Healing the U.P.'s scars: The reuse of former mining operations

When it comes to mining, the Upper Peninsula was practically built with it. From the copper mines that made the Keweenaw Peninsula boom in the 1800s to the iron ore mining taking place in Marquette County today, mining has been a way of life for Yoopers for centuries. But what happens when those mines dry up and close down?

Take a drive through the Upper Peninsula and you'll find closed mines dotting the landscape. The copper mines that were once money-making machines now stand empty and abandoned. Iron ore mines that chewed up acres upon acres of land are now silent reminders of the damage that can be done when progress is being made.

But, in some areas, with the help of dedicated individuals, those old mining areas that were once useless and barren are now teeming with life. Beauty, it seems, can spring from even the most scarred of landscapes.

Preserving nature in Republic
Looking over the Republic Wetlands Preserve, it's hard to believe that just over a decade ago it looked like a moonscape.

The former open-pit iron ore mine and tailings basin--all part of the now-defunct Republic Mine owned by Cliffs Natural Resources--was nothing but fine, red sand. Void of vegetation and life, the area looked more like an alien landscape than four square miles in the middle of the north woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The mine grew so large in its heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s that it pushed into the town of Republic, forcing about 90 homes to be relocated and others demolished. A second town was created on the other side of the mine, known as South Republic. In 1981, the mine was closed due to high production costs and by the early 1990s, Cliffs Natural Resources, known then as Cleveland Cliffs, began removing equipment and demolishing structures.

But hard work and dedication--and more than $10 million--has now helped turn the former mine into a preserve covering 2,300 acres of upland and wildlife habitat, including 679 acres of wetlands.

It wasn't an easy task, recalls Republic Township board trustee Chuck Hurst, who spearheaded the push to get the preserve opened to the public. He remembers how it used to look.

"It was a tailings basin," Hurst says. "The slurry from the mine was deposited into those basins. It would settle in the first basin and move to the second and settle some more. By the time it would move to the third basin, the water was pretty much clean."  

But the sediment that settled out of the water was nothing more than fine, inert sand. Nothing could grow in it. It was desolate.

Cliffs Natural Resources began work on the preserve in the late 1990s. The company brought in experts to begin construction on several phases of the project through 2004. Restoration included vegetative establishment and wildlife use through planting and construction of habitats. Since then, species such as sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, gray wolves, bald eagles, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, ducks and loons and even ospreys have been documented at the site.

"We are very proud of what we have accomplished at the Republic Wetlands Preserve as part of a program of sequential land use," says Cliffs Natural Resources communications director Dale Hemmila. "The land was used to mine and process the main raw material to make steel--iron ore--for decades, providing jobs and economic benefits to the surrounding area. Now it has been returned to a natural habitat for native wildlife, while providing a benefit to the still-operating Empire and Tilden mines nearby. The RWP benefits those two facilities through the approved acreage available for wetland mitigation purposes, to mitigate any unavoidable wetland impacts at Empire and Tilden."

That means the created wetlands in Republic also keep Cliffs in compliance with state and federal regulations against destroying or altering wetlands in their current business operations.

When Republic Township was informed of the project, volunteers stepped forward in hopes of helping to open the area to the public. Since then, the third basin site, which was turned into a large lake and wetlands area, has been opened. There is currently a trail over two miles in length used for non-motorized access and is available all year round for biking, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and paddling.

Since the area was built where the mine once sat, the large berms and earth dikes are still in place. A hike to the top of them offers spectacular views of the preserve.

Using former caving grounds
A reality of underground mining is the possibility of the ground becoming unstable. The city of Negaunee--the home of iron ore mining in the Upper Peninsula--fell victim to that very problem when a large portion of the city had to be evacuated due to the risk of cave-ins from the extensive mining operations. In the area of Negaunee known as Old Towne, a once-thriving community lived until the land was recognized as unstable. The residents were then asked to take their belongings, which included their homes, and move.

Long after the Jackson Mine ceased all operations inside the city limits in the 1940s, the land remained fenced off and unusable.

Then, in 2007, the land over the abandoned mine shafts was deemed usable again in sections of both Negaunee and neighboring Ishpeming. Time, it seems, was the answer.

"If there's going to be sinking and settling of the land, it's usually within the first 15 or 20 years," Marquette County mine inspector John Carlson says. "Most of the land that (Cleveland Cliffs) had closed off was never really in that much danger of caving in, but because they had underestimated the potential for sinking initially, they overcompensated when they started closing off land."

The land in Negaunee and Ishpeming was purchased from the mining company by the respective cities in 2003. Now, that land is being used to the benefit of the communities. Anything still considered a hazard to the public remains fenced off and not accessible.

Portions of the former caving grounds were turned into the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, a popular silent sports recreational area all year round, while the Old Towne area was turned into a heritage park. The foundations, steps and sidewalks of the former neighborhood are still visible and markers have been placed identifying some of the historical residences.

Statues have been put in place in various locations of the historical area, and visitors can overlook the old Jackson Mine site with markers and educational information.

The city of Negaunee also hosts several events there, such as a farmers' market and activities during the annual Pioneer Days celebration.

Other projects at former mines
There are multiple projects in some of the old mining hotspots that are turning mine properties and waste products into something new. In Iron River, old mines have given way to a disc golf course; in Hancock, copper mine tailings will be turned into roofing shingles; and in White Pine, plant-based pharmaceutical research is being done in the former copper mine by a company known as SubTerra.

The Tailings disc golf course is aptly named, as it is the result of reclamation of three old iron mines in Iron River.

The Iron County Chamber of Commerce helped develop the nearly two-mile, 18-hole course running along the Iron River, which was designed with difficult terrain varying from woods to rolling hills.

Another ambitious project comes from a Michigan Technological University alumnus and a professor who are planning to develop a new industry on the shores of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Stamp sand, a byproduct from the copper mines that built the Keweenaw in the 1800s, remains along Lake Superior, stretching for miles near the town of Gay, and is often considered unsightly by locals. But the finely crushed basalt is being seen through new eyes by MTU alumni Domenic Popko and MTU professor Ralph Hodek, who have studied the sand and concluded it is perfect for the roofing industry.

Roofing shingle manufacturers often make sand by mining and crushing rock, then adding copper to slow the growth of moss and lichens on homeowners' roofs. The Keweenaw stamp sands already have been mined and crushed, and best of all, they already contain trace copper amounts.

Hodek says the Gay sands would enter the market at the right time, as natural sands become scarce and manufacturers have to put more labor and money into making them.

"It's very difficult to find sands now," he says. "You can't mine dunes and rivers. If you need sand in large quantities, you have to make it. Here, we can use material that we already have."

There's no shortage of the sands; there are about 500 million tons across the Keweenaw Peninsula.

In White Pine, near Ontonagon in the western U.P.,  a company known as SubTerra has been using the decommissioned copper mine there to grow plants that produce active pharmaceutical ingredients, such as high value proteins and phytochemicals. The stable 48-degree Fahrenheit environment allows for rapid growth of plants and fungi in the underground chambers of the mine.

The Detroit Free Press noted in an article earlier this year that the company may be looking to expand its operations to include medical marijuana.  

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of Upper Peninsula Second Wave. Kim Eggleston is a U.P.-based freelance writer and the managing editor of the Marquette Monthly. They can be reached via email.
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