Monthlong vigil at Mich. mine site Indians call sacred ends with arrests, but foes won't quit
BIG BAY, Mich. – BIG BAY, Mich. (AP) — For a month, a small group of American Indians and environmental activists occupied an isolated patch of woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the world's third-largest mining company is preparing to drill for nickel and copper.
The protesters vowed to stay put, saying the mine would desecrate sacred ground and pollute waters that flow into nearby Lake Superior. But their vigil ended Thursday, as police enforced an order by Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. to clear the area and arrested two people on misdemeanor trespassing charges.
"I'm so very disappointed. It's a tragedy," said Laura Nagle, 22, a Northern Michigan University student watching the scene unfold with other mine opponents from a dirt road near the construction site.
Kennecott, owned by London-based Rio Tinto PLC, said calling the police was a last resort after protesters refused several requests to vacate the state-owned property, which the company is leasing for its above-ground buildings and infrastructure. But Kennecott said it was necessary for the safety of the protesters as well as work crews.
"We are relieved that this situation has been resolved safely, peacefully and without incident," general manager Jon Cherry said.
The proposed mine has divided the region, which takes pride in its quiet woods and trout streams but also has a rich mining history and is hungry for jobs. The Upper Peninsula is also home to several Indian tribes; the arrested protesters are members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Kennecott believes a six-acre underground ore body it discovered in 2002 could yield 250 million to 300 million pounds of nickel and about 200 million pounds of copper. State regulators issued mining permits in 2007, but the project has been delayed by legal challenges.
Tensions escalated in recent days as crews clearing land and enclosing the property in chain-link fencing moved closer to Eagle Rock, a 60-foot-high outcrop that dominates the mostly flat landscape in the remote Yellow Dog Plains region of Marquette County.
Members of the Keweenaw Bay tribe, based in Baraga about 70 miles to the west, say they and their ancestors have worshipped and conducted spiritual activities such as fasting, pipe ceremonies and medicine lodges around Eagle Rock for generations.
Kennecott's plan to put the entrance of the underground mine tunnel near the base of the rock has made it a rallying cry for opponents. Since late April, groups ranging from a few to 20 have camped in tents scattered amid jack pine and hardwood stands, within earshot of bulldozers and other heavy equipment cutting down trees and smoothing land for the mine complex.
Police said six protesters were on hand Thursday as a Kennecott manager delivered a letter instructing them to leave. Four did so. Two others were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges, said Lt. Robert Pernaski of the Michigan State Police. They were released on personal recognizance bonds and scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.
Pernaski would not identify them. But supporters said they were Charlotte Loonsfoot, 37, and Chris Chosa, 29, both members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Both had told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they would rather go to jail than abandon the site.
"I feel obligated. It's time for our generation to help our elders pick up the fight," Loonsfoot said, peeling potatoes while sitting near a campfire the group described as sacred and kept ignited continually during their occupation.
Loonsfoot and another tribal member were the first two protesters to set up camp April 23. Others came and went over the next month, bringing food, firewood and other supplies. They also planted a garden — strawberries, peppers, potatoes, flowers — in the path of the approaching construction fence.
Iron ore and copper mining were major employers in the area for more than a century, but just two iron mines remain. Kennecott says its operation will employ about 200 full-time workers, while about 500 contractors will be hired for construction — welcome jobs to many in the Upper Peninsula, where the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 13.7 percent in April.
But opponents fear the mine will pollute groundwater and streams — including the Salmon Trout River directly above the ore body — with sulfuric acid. They say it will also damage tourism by turning a forested area prized by hunters, hikers and anglers into an industrial zone.
The Keweenaw Bay tribe and the National Wildlife Federation are challenging Kennecott's state permits in court and the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to rule on an underground wastewater discharge permit for the project, although Kennecott says it doesn't need the permit.
The company says it plans to begin drilling this year. Opponents who occupied Eagle Rock insisted they would keep fighting and would meet to plan their next move.
"No one's giving up," said Cynthia Pryor of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.