LANSING, Mich. - For nearly two years, residents of the Upper Peninsula have been fighting plans by the Kennecott Minerals Co. to dig a nickel and copper mine in western Marquette County.
"People here aren't opposed to mining, they accept mining," said Marvin Roberson, a Sierra Club official who lives in the U.P. "What they are opposed to is reckless exploitation of the land's most sensitive areas for a few dozen temporary jobs."
He and others fear the mine will be an environmental hazard for many reasons. Residents have lobbied against it, taken out petitions, and erected billboards. So it was a shock when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, Tuesday gave tentative approval to the mine, which Kennecott hopes to start constructing this fall.
"We're pleased with the DEQ's decision thus far and look forward to the remainder of the process," Lt. Gov. John Cherry told the Associated Press.
That felt like a betrayal to many residents of the sparsely populated U.P., which has a population about the same as Toledo in an area larger than Maryland. Gov. Jennifer Granholm won every county in the U.P. in November, in part because she was believed to be the more environmentally friendly candidate.
Protesters fear reckless exploitation of environmentally sensitive land for a few temporary jobs.
The Upper Peninsula is especially sensitive to such concerns because of its long history of being environmentally ravaged by generations of loggers and iron and copper miners.
The day before the decision was announced, activists presented the governor's office with 10,000 signatures, most from Upper Peninsula residents opposing the mine, which is located in a sparsely populated area known as the Yellow Dog Plains.
"It's important that the governor see for herself that her constituents have grave concerns about this mine's impact on our state," said Cynthia Pryor, director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, who came to Lansing. Unable to meet with Ms. Granholm, they presented the petitions to the governor's policy director.
Normally, anything that might bring jobs to the cash-strapped region is seen as more than welcome. But this mine is different. Virtually every environmentalist in the state has been up in arms about the planned Eagle Mine, for many reasons. Scariest of all is that it would be the state's first sulfide mine, and would be drilled under the headwaters of the Salmon-Trout River.
That river is the only place in Michigan where the colorful and rare coaster brook trout still naturally reproduce. Sulfide mining involves the removal of rocks which, when exposed to air and water, give off heavy metals and sulfuric acid.
Kennecott says the company has worked hard to make sure adequate safeguards are in place. But environmentalists note that if their systems fail or there is a major malfunction, the river and nearby groundwater could be poisoned for miles around.
Meaning, good-bye trout.
Robert McCann, a spokesman for the DEQ, said Kennecott's permit would require them to keep the ores underground, put them in covered rail cars, and ship them to Ontario for processing. "I think it's safe to say that this proposal has received more scrutiny than all but a few the state has ever looked at," Mr. McCann said.
He thinks strict and comprehensive safety standards for all aspects of the mining operation can and will be maintained.
But many aren't buying that. Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., a longtime journalist who is now the chief spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council, an umbrella group, said "I don't think you can put a safe mine in that location."
Other critics say the risk is not worth taking, especially given that the jobs created would only last for a few years, until the mine is played out.
Kennecott says it hopes to begin extracting ore from what it calls its Eagle Mine in 2009, and operate it for six to eight years. Eventually, the company says the mine will create about 120 full-time jobs, which will last as long as the ore does.
The mine is not a done deal - yet.
The state has promised to consider public comments, and a hearing is set for March 6-8 at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Though a final ruling is expected in May, that could be delayed, especially if the state asks for further information.
Brian Beauchamp, of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, seemed especially let down by the state's chief executive.
"The governor's rhetoric is visionary, but this decision is regressive," he said. "If this is the 'Next Michigan' of which she preaches, it looks an awful lot like the old Michigan - a handful of temporary jobs from a 19th century industry at the expense of natural resources that support 21st century growth and economics."