The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 22, 2019

Upper Peninsula projects suffer from an invasive species of protestors

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - The Upper Peninsula, already enjoying a fairly strong construction market, has even greater opportunities on its doorstep. That is, if groups of people who don't live there would only stop telling developers they're not welcome.

That's the word from Tony Retaskie, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Construction Council. He spoke March 5 to delegates to the 60th Legislative Conference of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. He said over the past 18 months, Yoopers in the construction trades have been performing about $1 billion worth of work in the U.P., most of it in Marquette County.

He said U.P. trades are always happy to come to Lansing to lobby lawmakers and participate in rallies to support prevailing wage and other pro-union issues. "But there are a couple of things we're going to ask you help for," Retaskie told delegates. "We're being inundated with people from out of state protesting our projects. I mean this seriously, they're our projects, we should be doing them." Someday, he said perhaps only half-joking, they might send a note downstate and ask, "can you send some people up to say positive things about these jobs?"

Retaskie, who is also a 40-year member of the IBEW, said busloads of environmentalists and people with other agendas from Wisconsin and Minnesota regularly pack meetings in the U.P. to protest potentially controversial projects. The U.P. historically has been blessed with some of the nation's greatest natural mineral deposits, including copper, iron ore, nickel, and now gold. Getting the minerals out of the ground has long been a controversial process, but Retaskie it doesn't have to be. 

Organized, out-of-area people who make hit-and-run visits to the U.P. to protest mining and other projects have little regard for their positive economic impact on the region, Retaskie said. The construction jobs, the permanent jobs, often the upgraded infrastructure the mining companies bring, as well as the increased tax revenues.  

"They don't understand that we're environmentalists too," Retaski said. "We work on these projects and we want to make sure that they're done right, we want to make sure that spills and accidents don't happen. And especially with a union background, we want to have a voice to make sure things are corrected. So we have a lot off issues with people who are opposed to our projects."

The Upper Peninsula has a long history of safe mining: The Empire and Tilden Mines in Marquette County have employed thousands of United Steelworkers over the decades, as well as hiring building trades workers performing upgrades and renovations at the plants. Since the days of Henry Ford, the mines have shipped iron ore via bulk freighters down through the Great Lakes to blast furnaces near Detroit and elsewhere. The Empire Mine closed in 2016, but there are rumblings this year that owner Cleveland Cliffs has plans to reopen it. 

“In recent discussions with Cleveland-Cliffs Michigan Operation, we were made aware that there will be a pretty significant (iron ore) pellet shortage in the market this coming year," said state Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) last month. "It is my understanding that Cliffs is still in negotiations regarding possible partnerships to reopen the Empire Mine. If successful, they will move ahead with the other main factors they need in conjunction with the state of Michigan and major energy corporations to make the possibility of reopening the Empire Mine a reality. The Marquette Iron Range and the jobs they bring to our region are undeniably some of the most critically important, high-paying jobs that legislators need to fight to bring back and sustain."

There are petition drives in place to urge both the reopening and the continued closure of the Empire Mine.

Retaskie said there are several other examples of the U.P.'s natural resources creating jobs now and in the future. The Eagle Mine near Big Bay, which employed hundreds of building trades workers earlier this decade, is continuing to produce nickel and copper. Its owner, Lundin Mining Corp. said the mine would supply 1.5 percent of the world's nickel and between 2011 and 2025 will have a direct and indirect impact of $4.3 billion on Michigan’s economy. The mines owner has pledged to restore the land to wilderness once it completes the extraction of minerals. 

In the western U.P.'s Menominee County, current owner Aquila and various past joint venture partners have already invested more than $90 million in the proposed development of the Back Forty gold and zinc mine. Retaskie expressed frustration that at a recent Department of Environmental Quality meeting related to the proposed mine, "there were three of us who spoke in favor of the project and probably 300 who spoke were opposed to it. And of that 300 about 90 percent were from out-of-state. So it's easy to bus people in from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, or the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee to bus them up to protest this."

Other potential problem projects with environmentalists are the proposed $300 million SynSel Energy, Inc. biorefinery in Ontonagon. The plant would use proven, environmentally­ responsible technology to produce clean second-generation biofuels from the area's abundant pulp and waste wood.

And, exploration is ongoing for the proposed $100 million Rexton Project by Graymont, which would initially involve surface limestone quarries and, in the future, an underground mine in mostly undeveloped forests in the eastern Upper Peninsula. 

Retaskie said he doesn't mind being "getting beat up" at meetings, but it would be helpful for more people to speak up in favor of the projects. "There's so much planning that goes into them," he said, "and right now Michigan has the strongest mining law in the United States."