In the UP, a new chapter begins in 20-year clash over gold mine

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

Today, Reiter is 42 and has three kids. But the years haven’t tamed his dislike for the proposed Back Forty mine near Stephenson in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which he says he would lay down his life to try and stop.

“If I have to stand in front of the machines and give my life up, 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 despoil the landscape and launching a two decade fight to keep the minerals in the ground.

Another UP mine discovered its deposit and began production during that timeframe, the gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead at the end of the rainbow in Menominee County are no closer to market today than they were in 2015 when former mine owner Aquila Resources submitted its first permit applications to the state of Michigan.

However, that could change soon. A new owner, Gold Resources Corp., is redesigning the mine’s operational footprint to assuage environmental concerns and broaden support in what’s generally a mining-friendly region ahead of a new round of permitting applications, which company officials expect to submit this or early next year .

Back Forty officials say they’re aiming for a “no net loss” impact on wetlands – a sticky wicket that derailed the last permitting attempt. In early 2021, an administrative law judge overturned Aquila’s state permit to fill wetlands, finding the application incomplete and lacking an adequate assessment of potential alternatives to their loss.

Under the new design, the pit size has been reduced and moved further from the river. More mining would take place underground than under the previous design – but not all of it. Gold Resources also plans to “dry stack” its tailings, or milled waste rock, rather than build a slurry basin that would require another permit to build an earthen tailings dam.

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

“I’m comfortable saying that at the end of mine life, upon reclamation, that those wetlands that are on site will be intact; they will be ecologically functioning and providing the environmental services, if you will, that they currently provide, ”said Anderson.

New owner wants to begin mining in three years

In December, Gold Resources completed its acquisition of Aquila – adding a second project alongside 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 – an estimated 468,000 ounces of gold worth $ 259 million at $ 1,300 per ounce over seven years of mining.

Gold is the most valuable, but isn’t anywhere near the largest volume of mineral in the Back Forty deposit – a 1.8 billion-year-old creation formed by hydrothermal seafloor vents during the Paleoproterozoic Era, a time when small islands of early Earth crust were beginning to stabilize into continents. The deposit rests in what’s called the Penokean Volcanic Belt.

Intermingled with gold is an estimated 512 million pounds of zinc, 51 million pounds of copper, 24 million pounds of lead and 4 million pounds of silver. However, it will cost a mint to unearth that material – more than $ 290 million, according to Aquila estimates.

The company thinks there may be more minerals under the known deposit, which, if confirmed as extractable, could extend the mine’s lifespan and increase its profitability.

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

Gold Resources is performing a feasibility study this year to determine, essentially, if developing the project is worth the effort. Permit applications and mining plans are in concurrent development. The company is estimating it will take about a year-and-a-half to acquire permits and get through expected administrative challenges from opponents.

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

To the Menominee tribe, all that glitters isn’t gold.

“We’re pretty much anti-mining, in general,” said tribal chairman Ronald Corn, Sr.

“I know that mining companies state that they’re able to do safe mines, but we’ve never seen that demonstrated anywhere,” said Corn. “It’s just a matter of time before something happens that that impacts the environment.”

Tribe, environmental groups worry about river pollution

The tribe is suspicious of gilded promises.

Its opposition is rooted in fear that the mine will contaminate the river and trample on historic cultural sites in the immediate area. Ancient tribal burial mounds and garden beds dot River Road where the mine is planned. The tribe is also uniquely tied 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, the American Rivers conservation nonprofit listed the Menominee River as among the nation’s “most endangered.” There are ongoing efforts to list the river “Dog’s Belly” and “60 Islands” areas near the mine on the National Register of Historic Places to bulk up legal hurdles to development.

Dale Burie, co-founder of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, ins’t buying claims the mine can be designed to minimize environmental harms.

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

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

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

As evidence of human-induced climate change has mounted, attitudes have softened toward Eagle Mine because nickel is a crucial component in electric vehicle (EV) batteries. Transitioning to electric vehicles is key to reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector and mining in jurisdictions like Michigan means the minerals aren’t sourced from countries with loose environmental regulations that undercut the market’s green ethos.

However, Eagle Mine and Back Forty are not the same animal. At Eagle, all mining happens deep underground. At Back Forty, the minerals are closer to the surface. Even under the new design, an open pit of some size is anticipated as part of the project.

Also, gold is used in some circuitry, but it is not crucial to EV batteries the way nickel is. That means “it’s harder to make the case it’s part of the energy transition solution and supporting renewable energy,” said Robert Johnston, a research scholar 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 drawn significant attention from mining companies and universities interested in replicating it. However, there has been no contact from anyone connected to Back Forty.

“We still don’t want to see that mine built,” said Grant. “It’s kind of a risky area to do a mine like that.”

Mine supporters deploy climate argument

Others do want the mine built.

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

In a letter urging the renewal, Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, called arguments against the mine “specious” and leaned heavily into the economic contribution from Eagle Mine. McBroom drew a connection between the Back Forty deposit and the need for critical minerals as the state and nation transition away from fossil fuels.

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

“If we truly want to address climate change, you have to be open to a lot more mining,” Cambensy told a UP news station this summer. “You can’t be an advocate for climate change while opposing mining, because a green economy depends on digging up exponentially more minerals to make that transition.”

In Stephenson, Anderson appears eager to extend the olive branch and thaw relations with the tribe. He pledged that tribal heritage sites would all be protected under the new design and expressed a desire to partner on their protection.

“I would love to have a conversation with the tribe on how we can put those sites into the hands of the tribe so they can protect them in perpetuity,” Anderson said.

Whether the rapprochement effort bears fruit remains to be seen. The tribe has yet to have a conversation with the company and Corn it hasn’t really discussed the broader climate question amongst itself, either. At the moment, the plan is to remain steadfast in opposition.

“Once those permits are (being) worked on, we’re definitely going to take the same stance,” Corn said.

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