Copper Range Company and the White Pine Mine

June 14, 2021
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The History of the White Pine Mine

 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 described the Copper Range’s White Pine Mine with the following statement on page 2 outfits report:

Ontonagon County, Michigan. The company’s mill and smelter are six miles south of Lake Superior.  The facility’s tailings impoundments extend north from the mill toward Lake Superior, with the downstream end of one impoundment located 2.5 miles from the lake and which empties into the Mineral River. “
“The surface area owned by the Copper Range Company covers approximately 64,000 acres; surface facilities include approximately 360 acres.  The underground mine covers an area of about 25 square miles extending from the surface to a maximum depth of 2,700 feet.  Basic facility operations include underground mining, underground primary crushing, above-ground secondary and tertiary crushing, grinding in rod and ball mills, flotation, filtering, drying, smelting, and electrolytic refining.”

Purchase of Mine Site by Copper Range Company From the Calumet and Hecla

The natural resources of the White Pine orebody, contained in the Nonesuch formation, was discovered in 1865 and first mined from 1879 to 1881.  More development by the owner, Calumet and Hecla, led to additional mining (operating from 1913-1920).   The White Pine townsite was then established.  In 1920, a drop in copper prices closed the mine.  This led to Copper Range Company’s purchase of the property in 1929 at a sheriff’s sale (Copper Range Co. Undated).

Development of the White Pine Mine and New Owner

Copper Range Company tested the previously thought worthless chalcocite, which had been passed over in favor of mining native copper and realized that they could now mine the chalcocite and mill it for a profit. Copper Range Company secured a $63 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and began construction of the new “White Pine” project in March 1952. They then started mining their first ore a year later.  In January 1955, The Copper Range Company generated its first copper product.  In 1977, the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company purchased the Copper Range Company.  The new owners built a state-of-the-art refinery, costing $78 million.  They completed the new construction in 1981 (Copper Range co. Undated).

Ownership of the mine keeps changing hands

Due to the poor copper prices in the commodity market, a gradual shutdown of the White Pine operation took place. By 1982, the mine, mill, and most of the smelter closed down.  However, Louisiana Land and Exploration Company continued smelter operations and produced copper from scrap material until 1984.  The Company then shut down completely all operations. (Copper Range Co. Undated)

It was in 1983 that three officers of Copper Range Company began negotiating with Louisiana Land on the possible re-purchase of the White Pine mine. Before completing these negotiations, a competitor, Echo Bay Mines, Ltd., purchased the White Pine mine operation in January 1985. The three officers then continued the talks with Echo Bay Mines, Ltd.  The talks were successful, and the three officers then formed the new “Copper Range Company.”  The new Copper Range Company began operations at the new White Pine began in November 1985 (Copper Range Co. Undated).

In May 1989, Metall Mining Corporation, a Canadian-based international mining company with interests in copper ore, zinc, lead, gold, and silver, purchased Copper Range Company. (Copper Range Co. Undated).  According to the EPA report of January 1, 1992, Metall owned 88 percent of the mine, and White Pine employees through their Employee Stock Ownership Plan owned the other 12 percent.  According to the Plan’s conditions, the White Pine employees would eventually own a maximum of 20 percent of the mine (Skillings’ Mining Review 1992). After three more years of mining with no profit, Inmet closed the mining operation in 1995.  Many issues contributed to the lack of profit, including lowering copper prices, general deterioration of the mining machinery, and according to one report, the pillars began to fail.  The employees attempted to wrap the pillars with conveyor belts and ropes to stabilize them.  (Mine Site, 1992)

Final efforts then moved to close the mine down. The Corporation hired engineers to oversee the shutting-down process. This remediation process continues to the present and is involved in several future plans for the mine itself.

The final ownership of Copper Range Company occurred in 2013 when First Quantum Minerals Ltd. of Canada purchased Inmet Mining, which owned Copper Range Company. Copper Range Company then became a wholly-owned subsidiary of First Quantum Minerals Ltd. Future ownership is pending with yet another owner.

In May 2014, Highland Copper Company completed the interim closing of the acquisition of the White Pine copper project from Copper Range Company ("CRC"). This subsidiary is responsible for environmental obligations associated with the remediation and closure plan of the mine site and replacing the related environmental bond.  When Copper Range Company completes its obligation, Highland Copper Company of Canada intends to purchase White Pine Mine North from First Quantum Minerals Ltd. Of Canada. (Highland 2020)

The White Pine Refinery continued in operation until 2010 when it too shut down its operation.  An article in S&P Global Platts in 2014 gave this explanation for its closing.  “The refinery closed four years ago after HudBay Minerals retired its 80-year-old copper smelter in northern Manitoba. HudBay had shipped raw copper ore to the refinery to be converted into finished metal.”

Employment at White Pine Mine

In 1974, the high employment mark of 3,140 people at the mine was reached.  Many of the copper miners lived at far away as Houghton and Calumet.  The employment at the mine in 1991 was 1,110, and, at the time of the EPA visit in May 1992, 1,070 employees worked at the facility (600 of whom worked underground).  The mine facilities operated 24 hours per day, seven days per week.  Primary mining activities were conducted on all shifts, blasting occurred between shifts, and the day shift conducted most of the support. (Mine Site, 1992).

Copper Production

The White Pine property between 1955 and 1988 produced a total of 3.3 billion pounds of copper.  In 1989, White Pine produced approximately 46,000 tons of cathode copper and one million ounces of silver. A study in 1988, according to Copper Range Company personnel, reported the mine had ore reserves of approximately 40 years remaining.  However, this estimate was dependent on copper prices. (Mine Site, 1992)

Highland Copper became interested in the White Pine Mine area in 2017 and reported in their feasibility report of 2020, “Production from 1954-1995 was 198,070,985 tons containing 4,529,599,418 pounds of copper for an average grade of 1.17% Cu. The final operating depth of the mine was 760 meters.”

Geology of White Pine Mine's Copper Ore

The White Pine Mine’s copper deposit in Ontonagon County, Michigan, is the largest known copper-shale deposit in the United States.  The copper-shale deposit lies in the belt of copper mineralization which extends a distance of more than 100 miles from Mellen, Wisconsin, to the eastern-most edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The Middle and Upper Keweenawan rock sequences underlay Ontonagon County.  All the mineral deposits in the Keweenaw sequences are of Late Precambrian time.

The Middle Keweenawan sequence is comprised of three parts:

  • The lower part, a thin series of interbedded sandstones, shales, and marls;
  • The middle part, composed of volcanic rocks with thin interbedded clastic sediments having a total thickness greater than 30,000 feet and;
  • The upper part (known as the Portage Lake Lava Series) comprises permeable lava flows and conglomerates with a thickness of approximately 20,000 feet.

The Upper Keweenawan sequence overlies the Portage Lake Lava Series and is divided into three significant formations,

  • The Freda Sandstone Formation
  • The Nonesuch Shale Formation
  • The Copper Harbor Conglomerate.(Mine Site, 1992)

New Life for the White Pine Mine: Mining Tobacco

Mark Pierpont, Controller, and Scott Grossenback, General Managerof SubTerra, published an article in BioTech Magazine which stated:

“Imagine working 200 feet underground, as the early miners did years ago, in the copper mine located in White Pine, Michigan. This experience does not have to be left to the imaginations of the employees of SubTerra, but they are not mining in the abandoned copper mine-they are working in America's newest growth chamber. SubTerra, in conjunction with Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has converted an underground mine into a sophisticated, biosecure growth chamber for the production of transgenic biopharmaceuticals. It is the blending of agriculture, mining, and pharmacy that creates this new opportunity.
“The White Pine copper mine suffered the same fate as many mines. Located near Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the cost of mining rose as the ore body deepened. The mine itself is constructed in room and pillar design, with a floor-to-ceiling height of 8 to 10 feet. The rock formation is primarily shale and the temperature stays at 48 degrees regardless of the seasons, and the seasons in northern Michigan are dramatic! Precisely the features which helped close this mine in 1995 are now perfect elements for accelerated plant growth.”

In December 2000, Dan Roblee, a Gazette Writer, wrote an article which appeared in SubTerra News that

“SubTerra controller Mark Pierpont said SubTerra is currently using its 2,000 square-foot White Pine growth chamber to grow 1,000 tobacco plants for a smaller Health Canada contract. Health Canada will use the plants, which have been genetically altered to produce cancer-fighting compounds, for bone marrow cancer research.”
According to SubTerra’s website, “SubTerra is a Michigan registered operating company, with office facilities at the White Pine Industrial Park, in White Pine, Michigan. Prairie Plant Systems Inc., the acting parent company, owns the majority of the company.”

But there is yet more to the story. On August 27, 2014, Keweenaw Report released the following information:

“The White Pine power plant and copper refining facility have been sold. Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, finalized terms of the purchase of the Traxys Power Group on Monday. Prairie Plant’s purchase also includes Upper Peninsula Power Marketing, which buys and sells energy across the electrical grid. The new White Pine entity will be known as P.M. Systems. Prairie Plant did not purchase the L’Anse Warden plant, which was also part of the Traxys Power Group. L’Anse Village Manager Bob LaFave says he understands a purchaser has been found for Warden, and that a closing may take place around the end of the year. Prairie Plant Systems owns SubTerra, which uses underground space in the old White Pine Mine to grow plants used in biomedical research and pharmaceutical production. Prairie Plant President and CEO Brent Zettl said the purchase will secure power for their facility in the face of an uncertain future for electrical production in the Upper Peninsula. News of the White Pine transaction came as the Carlyle Group and investor Louis Bacon completed their purchase of the Traxys Group… which had owned Traxys Power Group.”

New Life for the White Pine Mine: Power Plant,Refinery, Marketing

According to Jan Tucker, in an article that appeared in the Daily Globe, August 26, 2014, reported that Prairie Plant Systems, which bought the White Pine Power Plant and Copper Refining facility, will be making significant improvements to the White Pine Power Plant, which continues to operate.

Prairie Plant Systems, owners of SubTerra in White Pine, said it has completed its purchase of the Traxys Power Group Inc., which includes the White Pine Power Plant, White Pine Copper refinery, and Upper Peninsula Power Marketing LLC.
Brent Zettl, president and CEO of Prairie Plant Systems, will be president of all three groups, while Steve Walsh, president of TPG Power Holdings, the former owner of TPG, will be CEO of White Pine Electric and Upper Peninsula Power Marketing.
White Pine Electric Power is a 40-megawatt natural gas generating power plant. White Pine Copper Refinery offers refining capacity to produce 85,000 short tons per year of anode quality copper, and Upper Peninsula Power Marketing is an electrical supply broker company that buys and sells onto the power grid.
Tucker goes on in the article to quote Steve Walsh, President of TPG Power Holdings, “the Traxys Group has been at the White Pine Mine for over ten years and recently completed the conversion of the White Pine Power Station from coal-fired to natural gas.”

Tucker also quoted Brent Zettl, President and CEO of Prairie Plant Systems,

“With Michigan's energy policy set to expire in 2015, just as new regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be requiring states to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants, we wanted to ensure that the highly specialized work we do in creating plant-based pharmaceuticals would not be in jeopardy as a result of power outages."
He added, "This strategic acquisition to maintain our own supply of consistent power will ensure that there will be no delay in the development of the drugs in our pipeline."
Zettl said the acquisition by Prairie Plant Systems positions the biotech company as the first to wholly control its own source of energy, primarily to be used in the growth chambers for its U.S. subsidiary.
As a result of the purchase, Praire Plant Systems, the new owner, renamed the entire purchase P.M. Power Group Inc. (Porcupine Mountain Power Group).  It is now the owner of the following assets in White Pine, Michigan:
  • White Pine Electric Power LLC – a 40-megawatt natural gas generating power plant
  • White Pine Copper Refinery Inc. – offering refining capacity to produce 85,000 short tons per year of anode quality copper
  • Upper Peninsula Power Marketing LLC – an electrical supply broker company that buys and sells onto the power grid. (Marketwired, 2014)

The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) of August 16, 2005, reported, “UP Power Marketing LLC is restricted under its alternative electric supplier license to selling retail power to operations at the White Pine Copper Refinery, Inc., in White Pine, Michigan.”  Any further effort to expand their marketing would require additional authorization from the MPSC.

In September 2019, Zack Halkola, chief operating officer of PM Power Group, spoke at the Keweenaw Alliance Breakfast about the White Pine Refinery. He talked about its current copper processing production and potential capabilities.  He reported that they had completed some copper sales to Midwestern Mill.  He outlined a proposed basic plan to refine the tailings of the stamp sands along the Gay-Big Traverse Bay beach.  He stated that PM Power Group was working on a pilot project under a grant from LARA/Rural Development to learn if it was economically feasible to reuse the stamp sands.  He reported that there are about 5 to 7 pounds of copper per ton of stamp sand. (Neese, 2019).

On April 24, 2020, the Duluth News Tribune reported,

“Brent Zetti, president and CEO of Prairie Plant Systems, Inc, and SubTerra LLC, looks at some of their plants on April 4 in a former copper mine used for plant-based pharmaceutical research in White Pine, Mich.  Prairie Plant Systems, Inc., a Canadian biotechnology company that’s been growing plants underground for more than a decade, has a contract to supply medical marijuana in Canada and would need approval from Michigan and federal officials to convert the mine in White Pine to marijuana production.”

The story of the White Pine Mine continues with the future containing many possibilities, including future copper mining.  While the Prairie Plant System of Canada is growing medical marijuana in Canada, it is now seeking to grow marijuana underground at White Pine. It is working with Michigan under its new laws to see if this can become a reality.

Other Investors are also involved in the area.  For one, Highland Copper Company Inc. has completed a feasibility study around the White Pine North project and the UPX Minerals exploration property. Today they are awaiting the completion of Copper Range Company’s remediation obligations. Highland Copper Company’s website has its complete report. Today the White Pine mining area appears to be a long way from becoming another ghost town in the Copper County.

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Biography and References:

Copper Range Company (n.d.).  A Summary of Mine Operations and Flow Sheets. Copper Range Company

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1992. Mine Site Visit: Copper Range Company White Pine Mine. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The purpose of the EPA was to gather data by conducting visits to mine sites to study waste generation and management practices.  Pg 2, 3, and 5 of the 50 page report.  This report can also be found at https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/industrial/special/web/pdf/copper4.pdf

Highland Copper Company (2020) White Pine North Project (100% - subject to closing. Retrieved on 2020, May 27 from https://www.highlandcopper.com/white-pine-north-project

Keweenaw Report (August 27, 2014). White Pine Power Plant Sold; Traxys Sale Completed. retrieved 2020, May 18 from http://www.keweenawreport.com/news/traxys-sale-completed/

Keweenaw Report (October 3, 2017). “Highland Provides Update of Activities.” Retrieved 2020, May 27 from http://www.keweenawreport.com/news/local-news/highland-copper-provides-update-u-p-mine-projects/

Marketwired (2014, August 25). “Prairie Plant Systems Finalizes Purchase of Power Plant and Refinery in White Pine, Michigan.” Yahoo.com.  Retrieved on 2020, May 26 from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/prairie-plant-systems-finalizes-purchase-130000060.html

MICHIGAN PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION (August 16, 2005). Case No. U-14594. State of Michigan. Retrieved 2020, May 27 from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mpsc/u-14594_08-16-2005_567648_7.pdf

Neese, Garrett (2019, September 5). “White Pine exec talks progress.” Daily Mining Gazette.

News@duluthnewstribune (2020, April 24). “Company Wants to Grow Medical Marijuana in old U.P. Mine.”  Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved 2020, May 26 from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/2321623-company-wants-grow-medical-marijuana-old-mine

Pierpont, M. and Grossenback, S. (October/November 2000). Mining Tobacco. BioTech Magazine

Roblee, Dan (December 2000). Company Growing Marijuana Underground. SubTerra News.  Retrieved on 2020, May 18 from SubTerra News website at http://www.subterrallc.com/subtstory1.html

S&P Global Platts ( 2014, Oct. 20)   Owner of idled Michigan copper refinery in talks with potential buyers. Retrieved 2020, May 28 from

https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/metals/102014-owner-of-idled-michigan-copper-refinery-in-talks-with-potential-buyers

Skillings Mining Review - International Mining Magazine (1992, January 11). “Copper Range Increasing Copper Production at White Pine Operation to Highest Level since Its Reopening in 1985.” Pp 24-26

Tucker, Jan (2014, August 26). White Pine power plant, refinery sold: Prairie Plant Systems also buys UP Power Marketing. Your Daily Globe

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