In UP, a new chapter begins in 20 years of fighting over the gold mine

MENOMINEE, MI – Guy “Anahkwet” Reiter was in his early twenties when he began to actively oppose an open-cast gold mine along the banks of the Menominee River.

Today Reiter is 42 years old and has three children. But the years haven’t tamed his dislike of the proposed Back Forty mine near Stephenson in Michigan’s upper peninsula, which he says he’d give his life to try and stop it.

“If I have to stand in front of the machines and give up my life, then that’s what I’m willing to do,” said Reiter, a citizen of the Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin.

It has been 20 years since drilling confirmed the existence of gold along the Menominee River; sparking fears that a mine would eventually plunder the landscape and launching a 20-year struggle to keep the minerals in the ground.

While another UP mine discovered its ore and began production during that time frame, the gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead at the end of the rainbow in Menominee County are no longer closer to the market today than they were in 2015 when former mine owner Aquila Resources filed his first permit applications to the state of Michigan.

However, that may change soon. A new owner, Gold Resources Corp., is redesigning the mine’s operational footprint to alleviate environmental concerns and expand support in what is generally a pro-mining region ahead of a new round of permit applications, which company officials plan to present this or early next year.

Back Forty officials say they aim for a “no net loss” impact on wetlands, a sticky wicket that derailed the latest clearance attempt. At the beginning of 2021, an administrative law judge revoked the Aquila state permit to fill wetlands, deeming the application incomplete and lacking an adequate assessment of the potential alternatives to their loss.

With the new design, the size of the pit has been reduced and moved further from the river. More underground mining activities would be carried out than in the previous project, but not all. Gold Resources also plans to “dry pile” its tailings, or milled waste rock, rather than building a sewage reservoir that would require another permit to build an earth debris dam.

“We started from scratch,” said Dave Anderson, general manager of the Back Forty mine. “I am quite confident that our reduction in the impact on wetlands will be very dramatic.”

“I feel comfortable saying that at the end of my life, after the reclamation, those wetlands that are in place will be intact; they will function ecologically and provide the environmental services, if you want, that they currently provide, ”Anderson said.

The new owner wants to start mining in three years

In December, Gold Resources completed the acquisition of Aquila, adding a second project along with its only other; the Don David gold mine complex in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The company paid $ 23.9 million for Aquila, which investment analysts considered a bargain price considering the value under the Menominee forest: approximately 468,000 ounces of gold worth $ 259 million to $ 1,300 an ounce. in seven years of mining.

Gold is the most valuable, but it is nowhere near the largest volume of ore in the Back Forty deposit, a 1.8 billion-year-old creation formed by hydrothermal seafloor vents during the Paleoproterozoic Era, a period in which small islands of the primordial earth’s crust began to stabilize on the continents. The deposit is located in what is called the Penokean Volcanic Belt.

Mixed with gold are approximately 512 million pounds of zinc, 51 million pounds of copper, 24 million pounds of lead and 4 million pounds of silver. However, unearthing that material will cost a mint – more than $ 290 million, according to Eagle estimates.

The company believes there may be more minerals below the known deposit, which, if confirmed as extractable, could extend the life of the mine and increase its profitability.

If built, the company’s previous estimates put the state of Michigan mining royalties at $ 16.5 million over the life of the mine.

Gold Resources is conducting a feasibility study this year to essentially determine if the development of the project is worth the effort. Applications for authorization and mining plans are being developed concurrently. The company estimates that it will take about a year and a half to acquire the permits and overcome the administrative challenges foreseen by the opponents.

The goal is to begin construction of Back Forty in 2024 and begin mining production in 2025, according to a March 11 earnings request with company CEO Allen Palmiere.

For the Menominee tribe, not all that glitters is gold.

“We are practically anti-mining, in general,” said Tribe President Ronald Corn, Sr.

“I know the mining companies claim they can do safe mines, but we’ve never seen that anywhere,” Corn said. “It’s only a matter of time before something happens that has an impact on the environment.”

Tribe, environmental groups worry about river pollution

The tribe is suspicious of golden promises.

His opposition is rooted in fear that the mine will contaminate the river and trample historical and cultural sites in the immediate vicinity. Ancient tribal mounds and flower beds dot River Road where the mine is planned. The tribe is also uniquely linked to the river mouth as a point of origin, where its history holds that its five ancestral clans were created.

The tribe has allies in the environmental realm. In 2017 and 2020, American Rivers’ nonprofit conservation organization listed the Menominee River as one of the nation’s “most endangered”. Efforts are underway to include the “Dog’s Belly” and “60 Islands” river areas near the mine in the National Register of Historic Places to increase legal obstacles to development.

Dale Burie, co-founder of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, does not argue that the mine can be designed to minimize environmental damage.

“We don’t want to expose the Menominee River to acid-contaminated mine drainage,” Burie said. “It is a world-class sea bass and walleye fishery and an important breeding ground for the historic lake sturgeon.”

In the UP, the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy opposes the mine and helped with the “endangered” list. Its opposition is notable because the organization works closely with another mine that was fiercely opposed during development. Through a program involving the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and others, the group verifies environmental monitoring data collected by Eagle Mine, a nickel and copper mine near Marquette that opened in 2014 after its discovery in 2002.

Eagle Mine faced significant opposition during development. The battle featured similar environmental concerns cited by opponents of the Back Forty mine. However, nearly a decade after the mine opened, those problems did not materialize.

With increasing evidence of human-induced climate change, attitudes have subsided towards the Eagle mine because nickel is a crucial component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries. The shift to electric vehicles is key to reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector, and mining in jurisdictions like Michigan means minerals don’t come from countries with loose environmental regulations that undermine the green market ethics.

However, Eagle Mine and Back Forty are not the same animal. In Eagle, all mining takes place underground. At Back Forty, the minerals are closer to the surface. Even with the new design, an open pit of a certain size is planned as part of the project.

Also, gold is used in some circuits, but it’s not as critical to electric vehicle batteries as nickel is. This means that “it is more difficult to make the case part of the energy transition solution and support renewable energy,” said Robert Johnston, a researcher at the Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy.

Geraldine Grant, a senior planner and biologist at the Superior Watershed Partnership, said the group’s monitoring program with Eagle Mine has attracted significant attention from mining companies and universities interested in replicating it. However, there have been no contacts from anyone connected to Back Forty.

“We don’t want to see that mine built yet,” Grant said. “It is a risky area to mine such a mine.”

My supporters pitch climate arguments

Others want the mine to be built.

Opponents struggled to win votes for the historic preservation effort among local officials. The mine also has significant support in Lansing. In January, the state UP delegation, including Democrat Representative Sara Cambensy, issued a joint statement praising the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for renewing the mine’s lease last year.

In a letter urging renewal, Senator Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, called the arguments against the mine “capable” and leaned heavily on Eagle Mine’s financial contribution. McBroom has drawn a connection between the Back Forty deposit and the need for critical minerals as the state and nation move away from fossil fuels.

Cambensy is co-sponsoring package legislation in the State House that would allow mining companies to receive matching state grants for research, development and remediation.

“If we really want to tackle climate change, you need to be open to a lot more mining,” Cambensy told an UP news station this summer. “You can’t be a proponent of climate change while opposing mining, because a green economy depends on exponentially digging more minerals to make that transition.”

In Stephenson, Anderson seems eager to extend the olive branch and thaw relations with the tribe. He promised that the tribal heritage sites would all be protected with the new design and expressed a desire to work together for their protection.

“I’d like to have a conversation with the tribe about how we can put those sites in the hands of the tribe so they can protect them forever,” Anderson said.

Whether the rapprochement effort bears fruit remains to be seen. The tribe is yet to have a conversation with the company, and Corn hasn’t even discussed the broader climate issue among them. At the moment, the plan is to stand firm in the opposition.

“Once these permits are (ongoing) worked out, we will definitely take the same position,” Corn said.

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