Catching up with the fight over sulfide mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is like starting Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” half way through Episode 5. There’s a lot of scientific and political ground to cover before you’re up to speed on one of longest, most contentious, and most momentous environmental battles in the state’s history.
But it’s worth it, if only because the issue is still very much alive. The fight over the Eagle Mine, Kennecott’s proposed sulfide mine west of Marquette, is still unresolved. Billions of dollars of nickel ore, some of the world’s cleanest water and a pristine swath of the U.P. hang in the balance.
Film producer Angela Nebel and the National Wildlife Federation have made the tutorial easy with their new film, “Mining Madness, Water Wars,” due to premiere at the Green on the Big Screen festival Saturday.
The film was funded by the Charles S. Mott Foundation and produced by the National Wildlife Federation, one of the parties opposing the mine. Unsurprisingly, it’s a critical look at the proposed mine and the way the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has handled the permitting process. (Representatives of the mining company and the DEQ declined to be interviewed for the film.)
Nebel, who will appear at the festival and talk about the film, said she wanted to show that opposition to the mine is much deeper and more diverse than any “not-in-my-backyard” stereotype. Sulfide mining, a largely untested process, is banned in Wisconsin because of its potential to leak battery acid into the surrounding water. Opponents say that by granting the Eagle Mine permit, the state is about to gamble its most precious resource for about 100 short-term jobs.
“We wanted to show that there is a variety of objections coming from very different people,” Nebel said.
Geologists and mining experts say the mine could collapse under the Salmon Trout River, killing workers and contaminating the pristine water with toxic metals. Ecologists worry about the mine’s impact on surface wildlife. Members of the Huron Mountain Club, a huge nearby private hunting preserve, fear their waters and woods will be spoiled. American Indian tribe members worship at a rock on the mine site and use the area to gather berries.
Nebel said the hardest part was to cram all these objections to the mine into a half hour, even in broad outline.
“We had to rein ourselves in and think about how much people could take in at one sitting,” she said.
The film is as critical of the state’s DEQ as it is of the proposed mine. Damning testimony and e-mails shed light on the collegial, if not collaborative, relationship between the state’s environmental regulators and the companies they regulate. (In a minor but telling detail, e-mails from DEQ official Steve Wilson carry the tagline “A mine is a terrible thing to waste.”)
The film also zeroes in on the lack of leadership on the issue from Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who started out with a skeptical view of the mine, but stepped aside as the permitting process went on. The permit, granted last year, is tied up in litigation.
Nebel said she would have liked to explore another crucial line of the story — the potential for many more mines to open should the Eagle Mine be permitted — more deeply, but ran out of time.
“And the story keeps changing,” Nebel said. “The minute you’re finished, it’s dated.”
Only last week, Matt Johnson, director of Gov. Granholm’s UP office and the governor’s liaison for the mining issue, resigned to work for Rio Tinto, Kennecott’s parent company. Kristi Mills, a spokeswoman for Save the Wild UP, said the move revealed a “questionable relationship between our state government and Rio Tinto.”
After this weekend’s premiere, Nebel hopes to show the film all over the state, arrange broadcasts on public TV and post the film on the National Wildlife Federation’s Web site. “Our goal was to raise awareness, particularly in Lower Michigan and beyond, about the gravity of this issue,” Nebel said. “It’s not just a local problem. It speaks to anyone who cares about the Great Lakes.”