MICHIGAMME TOWNSHIP - Strong opinions have been expressed both for and against Rio Tinto's Eagle Mine in northwest Marquette County, but 50 local residents took the opportunity to see the mine site for themselves and draw their own conclusions during a free tour Thursday.
Fifty people departed from L'Anse American Legion Post 144 by bus Thursday morning for a 2 1/2-hour drive to the mine, a 2-hour tour of the mine site and a 2 1/2-hour return trip.
Historical overview and
Stephen Anderson/Daily Mining Gazette
Left, Dan Blondeau, Eagle Mine advisor of communications and media relations, facing group, and Chantae Lessard, Eagle Mine manager of community and social performance, present information about the Eagle Mine water treatment plant before entering the facility as part of a public tour of the mine site Thursday afternoon. The tour included views of the temporary development rock storage area, the mine portal, Eagle Rock and a fenced-in area containing explosives used in drilling and blasting.
After the bus received an escort down the unpaved County Road AAA and passed through the site's security entrance, Chantae Lessard, Eagle Mine manager of community and social performance, and Dan Blondeau, Eagle Mine advisor of communications and media relations, kicked off the tour by distributing hard hats, safety goggles and vests.
"Safety is the No. 1 thing on site," Blondeau said, a fact reinforced by several prominent signs hung from the barbed wire fences throughout the 130-acre site.
He welcomed everyone into the site's storage building, away from the windy conditions sweeping across the large sandy plain, and gave a historical overview of the Eagle Mine project and update on its current status.
Exploration on the land dates back to the 1950s, but a Michigan State study in the 1970s showed high potential for nickel and copper deposits along the Mid-Continental Rift, which led to more intense explorations in the 1990s. Finally in 2002, the Eagle deposit was discovered. Permits were submitted in 2004 and awarded in 2007.
Surface construction began in 2010 with drilling and blasting starting on the 18-foot diameter, 13-degree decline tunnel starting in September 2011. Miners from Canadian-based Redpath reached the 1,000-foot depth of the 6-acre-sized ore body last week.
"Between now and early 2014 when we start to get out ore, we'll be developing other chutes and other structures down below for when we start pulling ore out," Blondeau said.
The mine, which is costing $500 million to construct, $1 million per year in environmental monitoring and $25 million in operations payroll, will produce about 300 million pounds of nickel and 250 million pounds of copper in a lifespan of seven years. Per Rio Tinto's permits, once the mine ceases to bring ore to the surface during its 24/7 operations, the company must remove everything from the mine site and return the land topography to exactly how it was before they started.
"Our hope is to find more mineral resources, but at this time, we haven't found any more," Blondeau said.
Rio Tinto also has not secured a purchaser of the nickel and copper concentrate, which will be delivered via about 50 truckloads per day and processed at the Humboldt Mill.
The tour did not include a tour of the mill site, which is located about 25 miles away from mine site as the crow flies and about 60 miles using existing roads, because it is still very early in the construction phase. Rio Tinto is currently trying to get approval for the construction of County Road 595, which would directly connect the mine and the mill.
Rio Tinto currently employs about 85 workers, 70 percent of them being local, with between 150 and 200 construction workers. Next summer between 450 and 500 people will work at the Humboldt Mill.
Water treatment plant
After Blondeau's introduction, tour attendees jumped back on the bus for a short drive to the water treatment plant, what Blondeau called the "heart of our facility and property."
"The whole site is designed to collect, manage and treat water," he said, before leading a tour of the facility.
All water that comes into contact with mining activities starts out in two large contact water basins before entering the plant.
It then goes into a gasifier, which makes the water flatter and easier for the rest of the equipment to process; then to a chlorinator, which adds chlorine to take out the ammonium nitrate from the explosives in the drill-and-blast process; then a six-chamber multi-flow that holds 77,000 gallons of water and removes any solids in the water.
"As we go through the process of the plant we're taking more and more out of the water, so it's purifying it more and more as it goes through," Blondeau said.
After an ion exchange, similar to a home water softener, it then passes twice through the high-tech reverse osmosis system, which only lets hydrogen and oxygen through. It then goes to an evaporator and crystallizer.
"Once we treat the water, it's to better than drinking water quality standards," Blondeau said. "If rainwater got into our water once it was treated, we would not pass our tests."
The plant is staffed 24/7 during operations, and even after the mine ceases operations, the water treatment plant will run for another five years and will be monitored for another 20.
The decline portal and other site features
After the water treatment plant tour, the bus drove everyone past the truck wash, which all trucks carrying ore will have to pass through; and an open sandlot where a 37,000-square-foot building will be constructed for dumping and transferring ore from underground trucks to over-the-road trucks.
The bus then took a right past the large contact water basins, which are open air but constantly circulating water so as to prevent freezing in the winter.
Before advancing to the portal, the bus drove around the large temporary development rock storage area, where all non-ore rock is stored to be saved for backfill after the mine ceases operations. It features a multi-layered liner, leak detection system and sump pump to collect water for treatment.
The portal itself is next to the rock storage area. It's a large metal tube that enters the ground just before the base of Eagle Rock; it had to be constructed there due to the quickest access to bedrock, according to Rio Tinto representatives.
"We've had several visits from (Keweenaw Bay Indian Community) members and other tribal members over the past year. We don't touch a tree, a bush or anything on that rock, to protect that rock," Blondeau said. "It's fenced in all the way around. As we build better communications with the KBIC and other tribes, we'll be working to get people up on the rock to worship."
Land ownership was also brought up by someone on the tour, and Blondeau said 50 percent is owned by Rio Tinto, while the other half is state lease. The land is on tribal treaty-ceded territory, but not the reservation itself; and Lessard explained how mineral rights tie in.
"The state owns half the minerals, then Rio Tinto is either leasing or owns the other half," she said. "A lot of people don't understand the land laws. Just because you own the land on the surface doesn't necessarily mean you own the mineral rights."
The tour concluded by collecting the personal protective equipment and handing out boxed meals for the road.
Just before Portage Township Supervisor Bruce Petersen boarded the bus, he offered his thoughts on the tour and the mine: "I think it's extraordinarily well run. I think they're very conscious of their water quality. It looks like they've invested a lot of thought and effort and planning to address water quality. It's pretty amazing, really."
After returning to L'Anse, Harlan and Betty Fish shared their perspective: "We've heard so many rumors that we wanted to find out first hand what was going on, and I'm very satisfied with the process going on there," Betty said. "To see what they're doing with all the water and everything, I feel we're pretty safe. We have land in Skanee, so we were very concerned; we have a camp on the mouth of the Huron, that's why we wanted to know more."
For more information on the mine, visit riotintoeagle.com, and to inquire about attending a future tour, call Rio Tinto's Marquette welcome center at 906-273-1550.