The mid-day flight from Marquette to Detroit last week was delayed for a few hours, and while we waited I had a pleasant conversation with a man who was on his way back to San Jose, California. He’d been in the Upper Peninsula visiting his father and staying in a cabin that’s been in his family for several generations. “It’s a little red cabin,” he said, “the one you see in all the postcards and stuff.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the place, but I’ve been to the UP enough to know from his description roughly where the cabin is. It wasn’t until we were on our way to Detroit a few hours later that it dawned on me: his family cabin is situated right on the new Eagle Mine haul road.
Once the mine is in operation, ore trucks will pass by 100 times every day, making 50 trips down County Road 550 to US 41 via Sugarloaf Avenue and Wright Street. At the Humboldt Mill, the big trucks will dump their loads, turn around and make their way by the same route back to the mine. So much for those quiet family retreats to the picture-postcard cabin. He might as well turn the place into a diner or gas station, or open a 7-11.
Haul roads and trucking routes have been a point of contention ever since the Eagle Mine was planned, and they are now a bigger issue than ever, with the City of Marquette announcing last week that it wanted a new environmental review of any plan to haul ore down the Big Bay Road, through woods and over blue-ribbon trout streams, past the NMU campus, and into the town’s commercial district. It seems people in Marquette are finally realizing with horror what’s going to happen to their beautiful city and the nearby wilderness areas once those trucks start hauling ore out of Eagle.
Rio Tinto huffed and bluffed about their haul route for years, and when plans for County Road 595 fell through, they huffed and bluffed some more about the multi-million dollar investment they would make to upgrade existing roads. Who knows what Rio Tinto told Lundin Mining about infrastructure when they sold the Eagle Mine; but (as I noted in a previous post) Paul Conibear, Lundin’s CEO, did not seem fully in possession of the facts, or was not very forthcoming about what facts he possessed, when he said that good roads were one of the things that made the Eagle Mine so attractive.
An old timer in the Upper Peninsula once told me with pride that you can drive US 41 south all the way from the Keweenaw to Miami, Florida. He could not have imagined where that same road now leads. The ore trucked down US 41 will likely end up in China, where urbanization on a scale and at a pace we can hardly imagine is driving demand for materials like the copper and nickel that northern Michigan has in abundance. Rio Tinto’s business strategy depends on rapid Chinese and, more broadly, Asian urbanization (and with the imminent opening of Oyu Tolgoi — which will ship copper from Mongolia directly to Chinese smelters — the road from Eagle must have seemed an awfully long and unnecessarily expensive haul). The Chinese government’s ambitious plans to move hundreds of millions of people into megacities and move the country to a consumer economy shape the business decisions of mining companies and will also help determine the price Michigan copper and nickel fetch. That’s why analysts who foresee a further Chinese slowdown or predict the bursting of the Chinese credit bubble advise shorting Rio and other big mining stocks.
An article about Chinese urbanization in the Times last month characterized it as a risky, large-scale, “top-down” social experiment which has already exacted huge costs: across China, rural villages are being razed, temples torn down, farmers forced from their land and moved into high-rise towers, fields and farmland paved over — often by government fiat. A little imagination and you can see the Marquette haul road as a remote extension of that effort, and it doesn’t take much imagination at all to appreciate that the road will exact its own social and environmental costs. The truck route from mine to mill will carve a noisy, busy, dirty industrial corridor along Big Bay Road and right through the city of Marquette — threatening wildlife all along the route and permanently changing the way people live around the Lake. Everything is at risk of becoming roadkill.