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White Pine Mine Reopening Raises Hopes for Economic Rebirth

November 14, 1985

WHITE PINE, Mich. (AP) _ Workers are preparing equipment to dig ore from the White Pine copper mine for the first time in three years, giving Northwestern Michigan’s mine region hope of an economic rebirth.

The promise of 1,000 jobs - even at sharply reduced wages - makes the mine an industrial giant in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, where 319,000 residents occupy an area the size of Connecticut and Maryland combined.

″Finally, people are walking around with smiles on their faces,″ said Roy Gotham, administrative secretary for the Ontonagon County Economic Development Corp.

The mine closed amid a strike by the United Steelworkers union. Now, the union is a part-owner.

One smiling face belonged to Clayton Aigola, a 54-year-old miner from Ironwood who was called back to work last month, three years to the day after he was laid off when the mine closed in 1982.

Aigola, who was getting machinery ready 2,200 feet down in the mine, said Thursday that his family, which includes seven children, lived on unemployment benefits and a small strike bonus from his union during the layoff.

″You couldn’t do the things you wanted to do,″ he said. ″I did a lot of golfing, but there was a lot of disappointment.″

Communities around the mine are anticipating the end to disappointment.

″We’ll see small businesses start to put more inventory on their shelves. We’ll see more businesses develop here and improve the quality of life of those of us who are already working,″ Gotham said.

The closing of the White Pine mine in 1982 put 3,000 people out of work. Unemployment in the region rose from 11 percent to more than 30 percent the next year, and last year climbed above 40 percent after the smelter and refinery at the mine shut down.

In June, the county’s jobless rate was 22 percent, the highest in Michigan.

Workers at the mine this week were preparing to resume production under new owners: the Copper Range Co. and the United Steelworkers.

The Steelworkers own 70 percent of the reopened mine, and Copper Range has negotiated a contract calculated to make it profitable, eventhough copper prices are lower now than when the mine closed.

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 the company and the union.

Miners will work under an incentive system that includes bimonthly pay for above-average production, profit-sharing and an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. In all, company officials estimate that workers can push their average earnings, with benefits to $11.90 per hour.

Hourly wages and benefits were about $21 when the mine closed, the company said.

Company 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.

Copper Range, owned by two former White Pine mine managers, bought the mine last week from Echo Bay Mining Co. of Edmonton, Alberta, with a $32.5 million purchase and start-up package of bank loans, union money, state aid and the promise of future silver output.

Company vice president Michael Dunn said 100 miners would be on the payroll by the end of this week, and the mine would likely begin production in late November.