White Pine, MI — A way of life dating back more than a century disappeared over in Michigan's Upper Peninsula when the last copper mine closed in 1995, idling more than 1,000 employees and turning this once-thriving company town into a forlorn outpost.
Now a Canadian company is planning a new mine at the site a few miles from Lake Superior, where screeching gulls hover over empty buildings and parking lots are littered with broken glass. If Highland Copper Co.'s plans go forward, the area will be astir once more as underground ores are blasted, hauled to the surface and crushed at a mill to extract valuable minerals.
White Pine's impending rebirth is almost miraculous to local residents who have borne the brunt of its demise, but it's part of something even bigger: a surprising resurgence of a mining industry that once was an economic pillar in three Upper Midwestern states but has been in serious decline.
In the past few years, at least six open-pit or underground mines have been proposed or started in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the first such ventures in decades. Additionally, four new Minnesota operations are using refined technology to extract iron from waste rock mined long ago. Other companies are exploring the region's ample deposits of iron, copper, nickel and other metals, which have become more marketable because of improved technology and rising demand in the U.S. and China.
"I thought there was no way it was ever coming back," said Dan Kessler, who was 34, married and the father of two young children when the White Pine closure left him jobless. Now, he says, if the project comes through, "I'd like to see the schools open again."
The developments are causing planners to reconsider their strategies for the region, which had focused on finding a new economy to supplement old land-based industries. Some are concerned about the earlier era's legacy of toxic waters and denuded forests.
"A potential step backward," John Austin, director of the nonprofit Michigan Economic Center, said of mining, unless the operations can be held to rigorous standards. Some planners want to concentrate on developing a "blue economy" based on clean industry and responsible use of fresh water.
No one expects a return to mining's heyday, when the Upper Peninsula produced nearly all the nation's copper and more than 20,000 toiled in Minnesota iron operations alone. Employment at the typical mine likely will be in the hundreds — no panacea in a region where double-digit jobless rates are common. But local economies will benefit from spinoff jobs and tax payments, said Michigan Technological University economist Gary Campbell.
The Eagle Mine, a nickel and copper operation scheduled to begin production this fall, will pump $4 billion into Marquette County over its eight-year lifespan and employ about 300 while generating economic activity that will create 1,200 additional jobs, its managers say.
The mine is "extremely welcome," said Amy Clickner, director of the Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette County. But the enthusiasm is tempered by the boom-and-bust history of the extraction industries. The region still bears the scars.
"Adding mining back into the portfolio is great, but we've learned not to make it the be-all and end-all," Clickner said.
Of the mines that once dotted the northland, none are left in Wisconsin. Michigan has only two iron operations. The industry is strongest in northeastern Minnesota, where six iron mines supply Great Lakes steel mills, but it employs many fewer than during the boom times.
But now, Highland Copper Co. plans two mines and is conducting exploratory drilling in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, one-time epicenter of the region's copper industry. PolyMet Mining has proposed Minnesota's first copper and nickel mine in modern times. Gogebic Taconite is seeking permits for what would be the world's largest open-pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Aquila Resources plans an Upper Peninsula zinc and gold mine.
Because of the rich deposits, "You'd have to say the potential is as high as any in the world," said David Fennell, executive chairman of Highland Copper.
Environmentalists, tribes and landowners have filed 11 legal challenges to block the Eagle Mine, located in a scenic forest. The other projects also face bitter opposition.
The companies say newer mines will leave considerably smaller footprints than before.
Highland Copper project manager Carlos Bertoni says the company will hire engineering graduates from nearby colleges and look for ways to stimulate businesses, like industrial sand production, that will outlive the mines.
"We see ourselves as creating opportunity here," Bertoni said during a recent drive through Calumet, where decaying shaft buildings offer reminders of mining's disappearance.
Bill Chabot, clerk of Ontonagon Township near the White Pine mine, said he's been chastened by mining's drop-off.
"We've been kicked in the teeth so much over the years," Chabot said. "We'll believe it when we see it — but we're really hopeful that it will happen."
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