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Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Landowners alarmed by Highland Copper subsidiary's mineral lease requests; Highland completes Copperwood 2018 winter exploration in Porkies

By Michele Bourdieu
With information from UPEC's Mining Action Group and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Granite Cliff Community along (North) Rocking Chair Lake -- an area included in recent mineral lease requests to the State of Michigan by UPX Minerals, a subsidiary of Highland Copper. (Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

MARQUETTE -- Landowners and residents in Marquette and Iron counties are expressing alarm at mineral lease requests to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by Highland Copper Company's subsidiary UPX Minerals, leading to an extension of the comment period on the leases to June 11, 2018. Meanwhile the DNR has announced completion of this year's winter mineral exploration by Highland's subsidiary Copperwood Resources Inc.

Landowners, environmentalists concerned by UPX mineral lease requests 

According to the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition's (UPEC's) Mining Action Group, local property owners are expressing alarm over mineral lease requests made by UPX Minerals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Highland Copper. UPX is seeking to lease nearly 4,000 acres of State-owned minerals in Marquette and Iron counties. Most of these mineral properties are in Marquette County; and many are underneath private property, homes, camps, rivers and streams, lakes, wetlands -- even nature reserves.

"We opened our mail and found a notice from UPX Minerals requesting a direct metallic minerals lease from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) -- under our own home," said Sue Beckstrom Noel, a concerned local resident. "We were horrified! The owner of mineral rights can access your property, conduct exploration or drilling, or potentially develop a mine under your home or camp, and as the landowner you have very little control over that. Doesn’t that seem outrageous?"

According to Karen Maidlow, DNR property specialist in the Office of Minerals Management, "The State of Michigan, as a severed mineral owner, does have the right to lease the severed minerals when the surface is not owned because the mineral estate is considered the dominant estate. DNR staff review parcels for lease classification and determine the most appropriate lease classification for resource protection as if the State owned the surface. The lease applicant is required to notify the surface owner during the public notice period. If a Lessee of State minerals wants to explore or develop the minerals, they need to work with the surface owner regarding the anticipated reasonable use of the land surface, in addition to working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the State mining regulatory agency. The lease provides that the Lessee shall pay damages to the surface owner should any damages occur directly or indirectly from mining operations."

Local residents and landowners have been meeting recently to discuss their concerns about the proposed leases.

After hearing from concerned citizens, the Mining Action Group, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC), Superior Watershed Partnership and others requested an extension of the public comment period, originally scheduled to expire early in May. It has been extended to June 11, 2018.

More than 3,800 acres of the requested mineral leases would be located in Champion, Michigamme, Negaunee, Ishpeming and Marquette townships, and include sensitive and scenic areas. Some mineral lease requests could impact the Noquemanon Trail Network in the Forestville Trailhead area, Echo Lake Nature Preserve, Teal Lake -- and the Vielmetti-Peters Conservation Reserve, owned by the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy.*

The UPX mineral lease request also targets the Rocking Chair Lakes -- considered by the DNR to be one of Marquette County’s wild gems, and recently nominated to become "The Rocking Chair Lakes Ecological Reference Area." This remote area of state land includes four different Ecological Reference Areas (ERAs): Northern Shrub Thicket, Dry Mesic Northern Forest, Mesic Northern Forest, and Granite Cliff. The rugged terrain of the Mulligan Escarpment is also the heart of Michigan’s moose range.**

Dry Mesic Northern Forest along (South) Rocking Chair Lake. (Photo courtesy Michigan DNR) 

John Pepin, DNR deputy public information officer, offered Keweenaw Now this information on the leases: "Parcels under lease request have been reviewed by DNR field staff to determine if there are resources on the parcel that need protecting. Based on the review, DNR staff have recommended the most appropriate classification for surface use for each parcel under lease request should the lease be approved. The recommended lease classification for parcels in the Rocking Chair area is Leasable Nondevelopment. This means the lease would not allow the parcel’s surface to be used for metallic minerals exploration or development without separate written permission from the DNR."

This map shows some parcels requested by UPX for mineral leasing in Marquette County. Section 10 includes the Rocking Chair Lakes area. Note that 8 of the parcels in Section 10 are marked with an X for nondevelopment, while the other 4 have an R for restricted development.***

This map shows some of the state-owned parcels requested for mineral leasing by UPX. Click here and go to p. 15 in the parcel list and maps document for a larger version of this map. (Map courtesy Michigan DNR)

Pepin also explained that a lease is not a permit.

"If a lease is granted by the DNR, the lease grants only the exclusive right to pursue exploration and development," Pepin said. "It does not provide a permit for any of these activities. Any and all needed permissions from the DEQ, the State mining regulatory agency, and local government would need to be acquired by the lessee before any surface or subsurface work occurs. The lease is only the first step to allow the Lessee the exclusive right to assess the mineral potential to the parcels under lease."

Northern Shrub Thicket along the Mulligan Creek. (Photo courtesy Michigan DNR)

Julie Hintsala, a local landowner, commented on the scenic beauty in the area of wooded lands near the McClure Basin and Neejee Road, where her family built a home in 1992.

"Other people appreciate the scenic beauty of the region also, because the old steel bridge and the new high bridge on Co. Rd. 510 over the Dead River are two of the most photographed areas in Marquette County," Hintsala said.  "Imagine having a mine in the background of your next bridge photo! It is shocking to consider. This would also impact the Noquemanon Ski Trail, the Hoist and McClure Basins, and the nearby Ore to Shore bike race."

Hintsala described herself as "a life-long Yooper" who appreciates the importance of mining to the area, but who believes in the current importance of tourism and recreation as well.

"Tourism, mountain biking and cross country skiing in this area would be devastated by possible mining operations," Hintsala said. "Is it worth forever changing our landscape and risking our environment, including the nearby Dead River basin, for a short-term mining operation? Why would the State of Michigan consider allowing mineral rights to be leased for exploration so near a community in Negaunee township in an area that will impact recreation and tourism?"

When asked why the company wanted to conduct mining exploration in residential areas, a UPX representative contacted by phone replied, "We’re just trying to tie areas together that we already have rights to."

In 2017, UPX Minerals acquired nearly 500,000 acres of mineral properties in the Central Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- lands formerly owned by Rio Tinto and Kennecott. UPX is reviewing historic mineral exploration data, and conducting "field exploration" in search of orogenic gold, magmatic nickel-copper and zinc-copper deposits in the various properties. Their goal is to "define drilling targets" this year, creating a "pipeline" of future mining projects.

Approximately 119 acres of the lease requests are located in the Crystal Falls Township of Iron County, adjacent to the East Branch of the Fence River, and underneath Wilson Creek and wetlands.

"Iron County communities and watersheds continue to feel the impacts of the iron ore mines that have been closed for more than 40 years," said Maggie Scheffer, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, who resides in Iron County. "The parcels identified for mineral exploration, and potential mining in Iron County, are remote, water-rich sites. It is in our best interest to protect our watersheds from wide-scale ecological disruption, and look instead toward a future that allows our local economies to thrive because of the natural beauty that attracts people to our area."

Richard Sloat, also a resident of Iron County, commented on Highland Copper's wetlands and soil erosion violations during their 2017 winter exploration in and near the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park during last year's spring thaw.

"Granting the mineral lease rights allowing exploration could lead to a possible mishap such as what occurred in the Porcupine Mountains wilderness area," said Sloat. "Degradation at that exploration site could have been prevented had there been proper oversight and inspection by the DNR and DEQ."

This April 26, 2017, photo shows sediment-filled muddy water passing through fiber rolls (erosion control) on an access road left chewed up by Highland Copper's drilling equipment in early spring last year. Muddy water was flowing into ditches of CR-519, which conveyed the water to a ravine that feeds the Presque Isle River. (Keweenaw Now file photo © Steve Garske and courtesy Mining Action Group)

Last year UPEC's Mining Action Group alerted the public when the DNR, DEQ and the Gogebic County Road Commission did not monitor the contractor during a period of rapid thawing, causing significant damage to public property along CR-519 or 510.**** 

Highland Copper's Copperwood Project: more exploration in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Highland Copper is currently developing projects in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, and in the Keweenaw Peninsula. They own the Copperwood Project, where they propose to mine adjacent to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (aka the Porkies) and potentially underneath the park itself.

In April, the DNR announced that Copperwood Resources Inc. -- a subsidiary of Highland Copper -- had completed its 2018 winter exploration of a 1-mile section of the westernmost portion of the Porkies.

Exploratory drilling was conducted 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 could potentially enlarge the mining company’s Copperwood Project beyond its currently-permitted boundaries.

Drilling and testing will determine hydrologic and geologic composition of the bedrock beneath the surface. Copperwood Resources is leasing the mineral rights from another company, which owns those rights beneath this part of the park. The state of Michigan manages the land surface features.

Earlier this winter, the Michigan DNR granted a land use permit for the work, allowing the mining company to resume exploration begun last winter at the park. The Gogebic County Road Commission granted a separate permit. Additional permits were required from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for two of the drilling sites situated in wetland areas.

The Gogebic County Road Commission and DNR permits included several provisions aimed at protecting land surface features.

"All of the stipulations in the use permit were followed," said Doug Rich, western U.P. district supervisor for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division.

Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district supervisor of Michigan DEQ Water Resources Division, told Keweenaw Now that Highland Copper restored the wetlands they had damaged last year and obtained wetland permits for this year's drilling.

"We're not aware of any problems this year," Casey said. "They did what they were supposed to do according to the permit to prevent problems like those they had last year."

Three holes were drilled this winter on park land. A separate land use permit was granted by the Gogebic County Road Commission for drilling work at three sites that took place on county property, within the right-of-way of County Road 519.

Two additional test holes were drilled to the ore body from Copperwood Resources property situated west of the park. The mining company has completed winter exploration on its lands.

"We are pleased to have completed the drilling program on our Copperwood project, and would like to thank the DNR, DEQ, and the Gogebic County Road Commission for their cooperation over the last few months," said Justin van der Toorn, exploration manager of Copperwood Resources Inc. "The winter conditions have held out well for us and allowed us to finish all eight drill holes as planned. The information and assays that are derived from this work will now be incorporated into our ongoing feasibility study that is still on schedule for completion this summer."

UPEC President Horst Schmidt commented on Highland Copper's and state agencies' improved oversight of the winter exploratory drilling.

"This year the DNR, fearing negative public reaction, has had a carefully orchestrated PR campaign to show the public they are monitoring the drilling activity," Schmidt said. "I applaud them for it. This is what should be done at all times in all places by both the DNR and DEQ as well as by county agencies."

Schmidt added, "The real problem is the state's destructive severance of surface and subsurface rights -- which gives the extractive industries carte blanche to remove minerals, oil, gas and water almost anywhere. The DEQ gave permits for mining right next to Lake Superior for the Copperwood project and the DNR can allow them to mine under the Porkies, a supposedly development-free wilderness park. There must be a change in the way 'resources' are removed. 'Resources' are inextricably linked to the essential constituents necessary for all creatures to survive: water, air, land. UPEC has conveyed this message for over four decades. The lesson has still to be learned."

Public urged to comment on UPX mineral lease requests by June 11, 2018

Dennis and Kim Ferraro of Marquette, who formerly lived in Chicago and Indiana, said they relocated to the U.P. last year because they fell in love with the natural beauty, clean air and water, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

"However, we now face a grave threat to that environment because UPX, Inc., subsidiary of Canadian conglomerate, Highland Copper, has targeted Marquette County for exploration and potential development of sulfide ore mining, a form of extraction that may leave the air, streams and groundwater polluted with toxic by-products," the Ferraros said. "We ask our fellow citizens to join us in urging DNR to reject this corporate poaching of our environment by submitting comments before the public comment period expires."

The public is urged to submit written comments expressing their concerns and providing additional information "relative to the request to lease the specified mineral rights" by June 11, 2018, to DNR, Office of Minerals Management, P.O. Box 30452, Lansing MI 48909, or

"If Highland Copper / UPX succeeds in taking even a fraction of these sulfide-mineral deposits from exploration to development, the risk to the Lake Superior watershed will be significantly heightened," warned Louis Galdieri, a writer and filmmaker interested in the history and long-term prosperity of the Lake Superior basin.

Asked if the DNR might hold a public hearing in addition to extending the public comment period, Karen Maidlow replied, "The lease only allows the Lessee the exclusive right to assess the mineral potential to the state-owned parcels under lease. The majority of leases expire without exploration or development occurring. Separate permissions to explore or mine must be obtained from the DEQ. In the event a metallic ore body is discovered, a mining plan must be submitted to the DEQ (and to the DNR if state land is involved). At that stage, public hearings are held so the public can be informed of the specifics of the proposed mining plan and provide valued feedback."  


* See the Michigan DNR: UPX Mineral Lease Request: Parcel List and Maps

** Click here for the Rocking Chair Lakes ERA Plan.

*** Click here for the DNR's definitions of Metallic and Nonmetallic Minerals Lease Classifications.

**** See our May 12, 2017, article, "DEQ cites Highland Copper's wetlands, soil erosion violations from mining exploration in Porkies, along CR 519."