In Michigan, Mining Makes An Asset of A Community

John Kivela just can’t stop thanking people, it appears. Last week, at a ceremony held under a tent at Humboldt Mill to mark the transfer of ownership of the Eagle Mine from Rio Tinto to Lundin Mining, State Representative Kivela was effusive in his praise of officials from the two multinational mining companies and, above all, grateful. According to a report in the Mining Journal, Kivela gave a shoutout to outgoing Rio Tinto Eagle Mine President Adam Burley (who will be moving to Rio Tinto’s offices in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is now North American HQ for one of the biggest mine disasters in recent history — the slide at Bingham Canyon); and then, it seemed, Kivela was unable to hold back any longer. He spoke from the heart:

Adam and the folks from Rio, thank you for your commitment to the community. Thanks for providing opportunities for Michiganders to employ themselves. Thanks for running a safe, clean, environmentally sound operation. That means a lot to the folks here. To our good friends from Canada, welcome to the community. Thank you for your investment. Thank you for taking a chance in Michigan and in the United States in this operation and I wish you all the best.

It was just folks gathered under that tent at Humboldt Mill — “folks” from Rio Tinto, “folks here,” who live in close proximity to the Eagle Mine operation, all just folks who belong to the same “community” — and how gracious of Kivela to extend a warm welcome on behalf of that community to these new arrivals, strangers to the Upper Peninsula but already “good friends,” no, “our” good friends, from Canada! Kivela must have generated enough warm friendly feeling under that tent at the Humboldt Mill — a brownfield site from the last round of mining — that everyone could forget, just for that one sweet moment, that most of what Kivela was saying was just obsequious, ingratiating nonsense.

The ceremony was held at the mill, not at the mine, and for obvious reasons: the Eagle mine is built on ground sacred to the Ojibwe people and construction of the mine is proceeding apace without their full, prior and informed consent (as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People). Many in the community are glad to see Rio Tinto go but are not ready to welcome Lundin, and Lundin has done very little to reassure them that things are going to be different at Eagle. There are folks within the community Kivela represents who don’t share Kivela’s confidence that Rio Tinto has run “a safe, clean, environmentally sound operation.” Charges of corruption and incompetence hang over the entire permitting and environmental impact statement process around Eagle Mine. And, according to a recent report, the investment made first by Rio Tinto and now, Lundin Mining is likely to have a distorting effect on the economy of the Upper Peninsula, and will not contribute to the area’s long-term prosperity.

As for Rio Tinto’s commitment: it lasted only as long as Eagle strategically suited the global mining giant. Eagle rapidly went from being a “commitment” to a “non-core asset”; and that’s where Lundin came in: they saw a valuable asset where Rio Tinto no longer did. “Adding a mine like this to our asset base is really formative for our future,” said Lundin President and CEO Paul Conibear at the ceremony. “We’ve been looking very actively for two years now to rejuvenate our asset base to bring on a high-quality new base metals mine.” Conibear could be Canada’s answer to Ponce de Leon, with all his talk about searching far and wide for sources of rejuvenation. Eagle Mine may not be the Fountain of Youth, but its mineral riches will be “formative for the future” of Lundin’s “asset base.”

That is why Lundin has made its investment: it really has very little to do with Michigan, or the community, or friends or folks at all. The Eagle Mine is an asset. The land and the water and the trees, the minerals in the earth, the friends and communities around the mine, all the things that people in the Upper Peninsula know and love, have already been set down on a balance sheet alongside Lundin’s other assets. (It’s interesting, by the way, that on this occasion, as on others, Conibear talked about Lundin’s mines in “Portugal, Sweden and Spain” and neglected to mention the company’s substantial share in the controversial Tenke Fungurume Mine, where Conibear served as Chief Operating Officer, then President and Director before he helped bring about the merger of Tenke and Lundin Mining.)

The community of friends gathered under the tent at Humboldt Mill doesn’t even appear to have entered into Conibear’s thoughts, or at least he does not mention them in his remarks as reported by the local press. Instead, Lundin’s CEO told a story of courage in the face of doubt, and of making tough choices: he acquired Eagle Mine “when metals prices are at a 5 year low” and when shareholders were asking whether this is the “right time.” These are the things that are most on Conibear’s mind: metal prices and market timing. He needs to placate skeptical shareholders, or prove them shortsighted. He seems confident that he will, and eventually they will thank him for adding this sulfide mining operation on the shores of Lake Superior to Lundin’s asset base.

People living around the mine, and all around Lake Superior, may not share their gratitude.

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