MARQUETTE - Rio Tinto Eagle Mine President Adam Burley said Wednesday, roughly a year into his tenure, that activities centered around the nickel and copper mine on the Yellow Dog Plains are transitioning.
"When I arrived, (it was) very much a construction project and now we're really focusing very much on operations and outgoing concerns and operating business and operating mines," Burley said.
The mining company recently relocated its administrative offices from a building near Lake Bancroft in Ishpeming to the company's Humboldt Mill ore processing plant in Humboldt Township. Work on readying the mill is progressing beyond environmental clean-up and demolition tasks and construction is scheduled to accelerate next year.
Meanwhile, about 90 percent, or 4,500 feet, of the tunnel to the ore body at the Eagle Mine in Michigamme Township has been excavated and all but a couple of surface structures have been erected. Full production at the mine of 2,000 tons per day is scheduled to be reached during the third quarter of 2014.
Burley said the company's vision for the Eagle project is "to build and operate a truly world-class, modern, nickel-copper mine that we are all proud of."
Key objectives for the mining operation are to build and leverage a "developer of choice" reputation, "optimize value" and "deliver growth options."
"It's really within that framework which we make the big strategic decisions around the business," Burley said. "So that reputational piece is important. It's about Eagle Mine being a template for our other operations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world and a real truly world-class example of how we can permit, build, operate, rehabilitate a mine in an environmentally sound and responsible way."
Among the upcoming initiatives created by the company related to its reputation, is a "community score card," which was developed over the past several months and will be discussed at a series of public forums scheduled for five locations this month, beginning Tuesday in Big Bay.
"Through a variety of different forums throughout the course of this year, we've been asking community members what aspects of Eagle Mine's performance are important to you," Burley said. "And we've incorporated that feedback. We've produced a community score card and now we intend, on a regular basis, through community forums to ask the community to basically score us on how they see us performing against those criteria that they told us were important."
Burley said he's "quite excited to see how that develops."
"I think that it really is leading practice, it's aligned with this vision of being world-class," Burley said. "I'm not aware of other examples that really, truly has a community scoring a company's performance in such a transparent manner."
Burley said the company is also working toward an independent environmental monitoring initiative.
"I have a lot of confidence in our design, in our people, in our plans to properly manage Eagle Mine so that it doesn't negatively impact the environment," Burley said. "But I recognize, and I think it's evident, that not everybody shares that confidence and not everybody shares that same degree of trust."
In response, Burley said the mining company is putting in place a "truly independent, arm's length, community" environmental monitoring program.
"It's empowering the community to monitor our environmental performance," Burley said.
Details of the program, which has been developed through discussions over the past few months with the Superior Watershed Partnership and the Marquette County Community Foundation, are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Burley said the company is also looking at providing sustainable development through growth of as many jobs in the area independent of the mining operation as within it.
"Such that when Eagle eventually closes, this parallel economy is being grown which can then benefit the area, benefit the U.P. long after we've left," Burley said. "Again, that's quite a new initiative project that's being put in place called 'Accelerate U.P.' It's managed by community volunteers on a management team and its success is dependent upon existing resources within the community, recognizing that it's a very resourceful community."
Burley said one area the company continues to work to develop, but has "made far less progress," is relations with Native American tribes, primarily the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
"I really personally want to see an improvement in our relationship with Ojibway, especially KBIC," Burley said. "KBIC have told us, and the Ojibway have told us, that they recognize certain rights with respect to the land where Eagle Mine is situated and I really want to find a way where we can reconcile our differences and find a mutually beneficial relationship going forward. We clearly have a lot of work to do in that area, but the intent is very strong and very much exists."
Burley made his comments in an interview with The Mining Journal, prior to a Lake Superior Community Partnership appearance Wednesday at the Waterfront Restaurant in Marquette, which he described as a business update to the community.
"It's really motivated by a year of reflections and looking back at the year and some of the challenges that we faced and some of the accomplishments that we've achieved and really recognizing that we're now going through a transition," Burley said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.