents.
Kennecott is owned by Rio Tinto, a London based company. Rio Tinto has its eye on Michigan and our water as a way to make millions while selling the extracted metals to China.
Rio Tinto’s world track record also is unclean. In 2008, the country of Norway, one of Rio’s largest shareholders, divested of all holdings from their national pension on grounds of environmental ethics and human rights violations in West Papua, according to a Reuters article.
Sulfide mining and water don’t mix, and in a water-rich environment like Michigan, there is virtually no safe way to conduct this type of mining—and no acceptable margin of error. Acid Mine Drainage creates acidic water, deadly to insects, fish and amphibians.
The Pure Michigan campaign says, “Anglers find world-class fly-fishing on the Muskegon, Pere Marquette, Boardman, Betsie, Manistee and AuSable Rivers; writers from Ernest Hemingway to Robert Traver (John D. Voelker) and Jerry Dennis have written about fishing Michigan’s waters.” Sure would be sad to lose those fish to Acid Mine Drainage.
The international companies proposing these new mines mask the risk by framing it as jobs for Michiganders who definitely need new employment. There will be some jobs if the proposed mines go through, but modern mining, like many industrial processes, employs far fewer people than last century. The few jobs primarily go to technical experts or robots.
Robots are an integral part of the Rio Tinto mining future the company does not want to talk about. Plans include driverless robotic trucks, excavators and draglines. In January 2008 Rio Tinto announced the opening of a robotized mine in Pilbara (Australia). Operations at the mine are controlled 1,300 kilometers away in Perth and include a driverless “intelligent” truck fleet, remote control “intelligent” drills and driverless trains to carry iron ore on most of the 1,200 kilometers of track. Lots of jobs for robots, not so many for real people.
According to the Rio Tinto Web site, John McGagh, head of innovation for Rio Tinto, sums up the switch from people to robots by saying, “We’ve looked at other industries that have implemented high levels of robotics and we see great efficiencies in terms of maintenance of this equipment.”
Are the robots coming to Michigan mines? It sure looks like it. The Menominee County Planning Commission, at its meeting on April 21, 2009, discussed a proposed change to the local water system to “… work with potential mining companies to provide high-tech mining robotics.”
Historically, the quest for metals has been about weapons and money—we should be concerned that nickel, a rare metal, would be sent off to China or any other foreign country. Rio Tinto (with China, slowly acquiring greater shares of Rio Tinto) profits from mining in Michigan, so all that’s promised here is likely cleanup, which Rio Tinto’s corporate taxes would not begin to cover.
In the future, would the United States have to rely on China or another country for war munitions? Even if you care more about jobs than water, does it make sense to depend on a foreign country for natural resources and potential war munitions—when the metals originally came from your own home area? Shouldn’t homeland security be more important than archaic mineral rights laws?
There is talk that this risk is only an Upper Peninsula mining issue. The U.P. is part of Michigan even if it seems the mitten forgets sometimes. Also, we know that these first mining targets are only the beginning.
A geological formation that has metallic deposits along its path, just like a string of pearls, extends down the middle of the state to Lansing and Detroit. Maybe the first targets are the isolated Yoopers, but soon the sulfide mining and Acid Mine Drainage could be coming to Gaylord, Lansing or Traverse City. is leading the action to prevent the contamination of the Great Lakes basin from uranium and sulfide mining. Prevention may not attract big stimulus money or pundits rallying for cleanup, but it could cost a lot less than waiting until the pollution already is generated and then fighting the cleanup battles. is proposing a statewide ballot initiative to strengthen Michigan’s law that governs uranium and sulfide mining. Together we can protect our water from irreversible pollution by preventing contamination of the Great Lakes Basin.
In March 2009, the Michigan Save Our Water Committee was formed and registered with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office as an official Ballot Initiative Committee. Its first goal: to collect 450,000 signatures to put a ballot measure on the 2010 General Election ballot. Then we have to win at the polls—to protect our water. To support the ballot measure, visit
The measure will be a strong endorsement of the value of our most important natural resource, fresh water. It will protect Michigan’s water and the Great Lakes basin by putting a law into place that will require certain types of mining operations be a set distance from key water sources and give an example of another mine that has not polluted a local watershed for at least ten years during and after operation.
Contrary to rumors or fears, this ballot language has been written explicitly to protect water from sulfide and uranium mining. This is a common sense law to protect the water of the Great Lakes and make the mining industry responsible for respecting water. It has been written explicitly to ensure existing and future oxide-based iron ore mining—our true heritage—is not impacted. Thus, the long-term iron mining jobs stay right here in Michigan.
The ballot language, with its prohibition against this type of mining activity within 2,000 feet of surface water in Michigan, is a powerful tool for protecting the Great Lakes basin.
Every citizen of the basin can be concerned and involved in this effort. Join other supporters at the lively evening of music by Amnesians sponsored by Save the Wild UP (SWUP) from 6:30 to 11:00 p.m. on November 12 at Upfront & Company in downtown Marquette. Tickets are on sale at the SWUP office for $15 per person, with a $5 student rate.
Our water is worth it. Together we can protect our water. We can change Michigan from the rust belt to the water belt.
Although writing about the west, Charles Wilkinson sums up the current issue involving the Upper Great Lakes, “[N]atural resource policy is dominated by the lords of yesterday, a battery of nineteenth-century laws, policies and ideas that arose under wholly different social and economic conditions, but that remain in effect due to inertia, powerful lobbying forces, and a lack of public awareness.”

Voices Around The Great Lakes Basin

“Modern-day life can tend to isolate us from nature. However, nature is what gives us life and fresh water is what gives life to all of nature—fish, plants, animals and humans. Without fresh water, we cannot exist. Nature is bigger than we humans, yet we have the power to despoil it. Because of that power, we have a clear responsibility to preserve and care for it.
“Stewardship of our natural resources is one of our most important responsibilities. We in the Great Lakes area are blessed with the magnificent beauty and essential resources of these bodies of fresh water. We owe it to ourselves, future generations and the rest of the world to love, respect and preserve this wonderful resource.”

— Deb Ahlstedt, International Faculty and Staff Services director, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Deb subscribes to Marquette Monthly by mail, and, after living in two other countries and several U.S. states, remains unconvinced by Lon Emerick that she wouldn’t like it here and plans to retire to Marquette.

“The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community passed a resolution in 2004 that states: Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake and is essential to the quality of life and economic vitality of the cities, villages, towns, and counties along its shores and in the surrounding watershed; water is life and the quality of water determines the quality of life; the responsibility for protecting and restoring the quality of Lake Superior’s (and all of our Great Lakes) waters, land, and wildlife lies with all Tribes, residents, municipalities, businesses, and visitors.
“O ur Keweenaw Bay Indian Community established the third Sunday in July as Lake Superior Day, which is a day to acknowledge and celebrate the lake’s importance in the quality of the lives of its members.”

—Susan LaFernier, Vice President of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Susan stresses the importance the Great Lakes have played for all generations and our responsibility to leave a clean water legacy for future generations.

“Water’s importance reaches back into the dawn of Michigan history and will define its future as far as we can see. Polluting or wasting that water is like polluting or wasting ourselves. Jobs, recreation, biological diversity and peace of mind all depend on protecting the wonder of our vast waters.”
— Dave Dempsey, Communications Director for Conservation Minnesota, Great Lakes policy expert, and author and coauthor of five conservation books. He has served as environmental advisor to Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard; program director at Clean Water Action; Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council; and President Clinton appointed him to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1994, where he served until 2001.

“Asking whether or why we need clean water in the Great Lakes or any bodies of water should not even be a question, it should just be a given that water in our ecosystem and atmosphere is protected and valued; polluted water should be the anomaly, not the norm. I know we have made great strides in the Great Lakes region and nationwide on this front in recent decades, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. I think the authors of the book Dam Nation said it best at a talk in Chicago a few years ago, describing alternative, self-contained composting sewage systems and pointing out the ridiculous nature of a system depending on putting our wastes—bodily, industrial, household—into our most precious resource (water) because of some strange idea that water ‘cleans’ everything it touches when in reality it is the opposite.”
— Kari Lydersen, former national champion for 15K and 25K swim marathons and member of the U.S. National Swimming Team, author, photographer and Chicago-based staff writer for the Washington Post. Kari’s first-hand experience with dirty water includes races in waterways where all competitors were advised to get gamma-globulin immunity-boosting shots.

“No economic benefits, no matter how vital it is, would make it worthwhile to diminishing our precious supply of clean water.”
— Karen DeCrow, recent inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

“Whether you consider Lake Superior poetry—or commodity—locating a sulfide mining district on its headwaters does not make sense.”
— Eric Hansen, Milwaukee-based writer, traveler, explorer of the Upper Great Lakes and American West landscapes. Eric walked a memorable 1,700 miles while researching his guidebooks (Hiking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Hiking Wisconsin).

“Try living without clean water…Too many are now paying the cost in declining human health, destroyed ecosystems and a declining quality of life so that a few may profit…Do not wait—investigate, disseminate, instigate and invigorate each other for collective action for the life you save might be your own.”
— Ron Davis, Grassroots Organizer, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an organization that helps communities protect and defend themselves from environmental threats. Ron has worked with many Great Lakes Basin communities and seen firsthand the health and environmental havoc wreaked from pollution.

“Water is basic to life. Water is the single most important contributing factor to longevity. Water is what scientists look for on other planets as evidence for life.”
—Dr. Allan Olson, Osteopathic physician certified in Family Practice. Father, grandfather, and Chicago native, Allan spent much of his childhood in the Copper Country and half his life practicing medicine in Marquette.

“Water is the next future commodity. Risking contamination of water is gambling with it. With all the water around us, Michigan will be a very attractive place to live as long as we don’t ruin it.”
— Gary Miron, PhD, Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology at Western Michigan University.

“The Great Lakes represent twenty percent of the Earth’s freshwater and provide drinking water to over thirty million people. We have to keep them clean because our health and economy depend on it.”
— Thom Cmar, Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney, focusing on water and energy issues, emphasizing litigation and advocacy to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Editor’s Note: Welch is co-founder of Save the Wild UP. A complete footnoted version of this piece is available with sources and Web site listings. Welch thanks the many people who contributed material for the article.

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