Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Highland Copper finalizes purchase of Copperwood mining project, hopes to process ore at White Pine

By Michele Bourdieu

This map from the Jan. 16, 2014, Highland Copper Co. presentation in Houghton shows the Copperwood ore deposit at left and the former White Pine Mine. Highland has acquired parts of the White Pine property and, most recently, the Copperwood Project. Highland is also doing exploration at sites in Keweenaw County. (Photo by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON, CALUMET -- Highland Copper Company Inc. announced on June 17, 2014, that they have completed their acquisition of the Copperwood Project -- located near the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and the town of Wakefield in Gogebic County -- from Orvana Minerals Corporation.*

Highland Copper, a Canadian company, also recently acquired parts of the former White Pine mine site, which they hope to develop for new mining, chiefly copper, for processing and possibly eventually for refining. Conceptual plans would include using the infrastructure (existing and potential) to process ore from White Pine and from other mining projects -- which now may include copper ore to be transported to White Pine from the Copperwood site.

In January 2014, shortly after their purchase of the north end of White Pine for a new mine, Ross Grunwald, Highland Copper vice president for exploration, and Carlos Bertoni, Highland Copper White Pine manager (at that time), spoke at several local community meetings about their concept of making White Pine a "center of gravity" for processing ore from projected mines in the Western Upper Peninsula. At that time Highland had not yet completed the Copperwood purchase, but Grunwald mentioned it as part of a larger deposit (shown in the map above and the video clip below).

In this video clip from Highland Copper's presentation in Calumet on Jan. 15, 2014, Ross Grunwald, Highland Copper vice president for exploration, points out several copper deposits on the Keweenaw Peninsula and nearby that are of interest to his company for copper mining potential -- including sites in Keweenaw County, White Pine and Copperwood. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

At the June 4, 2014, meeting of the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance (KEDA) in Houghton, Grunwald spoke to KEDA members about Highland's imminent purchase of Copperwood.

Since Highland's plans for White Pine include building a mill to process ore not only from a new White Pine mine but also from other projected mines in the area, ore mined at Copperwood, which is about 18 miles southwest of White Pine, could be transported -- possibly by rail or truck or both -- for processing, thus potentially eliminating a projected tall tailings pile at Copperwood.

"If you do that, you take away a lot of environmental impact," Grunwald said at the KEDA meeting.

The projected tailings pile at Copperwood, despite Department of Environmental Quality permits received by former owner Orvana, has raised many questions among environmental groups, and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC).**

According to Jessica Koski, KBIC mining technical assistant, "The current permits for Copperwood allow for the development of a very large permanent surface tailings dump that would store approximately 32.2 million tons of mine tailings and destroy over 16,000 feet of existing streams (despite the company initially predicting less than 6,000 feet of stream impact in order to obtain their initial mining permit) and about 60 acres of wetlands."

Copperwood, Koski explained, is situated within KBIC's 1842 treaty territory homeland, in which Anishinaabe bands retain rights to hunt, fish and gather -- including Lake Superior fishing rights.

The tailings site, as planned by Orvana, would reach about 14 stories high towards the end of the mine's projected 14-year life span and could possibly be visible from the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. KBIC has expressed concern that the tailings could release heavy metals and other contaminants into the area environment -- including wetlands, streams and Lake Superior.

Highland's concept would eliminate the need for a mill and tailings disposal at the Copperwood site, thus reducing the environmental footprint considerably.

Grunwald notes, however, that changes to the mining plan for Copperwood are still in the conceptual stage.

"What I say today is conceptual in nature and doesn't reflect any definite plans," he told KEDA members.

Highland Copper is now embarking on feasibility studies for both White Pine and Copperwood as an integrated operation, Grunwald told Keweenaw Now on June 30.

Carlos Bertoni, now project manager for the combined White Pine and Copperwood operation, is coordinating the pre-feasibility study for that project, Grunwald said. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2014. The actual feasibility study will then begin in 2015 and hopefully be completed by the end of 2015, he added.

This map of the White Pine site shows the North Deposit, where Highland hopes to construct a new mine. It already contains 100 drill holes of exploration. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

"The first step is to come up with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is based on historical information at White Pine," Grunwald told Keweenaw Now recently.

The feasibility studies are based on the EIS. These must be done before Highland can apply for permits or amendments to existing permits.

Steve Casey, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Upper Peninsula District Supervisor, Water Resources Division, told Keweenaw Now recently that while Highland has talked to MDEQ officials, the company hasn't brought any specific proposals to MDEQ.

"They don't know what they're going to do yet," Casey said. "They can always use the existing permits (for Copperwood) and do less; for example, the wetland permits."

The Copperwood permits include impacts from the tailings, which could be eliminated if the ore is transported to White Pine. Casey noted the present tailings ponds at White Pine have more room in them. The old mine contains water that could be used for processing and space that might be used to contain some of the tailings, he explained.

"As long as they stay within the existing permitted footprint, they can go forward," Casey added. "It would make sense that they would be doing less (at Copperwood) -- (it would be) less problematic for the environment -- but until we have a specific proposal we can't judge that."

Copperwood's MDEQ Water Resources Permit for Wetlands and Inland Lakes and Streams, issued Feb. 22, 2013, authorized Orvana, the former owner, to do the following: "Excavate approximately76,973 cubic yards of materialfrom 3.40 acres of wetlands and place approximately 7,314,277 cubic yards of fill in 54.71 acres of wetlands impacting a total of 58.11 acres of wetland to construct the Copperwood underground mine and appurtenant facilities. Construction will include an access road, a tailings disposal facility, mill and mine entrance."

In addition, as Jessica Koski noted, construction of the tailings disposal facility at Copperwood would eliminate 16, 557 lineal feet of stream and require both stream and wetland mitigation.***

This map shows the area of the projected Copperwood Project and nearby Lake Superior and streams. Should ore be transported to White Pine for processing, the TDF (Tailings Disposal Facility -- purple area near center) would not be needed nor would the projected mill. (Keweenaw Now file map courtesy Jessica Koski)

Koski and KBIC have also expressed concern about contaminants that could leach into the water from the tailings.

"The tailings disposal site is predicted to leach 24-62 million gallons per year which will release heavy metals and other contaminants into the area environment and Lake Superior," Koski says. "Substantial amounts of partially treated mine waste water discharges would flow directly into the surface waters of Nabeminag Creek, which empties into Lake Superior."

Grunwald noted conditions on the permits received by Orvana would probably carry over to Highland -- if they don't apply to the tailings or the mill, which would not be needed if the ore is transported to White Pine.

Highland would need to construct a water treatment plant at both Copperwood and White Pine, though the plant at Copperwood would be smaller if the mill and tailings are eliminated from the plan.

"We will be pumping material which has to be treated before it is discharged," Grunwald said.

He said the transportation of the ore would also need permitting.

"All of the impacts of that transportation have to be evaluated and mitigated," Grunwald added.

This photo shows the location of infrastructure and buildings that were used in the old White Pine mining operation. The smelter and process plant (mill) no longer exist. The power plant and refinery are presently owned by Traxys. A new water treatment plant would need to be constructed for the mining operations. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Joe Maki, MDEQ geologist, will be working with Highland on the Part 632 mining permit and related issues.

Maki told Keweenaw Now recently that if Highland decides to do combined processing of ore from both White Pine and Copperwood and/or other potential mines in the region, they would need a new Part 632 permit for White Pine that includes the ore from the other mine(s).

If ore from Copperwood is transported to White Pine for processing, "there would probably be no need for a tailings pile (at Copperwood)," Maki said.

For the permits Orvana received for Copperwood from MDEQ all rock they proposed to handle had to have geo-chemical testing, he explained.

"If there's any material that has to be put on the ground, they would still have to follow Part 632 rules," Maki noted.****

Regulations for transporting the ore would be under the State of Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the U.S. Department of Transportation rather than the MDEQ. However, MDEQ would require covers on vehicles or train cars transporting mine materials in order to prevent fugitive dust problems, Maki explained.

Dave Anderson, who was Copperwood director of health, safety and environment under Orvana's ownership, now holds that same position with Highland Copper. He told Keweenaw Now he is optimistic about the future of Copperwood and the concept of transporting the ore for processing at White Pine -- which would eliminate the tailings pile at Copperwood.

"We're obviously excited to be working with Highland Copper," Anderson said. "If these two projects move forward, there's an opportunity to have a much smaller imprint for Copperwood. "

Anderson said he anticipated future public meetings on the project.

"As we move through the transition there will be more community involvement," he noted. "We need to hear from people. I expect to get a lot of input -- share ideas and concerns -- before we go to the drawing board."

As for transporting the ore, Anderson said his goal would be to see a transportation solution that would have the smallest carbon footprint.

At the KEDA meeting Grunwald noted Highland has "whole-hearted government support at the present time."

He said a strict permitting process provides for bonding that must extend 20 years after the mine stops producing and a severance tax based on production and revenue. The full concept -- with a skilled work force and technical assistance from Michigan Tech University -- could employ hundreds of workers, Grunwald told the KEDA members.

"It's going to be a substantial work force," Grunwald said. "Our objective is to use local employees as much as possible."

At Highland's Jan. 15, 2014, community information meeting and presentation in Calumet, residents asked questions related to local employment and skills needed for modern mines.

Following the Jan. 15, 2014, presentation by Highland Copper Co. in Calumet a local resident asks a question on skill levels required of present-day miners who might be employed by Highland Copper Co. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

Grunwald told Keweenaw Now that construction of a mill at White Pine could take from a year to 18 months after engineering is completed. He estimated mining at Copperwood and the new mining at the north end of White Pine would be happening at the same time; however, developing the new White Pine site for mining would take more preparation. The fact that Copperwood is already permitted is an advantage for Highland.

Grunwald noted Orvana spent $20 million on Copperwood and 8 or 9 million of that was for environmental studies and permitting.

"It would take more time to develop the White Pine site for mining," Grunwald said. "It's a huge area."

Mining the north end of White Pine would require driving a decline several miles underground and (possibly) raising shafts from below, he explained. The ore is 2000 to 3000 feet deep.

During Highland's January meetings in Calumet and Houghton, Carlos Bertoni, presently Highland Copper's manager for the combined White Pine and Copperwood project, described the concept of developing White Pine as a "center of gravity" for processing ore from multiple mines and potentially refining it into metal.

During Highland Copper's Jan. 16, 2014, presentation in Houghton, Mich., Carlos Bertoni, then White Pine project manager (now manager for the combined White Pine and Copperwood project), explains concepts of potential development at White Pine so it could be a center of gravity for processing ore from White Pine and from other potential mines in the region, such as Copperwood. He also describes new technology -- a Staged Flotation Reactor -- that would replace a smelter and could result in a smaller footprint and ultimately a way to feed the existing refinery at White Pine to produce copper metal. (Video by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

Grunwald said Highland, through its subsidiary Keweenaw Copper Co., will continue its exploration of Keweenaw sites 543S near Gratiot Lake and G-2 near Bete Grise; but at least two years of baseline studies are needed before they can plan to mine these.

"We haven't started any detailed environmental studies for the Keweenaw sites since the focus is on White Pine and Copperwood," he explained.

If the Keweenaw sites were to be mined in the future, Grunwald noted, it would make good economic sense to transport that ore to White Pine for milling. However, at more than one of Highland's informational meetings, the question of how to transport ore from the Keweenaw has come up.

Residents' questions, comments

At Highland's Jan. 16, 2014, community meeting in Houghton, some local residents asked questions about Highland/Keweenaw Copper's Keweenaw sites, including questions about potential transport:

During the question period following Highland's Jan. 16 presentation in Houghton, Chuck Brumleve, a geologist for KBIC, asks about feasibility studies for the 543S and G-2 sites in Keweenaw County and about mining methods. A resident who worked at the former White Pine mine comments on Michigan Tech's involvement in methods used at that mine. (Video by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

During the Jan. 16 Highland meeting in Houghton, Mich., Linda Rulison, President of FOLK (Friends of the Land of Keweenaw), asks about transportation of ore from projected Keweenaw mining sites to White Pine for processing. (Video by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

Anne Newcombe, a concerned resident at the Houghton meeting, commented on her experience with company-community relations and local environmental concerns in Marquette and Big Bay during events preceding and following the construction of the Eagle Mine. Here she challenges Highland staff to do what they say they will to protect the environment:

During the Jan. 16 presentation by Highland Copper Co. in Houghton, local resident Anne Newcombe expresses her love for the outdoor recreational value and beauty of the local area and states her hope that Highland can mine as safely as possible without impacting a pristine environment. (Video by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)

Grunwald has said at the community meetings and at his presentation to KEDA that he welcomes communication with citizens who have concerns about the potential mining and hopes to clear up any misconceptions people might have so that Highland can focus on the real problems.

"We have to date whole-hearted community support," he told the KEDA audience at their June 4 meeting.

Bruce Woody, chair and CEO of Blue Harbor Energy, who attended the KEDA meeting, had a positive reaction to Highland's potential for creating jobs with the combined Copperwood-White Pine project.

"It looks like it's a project that will bring some jobs to the Upper Peninsula (and) revitalize areas near Ontonagon that have a very high unemployment rate," Woody said.

KEDA member Steve Karpiak, who also attended the June 4 meeting, noting Highland's projects are still at the exploration stage, told Keweenaw Now he believes these projects will depend on the international price of copper.

"This is all exploratory," Karpiak said. "This is something they might hang on to for decades (until the price of copper is high enough)."

He said he believes the environmental impact of new mining will be less than it was in the past since the state and federal governments have more rules and regulations now and mining uses modern technology. Because of this technology, mining jobs will be fewer -- high tech and more skilled.

Karpiak also said he thinks that if manufacturing becomes part of the project it will be high tech as well, possibly with the use of robotics. Some local Smart Zone businesses are an example of how manufacturing has changed radically because of new technology, he added.

During the KEDA meeting, Karpiak asked whether the 543S site near Gratiot Lake would likely be an underground or a surface mine.

Grunwald told Keweenaw Now that 543S would require some surface mining for ore that is near the surface, but 90 percent would be underground at that site if it is mined.

"You want to reduce the surface impact as much as possible," Grunwald said.

As with any mining project, especially with these sites located so close to Lake Superior, many residents are still concerned about environmental issues.

One of these is Ellen Campbell, a KEDA member, vice president of The Nitrate Elimination Company, Inc, a biotechnology business in Lake Linden. Although Campbell was not able to attend Highland's recent presentation to KEDA, she told Keweenaw Now in an email message that she would not want to see this area become dependent on resource extraction companies who take the wealth and leave a mess behind.

"Appalachian coal mines? Copper in Colorado open pit mines? Why would we want be like that?" Campbell asks. "When my husband and I moved here in 1985 the area was in decline from the last of the mine closures. Everyone has worked hard to bring it back to life. The SmartZone, more parks and trails, Pine Mountain Music Festival, First Fridays in Calumet, Tech gaining national credit. And then there's the Lake. Water will always be precious, and someday soon it will also have economic value. Who's planning for that?"

Grunwald said he is aware of concerns about the water.

"That's the number-one concern. It's always about the water," Grunwald said. "We're very concerned about maintaining the current high water quality."

Campbell adds, "If there's enough value in the raw materials to make it worth their while to extract them, then it's worth while to do it right. Safely, and with long term planning for waste removal and habitat protection -- and I include habitat that pleases resident humans -- built in."

Grunwald said Highland plans to hold more community meetings in the near future.

However, his own position with the company will be changing soon.

"I'm going to be cutting back to one-fourth time after the end of July," Grunwald told Keweenaw Now on June 30. "It's my personal choice."

He said he wants to be able to spend more time with his family in California.

Grunwald noted he will still be involved with the Highland Copper project and will still be back in Michigan from time to time.


* The financial details of Highland's purchase of Copperwood from Orvana are available in a press release dated June 17, 2014, on their Web site. See also a Keweenaw Now guest article by Steve Garske, who attended Highland's Jan. 9, 2014, community meeting in Ironwood and comments on several of the company's investors.

** See our two-part article on the June 28, 2012, public hearing on Copperwood's water and air permits held by the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. In addition to statements of support, MDEQ heard many questions and challenges raised by the public concerning the project as planned by Orvana. See: MDEQ hearing on Orvana Copperwood air, water quality permits: Part 1, Questions and MDEQ public hearing on Orvana Copperwood mine: Part 2.

*** Click here to read the MDEQ Wetlands, Inland Lakes and Streams permit for Copperwood.

**** Click here for our January 2013 video clip of Joe Maki's comments in answer to a question on Orvana's Copperwood project during a presentation he made to the Keweenaw Land Trust.

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