White Pine Mine Reopening Raises Hopes For Economic Rebirth
WHITE PINE, Mich. (AP) _ Equipment is rumbling to life at the White Pine copper mine and awakening new hope for the Upper Peninsula’s slumbering economy.
″Finally, people are walking around with smiles on their faces,″ said Roy Gotham, administrative secretary for the Ontonagon County Economic Development Corp.
One smiling face was Clayton Aijala, 54, a miner from Ironwood who was called back to work last month, three years to the day after he was laid off when the White Pine mine closed in 1982.
Aijala, preparing machinery while working 2,200 feet below ground level, said Thursday that his family, which includes seven children, survived on unemployment benefits and a small strike bonus from his union during the layoff.
Workers at the mine this week were preparing to restart production under new owners: the Copper Range Co. and the United Steelworkers union. When it is fully operating, White Pine will employ 1,000 people, making it an industrial giant in Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula.
The Steelworkers own 70 percent of the reopened mine, and Copper Range has negotiated a labor contract calculated to make it turn a profit, despite copper prices that are lower now than when the mine closed.
″It was expensive to get the ore out of the ground, the copper as well as the silver, in the past, but now with this grand experiment in cooperation with management and labor ... there is reason to believe that even with low copper prices, the mine can operate and pay its bills,″ Gotham said.
The closing of the 3,000-worker White Pine mine in 1982 propelled the region in the shadow of the Porcupine Mountains into the state’s deepest economic depression.
The mine closed during a Steelworkers strike and when copper prices plummeted to about 80 cents per pound, making it unprofitable to operate.
The region’s unemployment rate rose from 11 percent to more than 30 percent the next year, then peaked at more than 40 percent last year after the smelter and refinery at the mine site stopped operating.
The five-year contract puts the average wage for White Pine miners at $8.50 per hour, about $3 per hour below the average wage for all miners, according to information provided by the company and the union.
″Taking a cut in pay isn’t a pleasant thing, but taking a 100 percent cut in pay (in the form of joblessness) isn’t very pleasant either,″ Copper Range President Russell Wood said Thursday.
The lower pay has not dissuaded 3,130 people from applying for the 1,000 mining jobs scheduled to be filled by next May, Wood said. He also said the lower wages would help keep the mine operating for many years.
Copper Range officials estimate White Pine will yield 60,000 tons of copper and 1.3 million ounces of silver a year at full production. At present spot prices, the copper would be worth about 61 cents per pound, or $73.2 million, and the silver, $6.08 per ounce, or $7.9 million.
Vice President Michael Dunn said the payroll was expected to be 100 miners by this week, with production expected to begin later this month.