The news that an ore truck overturned last week on its way from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill brought me back to a conversation some friends and I had in the lobby of the Landmark Inn this past October. Earlier that day we’d been touring the Yellow Dog Plains on the smooth wide roads that the Marquette County Road Commission cut through the wilderness for the mining company, keeping count of the big trucks we saw. All the trucks were outfitted with double loads — two side-dump trailers worth of ore — and the ore was covered with black tarps, neatly tied down.
The ties caught my attention. I wondered how long it would be before human nature set in, and workers started getting lackadaisical about how they tied down the tarps, or stopped bothering to secure and check each tie.
I was not even thinking of anything so scientific as studies by Ludovic Moulin, which find that over sixty percent of industrial accidents can be attributed to “organizational and human factors.” I had in mind something closer to the line about the field of the slothful in Proverbs: “yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep,” and disaster can ensue. Eventually, someone in the course of the day was going to shrug and say to himself, “good enough,” slacken his attention, or hurry off to a break, I thought, and things could go downhill from there. A loosely tied load might spill on the highway or on the roadside, even if the driver was taking every precaution on his route. Repeat that small human error enough times, and you have a trail of sulfide ore from the mine to the mill, running through the Yellow Dog Plains and right through the center of Marquette.
Turns out I’d failed to fully grasp the reality of the situation. I didn’t imagine at the time that the tarps used to tie down the ore on the Eagle Mine trucks would rip in the case of an accident. In this case, the tarp of the second trailer was “torn open,” according to Save the Wild UP; Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve has a photograph of the torn cover here. I was also unaware that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality allowed these soft-cover tarps only after Eagle Mine had requested a special amendment to its permit. Hard covers would take longer to remove; with soft covers, the trucks could be more easily unloaded. Time is money.
Special amendments and exceptions seem to be the rule when it comes to Eagle. For instance, though Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear has repeatedly boasted to investors about the great transportation infrastructure already in place at Eagle when Lundin bought the property from Rio Tinto, the truth is that the current haul route for Eagle Mine was never part of the plan. It was a last minute concoction — an “upgrade” of roads hastily authorized by the Marquette County Road Commission. No surprise, then, that a full environmental assessment of the haul route — as required by Part 632 of the Michigan Nonferrous Metallic Mining Law — has never been made.
Last week’s accident might be yet another sign that Eagle Mine was not actually ready for prime time when Lundin announced, at the end of November, that Eagle had entered commercial production ahead of schedule. But consider things from the company’s point of view. Lundin had acquired the Candelaria copper mine from Freeport only a month earlier for $1.8 billion — taking on huge debt — and by the end of November copper prices were declining precipitously. That made it all the more urgent to start delivering nickel at Eagle. After all, analysts expect “Lundin to introduce a dividend in 2015 once its Eagle mine is ramped up.” Pressure is mounting. The Lake Superior mining boom appears to have gotten underway in a slightly panicked rush.