Haul Road to China

Ore Truck
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.

20 thoughts on “Haul Road to China

  1. Kay

    I have been following this issue for years — at one point it seemed that those ore trucks were going to come lumbering by my own little cabin in the woods. I could easily envision spills contaminating the wilderness river that paralleled the roughly used road. I was most grateful when these will-o-the-wisp plans changed with hardly a discussion and most horrified when new Rio Tinto plans were confidently proposed.

    Of course the Upper Peninsula needs more jobs, I mulled over and over. But couldn’t they be found without destroying what makes this area so special?

    Throughout these years I have also wondered about the real vision for this harmful mine. I never dreamed that it had a Chinese finale. I can only shake my head.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      If you drove a Japanese car through some parts of Michigan in the late 70s and early 80s you’d get nasty looks, or worse. Why? Jobs. Now foreign multinationals are moving into northern Michigan, extracting the mineral wealth, and selling it in China. And that’s supposed to be ok. Why? Jobs.


      1. Kay

        You are a very savvy person. You figured out what was going to be mined and where it was going.

        I have made many inquiries over the years, even spending an hour or so interviewing a glib fellow in the local head offices of Kennecott in Ishpeming. I mainly learned that a mega-company had already invested a huge amount of money in something that had not produced a dime. Conclusion? This mine must be important to Kennecott. They were not about to apologize to the Native Americans and environmentalists for their destructive ways and slink out of town.

        Rumors abounded from the anti-mining folks. What was really going to be mined out there, behind fences? The cost to the environment was already huge. Where would it stop? How badly would Lake Superior be poluted? Etc. They knew they simply did not have all the facts. But they knew destruction and they knew deception to the original land-owners. When I stopped by their offices morale was low. It seems to have lifted lately.

        At the same time, many fervent hopes for employment were expressed or mumbled about from local people I knew who did not have the advantages of an NMU education. Only a generation or two ago their relatives had made good money toiling and dying in the mines (it’s easy to romanticize the past). Now these independent people were living on the government’s dole and feeling resentful. A pie-in-the-sky opportunity came along and they easily were blinded to the consequences.

        I do not recall any mention at the time of China as the recipient of Michigan’s bounty. You seem to feel that “everyone” knew this throughout the Kennecott slow, relentless take-over. “Everyone” didn’t.


      2. lvgaldieri Post author

        It’s important that people understand how the mining industry today works. I am still learning. Rio Tinto and now Lundin — the entire copper mining industry — have centered their plans for growth and profitability on continued Chinese urbanization.

        The map of UP mining published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission offers a good overview of what’s being mined where, and the scope of the mining and exploration around Lake Superior. https://lvgaldieri.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/an-updated-map-of-lake-superior-mining/

        A good next step would be to attach company names to each of these sites and learn about their plans.


  2. Kay

    Sounds like a plan. I take it that you are in touch with SWUP. Can you help implement this step?

    By the way, I was born in Negaunee. My family owned our logger’s cabin and 80 acres overlooking a wilderness river for over 70 years. I vividly recall my parents telling me that Henry Ford owned the mineral rights. They tried to buy them back. No go. My nightmare was that he would come chugging up in a Model T and start digging.

    When I visited the SWUP office I saw a map showing that Kennecott had bought up our mineral rights (plus lots and lots of others) from good old Henry. Imagine my horror.

    Sadly, I no longer own my cabin. I don’t have the resources — both in money and muscle — to keep it up. To boot, I live some 1200 miles away. The commute was a killer.

    But my heart will always be in the Upper Peninsula.


    1. Chistine Saari

      alternative routes are even more destructive, I believe…
      Wish we could stop the mine altogether, but it is too late for that


      1. Kay

        The mine could be stopped if it could be shown that it would not be profitable to continue. Meaning, future profit is less than past costs plus future costs.

        Ideas I’ve wondered about:
        Why can’t the processing plant be on-site?
        Why can’t the ore move by rail? Ore moves to Marquette all the time via railroad cars. Yes, they are noisy and they dribble ore, but they’ve been around for a long time and are accepted as part of the Upper Peninsula landscape. The rails don’t even interrupt traffic.


      2. lvgaldieri Post author

        The mining company’s responsibilities do not end at the mine site, even if they say they do. Imagine they were pumping oil from the ground, and claiming that the transport and pipeline from the well didn’t fall within the scope of their responsibility.

        And it’s not just Eagle. Eagle Mine is just the beginning of a new mining boom all around Lake Superior, one that puts the lake at risk and will change the region both socially and environmentally.

        I appreciate and share your sense of resignation but I also believe that communities in the UP do not fully grasp what’s about to happen. Maybe if they did things would take a different course.


  3. Kay

    Have your views been broadcast in The Mining Journal, TV, radio? Can NMU students help dramatize what will happen in one year, five years, twenty?


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Right now I’m exploring the possibility of a documentary film. That means I’m looking for two things: a story to tell and funding to tell it. Some of these other activities and the mapping project might be good offshoots.


      1. Kay

        Sounds great!!!!

        I’m most familiar with the boom-to-bust towns of Champion and Michigamme. Both relied on the mining industry back in the day. I wish I had asked more questions of our neighbors when I was a child. I’m sure they had many a tale to tell.

        I mainly remember the kindness of my parents’ friends in Champion. They took me to their Catholic Church on a Sunday, gave me an ice cream cone for no reason at all, and watched over me and my sister when we were dropped off at the town-owned Van Riper Park on the Lake. And, of course, Dr. Van Riper was the first face I ever saw.


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  7. David

    Look…..people might need to get the wake up call now. 13 years ago, myself and a few friends protested this mine, and we were actually and figuratively spit on by folks driving by us in Marquette-we knew Rio Tinto, and we knew Kennecott. From the beginning we knew that the ore was scheduled to fuel China’s growth. Stealing the resources of Michigan (Michigan is scheduled to receive maybe 70 Million, out of 5-7 billion $ take) as well as the US.

    Wake up people, mining as well as the petrol industry is a multinational business.
    And don’t think this is the end of the mining district of the Yellow Dog Plains-it will go on for your lifetime.

    We are in an Avatar like scenario. Thanks for the spit, Marquette…..hope the LSCP is super happy about the city becoming a major truck route.

    IT’s called a cluster f***


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