Underground pot farm could breathe new life into U.P. mining town

April 23, 2012

WHITE PINE — In 1987, the father of state Rep. Matt Huuki was the last man killed in the White Pine Mine when a conveyor he was working on went awry.

“I woke up to hearing my mother crying,” said Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine, who was 9 at the time.

The accident that killed Einard Huuki, who worked as a mine electrician, shattered a secure world for Huuki, his mother, and his six brothers and sisters. The 1996 closure of the copper mine that once employed more than 3,000 people had a similar impact on the White Pine community.

The Huuki family got through it. And a quarter-century later, White Pine — its schools, hospital and most of its stores closed and its population down to a few hundred — is battered but not beaten, awaiting reinvention. Maybe even if it means growing medical marijuana in the mine where Huuki’s father once worked.

Huuki said he likes the proposal from the mine’s new owner, SubTerra.

A series of significant state and federal approvals would be needed to make it happen, but Brent Zettl, CEO of SubTerra’s Canadian parent company, said he could easily need 200-300 employees if his plans go forward.

Even without medical marijuana, SubTerra, which now employs five, anticipates growth related to other plant-based pharmaceutical research it conducts in the mine, Zettl said.

Others say White Pine’s future lies with its past — not with marijuana or biogenetics, but with copper.

The metal, which sold for slightly more than $1 a pound when the White Pine Mine closed, now fetches nearly four times as much.

The surge in the price of copper and other metals is revitalizing interest in mining. In Gogebic County just to the south, Orvana Minerals has announced plans to mine silver and copper at the Copperwood mine near Ironwood, with production slated for 2014.

No such plans have been announced in Ontonagon County, where the White Pine Mine opened in 1952, but “that’s what we’re hoping for, and it looks like it’s going to materialize,” said Philip Kolehmainen, an area real estate broker and chairman of the Michigan Works! workforce development board.

Growing marijuana in the mine is “a small thing,” and “limited in scope,” Kolehmainen said. “We want to get some jobs here,” and a metal mine would operate “around the clock, seven days a week.”

To Huuki, who chairs the natural resources subcommittee on forestry and mining, it’s not an either-or proposition.

“I don’t see why both can’t go on.”

He has seen how a flexible approach worked in his own life. After his father died, his mother, Sandra Huuki, was 42 and had never worked outside the home.

“No one would have blamed her if she had given up,” but she used her insurance money to go to college and became a registered nurse to support her children, said Matt Huuki, who was elected to the Legislature in 2010.

The vast White Pine Mine — 35 square miles underground — was partly filled with 16 billion gallons of fresh water after it closed. That was a way of preventing the mine from filling with salt water from a nearby stream, Zettl said. SubTerra has access to about 100 acres in the upper parts of the mine, which were left dry.

The expense of pumping and treating the water makes it too costly to resume mining in the existing White Pine footprint, Zettl said.

But Kolehmainen and Huuki said there are ways to tap into the same ore vein while avoiding the water and that such an approach could bring copper mining back to the area.

Talk of renewed mining at White Pine generally gets a more positive reaction from residents than underground farming of marijuana, which draws skepticism or nervous laughter.

Brandi Steiner, a personal fitness trainer who grew up in White Pine and works in nearby Ontonagon, said she welcomes either development to give her children, ages 15 and 17, at least the option to stay in the area.

Steiner, 35, remembers growing up in a booming town attending the only area school that had a swimming pool.

“Once the mine closed, it became more like a ghost town,” she said.

By Paul Egan

Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau