White Pine, Michigan
“Northern Initiatives told us, ‘It’s an honor. We’ve got faith in you.’
That means a lot.” Zach Halkola, COO, PM Power Group
Zach Halkola remembers starting his business plan for the White Pine Refinery when copper was selling for about $2.50 per pound. Now, in 2021, on the cusp of starting 24/7 production at the PM Power Group’s recycling and recovery facility, copper is selling for more than $4 per pound.
“It’s a great time to be in copper,” he laughed.
It’s also a great time to be in recycling and recovery, especially when it comes to rare metals. Where most of us see landfills and junkyards, Halkola, COO of the PM Power Group, sees opportunity. “As we tap into these raw material resources, we find other doors that could open,” he said.
PM Power Group, which started as an energy company, is now running the White Pine Refinery, a move that was made smoother because the refinery’s infrastructure and permits have been continuously in place and maintained. The mine closed in 1997.
That planning and organization also helped them get financing to ramp up their coppery recovery capacity. Northern Initiatives had worked with the PM Power Group before, so when they were ready to bring the Electro Metal Electrowinning (EMEW) pilot plant to full-scale production, Northern Initiatives was on board. “We see it as a triple bottom-line success,” said Elissa Sangalli, president. “We’re supporting people, planet and the economy.”
A federal grant backing the loan requires the project create or retain a minimum of 35 jobs, 75% to be filled by low-income individuals. PM Power Group currently has four union employees, 11 salaried employees and one contractor. “We’ve sustained what we had,” Halkola said, and he hopes to hire four more in the spring to round out Phase 1.
The expansion relies on two new boilers, which are close to being fully installed. “Once the boilers are in, we can move to 24/7 production,” Halkola said.
The plant didn’t have to shut down for COVID because copper is considered an essential product and “the site is the size of multiple football fields, so social distancing is easy,” he said. They staggered lunch times and break times and office staff worked remotely. “All things considered, us Yoopers, we’re resilient,” Halkola said.
“Essentially what we’ll be doing is taking environmental waste and creating pure copper cylinders for sale into the market,” said Halkola.
They divert it from landfills by buying from scrap brokers, working through the Michigan Materials Marketplace, and regional and U.S. brokers. They are also working on a feasible way to extract copper from the stamp sands near Gay, Michigan, on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
But Halkola also sees opportunity in recovery and recycling of more than copper. “What do we have that hits the trash that shouldn’t?” Because of a drop in the amount of waste China is recycling, there’s been an increase in e-waste, among other things.
As for the $4+/pound copper, “we’re able to sell every pound we produce,” Halkola said. The future looks bright too. As more electric cars are built, “the amount of copper needed is going to skyrocket.”
Northern Initiatives’ Sangalli is also enthusiastic about the future. “We’re helping build a robust local economy in Ontonagon County that will have a sustainable impact,” she said. As a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in Michigan, Ontonagon County is in desperate need of jobs.
The $700,000 grant is from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of Community Services, as a part of their Community Economic Development (CED) Program.
PM Power Group