I grew up in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan where at one time there were many dozens of copper and iron mines. My small town, Alpha, was created by a mining company, and the Book Mine, the last of the three mines in the small town, closed down the year after I was born. The Book Mine was also the place, 20 years previous, where my paternal grandfather was buried in an underground cave-in. He survived, but not without a broken pelvis and leg. My maternal great grandfather worked at the Mansfield Mine, the site of one of the worst mining disaster in Michigan history. The Michigamme River broke into the underground shafts, filled the mine and 27 souls were lost. My great grandfather was not working there when it happened but he was one of the miners who worked the mine after it the water was pumped out and work resumed.
These mines have a complex social history. It is true that they provided employment for immigrants who fled worn-torn and economically depressed Europe, but the mines also had little concern for worker safety. Serious injury occurred daily and death was commonplace. With such little value put on human life, it is no surprise that they extracted the ore with even less concern for the environment. Kids like me grew up playing in abandoned mine buildings or on the steep-sided spoil piles where only the heartiest weeds grow, even to this day.
Time and forest growth have scabbed over much of the evidence of mining, and many visitors will not even notice that the region once produced most of the copper and iron in the world. Yet there are still some lasting environmental impacts. As late as the 1970s it was commonplace, and seemingly safe for the environment, to dump the spoil from underground mining into bodies of water, including Lake Superior. The problem is that these piles also contain high levels of arsenic, mercury and PCBs. Some of the worst areas eventually became Superfund sites, which did reduce the immediate danger to residents, but the elevated levels of PCB and Mercury in fish will be with us forever. The Michigan Department of Health recommends that pregnant women not eat any fish from Lake Superior and no one should eat more than one meal of Lake Trout per week. The largest fresh water lake in the world and the coldest and cleanest of the Great Lakes will be forever poisoned by mining activities. These activities, as little as four decades ago, were considered safe yet we know today that they were not.
This is why I cannot support the Back Forty Mine, the proposed open pit sulfide mine in Menominee County near where the Menominee River enters Lake Michigan. I realize that a mine can bring jobs and renew the local economy, but the largest contributor to the economy of the UP and northern Wisconsin is outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism. Mining was once the economic king but today it is outdoor recreation. Consumer spending in Michigan on outdoor recreation in a recent year was $18.7 billion, and almost 200,000 jobs are associated with the industry. In 2012, $4.7 billion was spent on hunting and fishing alone. Although these are statistics for the entire state of Michigan, in the U.P. the effect of nature-based activities on the economy far surpasses what a single mine could do. Moreover, the negative impacts of mining jeopardizes the whole outdoor recreation economy.
Mining is part of my history and the history of this region and we should be proud of this legacy. But our present and future is not mining but outdoor recreation, which is only sustained by protecting our natural resources.