MARQUETTE, MICH. - If Oneida County wants an idea of what a sulfide mine in the town of Lynne might look like, it only has to look north.
The Eagle Mine has been pulling nickel and copper from an ore body near Marquette, Mich. since 2014.
An underground deposit in Lynne contains zinc, lead, copper, and silver. Next month, in an advisory referendum, Oneida County voters will be asked whether the county should pursue mining on public land there.
The Eagle Mine could help inform that vote. Seven members of the board toured the mine and its processing mill on Tuesday, looking at infrastructure and operations that could be part of the future of Oneida County.
"The first step that people in Wisconsin should be very comfortable with is their elected officials are here," said Michigan State Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette). "They're here because they want to protect their environment. They want jobs. But they want to do it right."
Cambensy was born and raised in Marquette, and paid attention as Rio Tinto explored the Eagle site. Lundin, a Canadian company, bought the rights from Rio Tinto and started mining in 2014.
Cambensy had her doubts. But now, she describes herself as a "spokesperson for responsible mining" in a Democratic legislative caucus in Lansing often wary of the idea.
"Does it have to be either/or? Does it have to be jobs or environment? Or can it be jobs and the environment?" Cambensy asked rhetorically.
Cambensy sees Eagle Mine, the nation's only nickel mine, as a near-perfect example of accomplishing both.
It employs 450 people. As a company, it aimed to have 75 percent of its workforce from the Upper Peninsula. In actuality, that number now stands at 81 percent.
A study commissioned by the mine and Michigan Tech University found it will have a $4 billion economic impact in the Marquette County area.
Eagle Mine extracts 700,000 tons of nickel and copper ore from below the Salmon Trout River. But it still has a solid environmental record.
"It's our incentive to make sure we're protecting the environment," Matt Johnson, the external relations manager for the company, told county board supervisors. "Otherwise, we lose our reputation. We lose community support. We lose our privilege to operate, and we lose our operation."
Under Michigan law, Eagle Mine also has $52 million in surety bonds with the state government. If it doesn't leave the site as clean as it found it, the state keeps the money.
Johnson saw the protests against the mine before it opened. Local Ojibwe tribes still oppose it.
"All of the same controversies, all of the same concerns that you hear down in Wisconsin are the exact same concerns we had here," Johnson said.
But Johnson says surveys show people locally now support the mine.
"Everything we do requires mining. To me, it's never really a conversation of whether we should mine or not. It's a conversation of how we should mine," he said.
"If you don't want mining here, because this is where minerals are, and you use these minerals every day in your life, do you have the right to demand those minerals be mined somewhere else?" Cambensy said in agreement.
Mining at Eagle Mine looks different than in other places.
A tunnel at 13 percent decline leads from the surface to the ore body. Ore is removed, but it isn't processed on-site. Instead, it's trucked 66 miles to a mill west of Marquette. There, it's crushed, split, separated, and turned into a concentrated powder. Trains carry it away to smelters in Canada.
County Board Supervisor Jack Sorensen will vote yes on the advisory referendum to explore mining in Lynne. He says he wants to leave the county's options open.
What he saw Tuesday only strengthened that view.
"There is a mine that is operating, and it's doing it in an environmentally sensitive way," Sorensen said.
He was especially interested in how the mine operated under a waterway, apparently without disturbing it.
"The actual ore deposit is underneath a stream and a wetland," Sorensen said. "To me, that kind of was eye-opening how they dealt with something similar to what we have in the town of Lynne."
The Lynne deposit is largely covered by wetlands, and sits near the Willow Flowage.
Fellow supervisor Bob Mott plans to vote no on the referendum, citing concerns over those wetlands.
But he was surprised by how clean and quiet the operation is.
"I had to ask if the mill was running or not when we were at the processing plant. That impressed me," Mott said. "Everything was contained, everything seemed clean and orderly, and very, very modern in their approach."
Board members wish all voters could see Eagle Mine before November. That way, they could picture a possible future for Oneida County when going to the polls.
"This is modern-day mining," Mott said. "I think the more people that could view this and see it, it might allay some of their fears."
Eagle Mine is expanding its underground operations to a new ore body, called Eagle East. It hopes to find even more ore nearby. If it doesn't, it will close in 2023.
Oneida County's advisory referendum is Nov. 6.