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Monday, February 12, 2018

Updated: Copperwood Resources to resume winter copper exploration at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park; settlement reached with DEQ on 2017 erosion damage

This photo taken in the winter of 2017 shows Gypsy Creek downstream, east of one of Copperwood Resources' 2017 drill sites inside Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. When snow melted last spring, erosion into a wetland and ditch leading to a tributary to Gypsy Creek led to the work being halted in April. Copperwood is now resuming exploratory drilling in the park. (File photo © and courtesy Steve Garske) 

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported on Feb. 6, 2018, that it has issued a use permit to Copperwood Resources Inc. -- a subsidiary of Highland Copper -- to resume its winter exploration of a 1-mile section of the westernmost portion of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Work is being done in this part of Gogebic County to see if the eastern extension of a mineral deposit first explored in the 1950s might feasibly be mined, which would enlarge the mining company’s Copperwood Project beyond its currently permitted boundaries.

This map shows the location of test holes planned for exploration this winter. Click on map for larger version. (Map courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

Drilling and testing will determine hydrologic and geologic composition of the bedrock beneath the surface. Work on these sites is scheduled to be completed over the next month and a half.

"This use permit will allow Copperwood Resources to resume work begun last winter at the park," said Doug Rich, western U.P. district supervisor for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division. "However, this winter’s exploration will be scaled back from the mining company’s original plans."

Copperwood, Michigan DEQ reach settlement on April 2017 erosion damage

In January 2018 the DNR, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Gogebic County Road Commission reported that the DEQ and Copperwood Resources had reached a settlement addressing work-related erosion which occurred during spring break-up in April 2017, along Gogebic County Road 519 at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Carlos Bertoni and Tom Repaal of Highland Copper discuss remediation efforts in August 2017. (Photo courtesy Michigan DNR)

Representatives from the DEQ and Copperwood Resources recently signed an administrative consent order, a legal settlement addressing damages without conveying admissions of violations of law, which included a $25,000 fine.

Since March 17, 2017, work had been ongoing within a 466-foot road right-of-way (233 feet on each side of the road) owned by the Gogebic County Road Commission. Work was halted April 4 after Highland Copper officials were informed of several potential erosion issues on the county property. A contract drilling company was part way into drilling their last scheduled test core hole.

Steve Casey, U.P. district coordinator for the DEQ’s Water Resources Division in Marquette, said the mining company continued test drilling operations during spring snowmelt, in and around wetlands, without first obtaining the necessary wetlands or soil erosion and sediment control permits. The resulting work damaged wetlands and resulted in a discharge of muddied water from the site.

Highland Copper maintained they didn’t anticipate the spring warm-up and didn’t know that much of the land was wetland until they received a report from their consultant, King and McGregor. This April 2, 2017, photo shows how their contractor had turned a half mile of snowmobile trail into a muddy mess. (Photo courtesy Mining Action Group)

"They made the unfortunate decision to continue drilling during snowmelt last spring, resulting in rutting in wetlands and soil erosion from their drilling site," Casey said. "Once this mistake became evident, they have been models of cooperation, restoring the relatively minor damage to wetlands and stabilizing the site against further erosion."

Had the ground been frozen and snow covered during these activities, likely there would have been no erosion or wetland disturbance and no need for wetlands and soil erosion permits, Casey explained.

Members of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition’s (UPEC's) Mining Action Group (MAG) -- a watchdog group monitoring mining activities in the region -- alerted the DEQ and the media to the erosion. MAG’s alarming photographs of the damage (see above) were quickly picked up by the media, and brought to the attention of the Michigan DEQ. The DEQ promptly sent staff from the Marquette office to the site on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. The company was required to suspend work that day, and soon after were issued a Violation Notice by the DEQ.*

UPDATED: The company was cited for allowing muddy runoff to reach Gypsy Creek, on the southern end of drilling site. However, much of the mud flowed north along the ditch and down the wide ravine of the Presque Isle River, where it was deposited on the floodplain of the river, within the Park (north of the drilling site), as pictured here in September 2017. (Note: We have corrected this caption, which previously identified this as a photo of Gypsy Creek. It is the floodplain of the Presque Isle River.) (Photo courtesy Mining Action Group)

Given the incident, members of the coalition said they have deep concerns about the Copperwood Project.

"Their Copperwood mine project sits on the shore of Lake Superior, and now they are taking steps towards mining under the west end of the Porkies as well, so the stakes are extremely high," Steve Garske, a UPEC board member said.

Carlos Bertoni, vice-president of exploration at Highland Copper, said the mining company is moving forward, with an assessment of the feasibility of the Copperwood Project anticipated this summer.

"Our team has learned a great deal from this incident and future work will continue to be done under strict compliance with current environmental legislation and best practices," Bertoni said. "We remain committed to developing the Copperwood Project, thus creating new economic opportunities for the western Upper Peninsula."

In April 2017, the DEQ issued an order requiring the mining company to stabilize the site and restore the wetlands.**

Copperwood Resources employed Coleman Engineering Co., an Upper Peninsula firm, and Michigan wetland specialists King and MacGregor Environmental, to work on getting short- and long-term erosion control measures in place. That work continued throughout the summer.

This Aug. 8, 2017, photo shows a catch basin in between Gogebic County Road 519 and an old snowmobile trail, where springtime erosion had occurred. The basin is intended to block water and silt from entering a nearby tributary to Gypsy Creek. With remediation efforts complete, the biodegradable holding structures were removed. This photo shows the site from the snowmobile trail, looking toward County Road 519. (Photo courtesy Michigan DNR)

"Going into winter, the site was stable. An area of the snowmobile trail near the northern boundary of the drilling area was graded to remove ruts, after it dried out in late summer," Casey said. "Vegetation in that area is not as thick as it is over the rest of the site. It will be monitored by Copperwood Resources, the DEQ and Gogebic County going forward."

Copperwood to resume exploration with three test holes in park

The mining company is expected to drill three test holes (S5-05b, S5-06 and S5-09) on DNR-managed state park land west of Gogebic County Road 519 (Section 5, T49N R45W, Wakefield Township, Gogebic County).

DEQ's Steve Casey said recently that Highland Copper has applied for a wetlands permit for work related to the exploratory drilling in the state park.

"DEQ staff is processing the application and will monitor all aspects of compliance with environmental laws if this project proceeds, including working with Gogebic County to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to control soil erosion," Casey said.

UPDATE: This map accompanies Copperwood Resources' wetland permit application. It shows Section 5 sites for 2018 winter drilling and wetland impacts. The yellow line is the state park boundary, indicating DNR surface rights. Click on map for larger version. (Map courtesy Michigan DEQ)

The three drill sites were among 12 expected to be explored last winter when work was interrupted by warm weather after only four were completed.

DNR permit provisions to protect park surface features dictated work could only be done when the ground was frozen, preferably with at least a foot of snow cover.

"Conditions of the DNR use permit will again require several important provisions be followed to prevent or reduce surface disturbance to park lands," said John Pepin, DNR deputy public information officer. "This exploration effort will not be occurring in the wilderness section of the park, but in an area where several historic impacts have occurred, including logging and a narrow-gauge railroad."

Other protective provisions include using existing roads to access sites when possible, using tracked vehicles and removing all drilling mud from work sites. The DNR will receive daily updates on the project.

Once the three sites are completed within the park, Copperwood Resources does not plan to drill the remaining five sites from its initial Section 5 exploration plan.

Additional activity outside park lands

Outside DNR-managed park lands, some additional drilling work is scheduled to be completed this winter.

Two test holes (18_03 and 18_10) will be drilled from Copperwood Resources lands located west of the park, along the border of Section 5.

The Gogebic County Road Commission recently issued a permit to allow Copperwood Resources to finish work at three sites (18_11, 18_12 and S5-13) begun last winter.

A drilling rig arrives and is set up at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in February 2017. (Photo courtesy Copperwood Resources, Inc.)

This exploration is occurring within a strip of road commission property -- a 466-foot right-of-way -- along either side of Gogebic County Road 519, which bisects Section 5.

"This winter, we will be reaching sites directly from County Road 519 to help protect sensitive areas," said Justin van der Toorn, exploration manager of Copperwood Resources Inc. "We are taking other measures, including drilling smaller diameter test holes, that will speed the exploration process."

Boring depths will range from roughly 150 feet to 1,000 feet below the surface. Test holes are immediately filled with cement once drilling cores are removed.

Darren Pionk, Gogebic County Road Commission engineer-manager, said the agency will not allow the drilling of any holes in the right-of-way without frozen ground or near the spring thaw period.

The road commission permit also requires all work, and access to sites, be conducted in upland areas with no impacts to wetlands.

Future Efforts

If Copperwood Resources eventually decides to extend the Copperwood Project, the copper deposit would be accessed from outside the park boundary, without disturbance to park surface features.

Any potential mining of the minerals would require a separate regulatory process through the DEQ. Copperwood Resources would have to amend its existing permit.

"The DNR will ensure there would be opportunity for public review and comment before any mining would occur on minerals beneath the park," Pepin said.

The mining company plans to complete its feasibility study of the project later this year.***

Editor's Notes:

* See the Mining Action Group's Sept. 8, 2017, article, "Setting the Record Straight on Highland’s Drilling in the Porkies." Note: We have corrected the caption
** See our April 7, 2017, article, "State, county officials address citizens' concerns about erosion from Highland Copper mining exploration along CR 519 in Porkies."

*** For more information on the Copperwood Project visit