By NATASHA BLAKELY
Capital News Service
LANSING — Fierce public reaction greeted the news that a copper company had a use permit to drill at the west edge of one of Michigan’s most remote state parks.
Orvana Resources U.S. Corp.—a subsidiary of Highland Copper—is doing exploratory drilling near Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula. It’s not producing copper, but many members of the public aren’t happy with what it may mean.
“It’s a wild state park to begin with, and having industrial activity there is a shame,” said Steve Garske, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition Mining Action Group. “It seems like mining companies keep targeting areas that are important to the state.”
Although the state owns the land the park is on, it doesn’t own the rights to the minerals under the park. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased 2,700 acres from the Keweenaw Land Association in 1948, but only the surface land, according to the department. The association then leased the mineral rights to Orvana Resources.
Mining in Michigan, especially in the Porcupine Mountains region, is not new. The state park is part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park and its copper mining legacy.
The National Park Service has a timeline of copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula from prehistoric times to the present on its website. It includes the first non-Native attempt to mine copper there in 1771. Highland Copper’s current project is merely the latest.
Even the section where Highland Copper is drilling was test-drilled before, in the 1950s, according to John Pepin, the deputy public information officer for the DNR.
It’s a legacy that has sometimes pitted the mining industry against the lakes surrounding the state. Erosion around mines and water contamination from their waste have caused problems.
The Mining Action Group recently condemned the drilling, claiming that the DNR has “demonstrated a stunning disregard for the health of the land and the wishes of its citizens.”
Kathleen Heideman, a U.P. Environmental Coalition board member, said, “The sulfide mining industry is leading the state of Michigan around by a leash.”
A lot of the anger from the public and environmental groups like the Mining Action Group is because the DNR announced the area would be drilled on Feb. 6, the day after drilling started. There was no opportunity for public comment.
But the DNR did not step out of bounds, Pepin said. He compared the use permit the agency granted Highland Copper to what the DNR would give someone wanting to use state land for a wedding.
“This is very similar to what we issued them,” Pepin said. “We commonly issue these use permits for these kinds of activities, but they don’t require advance public notice or public comment. What I mean by that is, public input is very important, but at this point it’s very premature.
“At this point it’s just exploratory drilling. It hasn’t been determined for certain that there will be mining.”
A DNR press release said that any actual mining, beyond the exploratory drilling, would be regulated in a separate process. Highland Copper would have to prove to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that “no material damage would occur to state-managed park surface features.”
That’s when the public would be given time to comment, Pepin said.
The agency’s press release describes the location and size of the drilling area and what Highland Copper will do to mitigate the environmental impact.
The company is “using the old railways and old logging roads so they don’t have to create any new roads other than in tiny paths,” Pepin said. “If they’re knocking down any trees, they’re reimbursing the state for that. They’re only using vehicles with tracks.”
If Highland Copper goes through with plans for mining and receives approval, it would be allowed to drill only from outside the park so it wouldn’t damage the park surface.
“By law, if you own the mineral rights, you have reasonable access to the lands to get to the minerals,” Pepin said. “That’s why we issued the use permit because the law allows them to have access to the mineral rights.”
Dave Anderson, Highland Copper’s director of environment, said, “We’ve had inspections from DEQ and DNR. We’ve done outreach with area environmental groups and continued conversation with them, and anyone is always welcome to visit the area and see what’s going on.”
Anderson said he helped create the board for the Friends of the Porkies, a nonprofit organization geared to protect the interests of all users of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and that he is well aware of the environmental impact of the mining.
“At this point, there’s no decision to apply for a mining permit yet,” Anderson said. “I think there’s a chance there will be a mine there someday—near the park, not in the park. We’ll see with copper prices in the future, but this isn’t something happening in the near future. It’s many years out at this point in time.”
Natasha Blakely writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By NATASHA BLAKELY