Canadian company Highland Copper is a junior exploration company with ZERO EXPERIENCE owning and operating a mine.
Should we really entrust the care of Michigan's finest natural resources to an inexperienced foreign company which already has a track record of violating permits and degrading wetlands?
In a recent press release, Highland Copper claimed they have "all key permits required to proceed." They may "hold" a mining permit, but in Michigan, these mining permits are "Issued, but not Effective" until financial assurances and bonding have been secured (which they have not done), as well as final engineering and permit approvals for the tailings disposal facility (nope, not even engineered yet), as well as the dam safety permit for the dam (again—not even engineered yet), which would be the only thing standing between the tailings facility and a disaster flooding into Lake Superior. This is currently the most upsetting aspect of this project: Michigan EGLE uses "incremental permitting," which means the forest that was just destroyed and the creeks they plan to permanently "re-align" as part of their "wetlands permit" may be sacrificed for nothing if Highland Copper fails to meet the remaining requirements to have the mine permit "Made Effective."
Furthermore, the operation of the mine will require an enormous amount of water. Their initial proposal called for water to be pumped in directly from Lake Superior, but this required permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps refused to grant this permission (a huge red flag about the safety of the project) and so Highland Copper has scrambled together a new "plan," the details of which are still unclear: will they take water directly from the streams, which begin to run very dry in summer and fall? Or will they build an on-site basin? Given that all these streams flow into Lake Superior, shouldn't their new proposal also require input from the Army Corps of Engineers? Alas, the "plan" is too vague for anyone to make a clear argument either way.
But in the meantime, insider sources tell us they are "in a rush" to fulfill their existing permit obligations, and so this summer they race to clearcut hundreds of acres and destroy wetlands before their permits expire. If they don't manage to build their mine — an outcome we think is highly likely — then it means they are devastating this region for no reason.
Some speculate that what Highland Copper is really seeking is to sell the operation to a more capable company. If so, now is an excellent opportunity to build public opposition and undermine investor/future buyer confidence.
Over the course of its 14-year life, the mine would certainly create jobs, but not as many as you might think. Unlike mines of the past which employed thousands, mines today are predominantly automated, and the human jobs which remain are often of a specialized nature. For comparison, the Eagle Mine in Marquette County is operated by less than 80 employees: "Mining jobs are vulnerable to the highs and lows of market fluctuations, including layoffs."
Even if the mine did create a significant amount of work, an important point remains: jobs alone have no merit. The warfare industry also creates a great many employment opportunities, but we would never make the case that "war is good because it creates jobs." Instead, we would hold a more nuanced position and examine each case individually: some wars may be necessary, but others are a very bad idea, and no amount of jobs in the world should justify a war which is immoral. Similarly, drug-trafficking provides employment for many thousands, including not just traffickers, mules, and dealers, but also for law enforcement officers, prison guards, attorneys, judges and more. Regardless, we oppose drug-trafficking on moral grounds, despite its job creation.
We are not comparing mining to these activities precisely, but the principle is the same, and there is an equally strong moral argument to made for protecting the old growth forest, a cherished national hiking trail, a prized fishing river, and a priceless freshwater sea, because there is not just money on the line here, but health, both of the biosphere and we humans who rely upon it.
Another factor which must be considered is the relation between time-frame and accountability. The boom-and-bust cycle of mine operation is appealing in the short-term but often destructive when viewed through a wider lens. It's far easier to spill the wine than clean up the stain: when the mine closes, who will pay if the tailings dam bursts or if the waterways are contaminated by heavy metals? Certainly not Highland Copper CEO Denis Miville-Deschenes — no, he'll be back in Quebec. Instead, as always, the bill for clean-up will be footed by locals, paying both in the form of taxes and physical wellbeing.
While on the topic of economics, we must also ask to what degree the mine's development will endanger an already existing and highly profitable eco-tourism industry. Given that the foundation of eco-tourism is access to pristine nature, we cannot expect that the presence of the mine will escape the notice of tourists, for reasons already mentioned. In less than a one-minute drive, visitors will pass from the North Country Trail to Porcupine Mountains State Park, with Copperwood's entrance road crammed in between. Waterfalls may not be so beautiful if in order to reach them you must slog through mining traffic; birdsong not so sweet with the grinding of ore in the background; nor camping so enchanting with the stars faded in the night sky. It is logical to assume that the "most spectacular State Park in the country" may fall from grace in the eyes of internet reviewers, and thus lead to decreased visits overall. And so Copperwood's meager job creation must be weighed against its damage upon the far more stable and long-lasting industry of eco-tourism.
In the end, the main jobs created by Copperwood will be those of environmental clean-up many years later, long after the money has been made and the chief executives have fled back to Canada.
As for green energy, any enterprise which threatens so many valuable natural resources cannot be labeled as "green" without stripping the word of all meaning.
The development and operation of the mine would require an enormous quantity of fossil fuel, far more than will ever be compensated for by the extraction of copper, which just recently was rejected an upgrade of status to "critical mineral" by the US Geological Society, the highest authority on the matter.
Given that there is no electrical grid in the area, Highland Copper plans to power their operation through a fleet of 24/7 gas generators, and the transport and processing of the ore will require an untold quantity of additional fuel. By the time the copper is made into a useable technology — only a fraction of which will be related to alternative energy — will anyone really be crunching the numbers to see if it was worth it? No, the only numbers they'll be tracking are not those of their emissions, but that other green stuff, the kind they say doesn't grow on trees.
Copperwood Mine may drill under the Presque Isle River and seize minerals from beneath the largest tract of mixed old growth forest remaining in the Midwest; it will store 50+ million tons of waste rock on topography that slopes towards Lake Superior, which represents 10% of the world's surface freshwater; it will extract sulfides buried deep in the earth and expose them to air and water, thus creating sulfuric acid (battery acid), which will forever be a threat to waterways.
The argument that such an operation is somehow "green" is so laughable that it does not merit further discussion.
Though the Eagle Mine in Marquette County has been touted by the mining industry as proof that a metallic sulfide mine can be operate safely, the truth is far from clean.
Pollution by the Eagle Mine and accompanying Humboldt Mill has been documented by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), and also the Superior Watershed Partnership. There are multiple documented violations related to the inability of the water treatment plant to meet Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) tests. In June 2019, EGLE reported on a spill of influent water that released 2360 gallons of untreated mine wastewater into nearby wetlands and mentioned a spill of sulfuric acid that occurred in 2019.
A study by Michigan Technological University (Lafreniere et al., 2018) reported on the chemical analysis of samples from groundwater monitoring wells near the Eagle Mine and Humboldt Mill between May 2008 and August 2016. The study documented exceedances of EPA National Primary Drinking Water Regulations and EPA Secondary Drinking Water Standards for arsenic, chloride and nitrate in groundwater in the vicinity of the Eagle Mine, and for sulfate in groundwater near Humbolt Mill.
In 2023, EPA Secondary Drinking Water Standards were exceeded for iron and manganese in the groundwater near Humboldt Mill. In fact, for groundwater near the mill, every detectable measure of manganese exceeded the EPA Standard.
The Superior Watershed Partnership reported 36 violations of allowable pH and 39 violations of allowable vanadium according to groundwater discharge permits. In 2015, the permits were modified so that all preceding violations became non-violations. This is a common tactic: when they catch you breaking the rules, just change the rules.
Furthermore, the development of Eagle Mine has led to Eagle Rock, an ancient sacred site among the Ojibwe people, being placed off-limits behind private fencing.