by Gabriel Caplett
Humboldt, Michigan – While a blizzard raged in the eastern part of the county, about 100 citizens attended a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hearing on a mining application for Kennecott-Rio Tinto’s proposed Humboldt Mill project. Comments were starkly divided between those citing perceived job creation as motivation for their support of the project and those concerned about the proposed Eagle Project and potential for water pollution and fugitive dust problems at the site.
The meeting contrasted sharply with hearings held on Rio Tinto’s proposed Eagle Project mine from 2006 to 2007. More than 400 attended one Eagle hearing, with over ninety-percent speaking in opposition to the project.
While not quite the inverse of the Eagle hearings—roughly sixty-percent of public comments were offered in support of the milling project and only about forty public comments were taken—the number in support greatly outnumbered detractors, partly due to the presence of mine company staff and generous amounts of heckling from much of the crowd.
To thunderous applause, one audience member disrupted Big Bay resident and Save the Wild UP (SWUP) director, Kristi Mill’s public comment. The man shouted that discussion of Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine was “not relevant” to the Humboldt hearing. Moderator, James Collins, replied that Mills had time remaining for her comment and that discussion of Eagle was allowed because the two projects “are related”.
Mills had been questioning why the DEQ was using tax payer dollars to consider Rio Tinto’s Humboldt Mill application while the Eagle Project has been “deferred” indefinitely.
According to Marquette resident and part-time SWUP worker, Teresa Bertossi, “With numerous, unresolved issues revolving around approval of the Eagle Project and serious questions as to whether Rio Tinto will ever fully pursue the project at all, why the DEQ is even considering the Humboldt application at this time is baffling.”
Rio Tinto has had a rough few months.
The company has seen a dramatic reduction in its share value as metal prices have plummeted. Nickel, alone, has fallen from over $25 per pound roughly a year ago to less than $5 per pound today. Burdened with roughly $40 billion in debt, the company announced plans last week, to sell nearly one-fifth of the company to the Chinese government-run aluminum company, Chinalco, currently Rio Tinto’s largest shareholder. Kennecott is, currently, a wholly-owned subsidiary of London-based Rio Tinto.
Economy Main Issue at Hearing
A need for additional area employment and economic growth was, by far, the strongest theme during the hearing. Every comment in support of the project cited the need for more jobs without addressing the Humboldt application specifically. Although not a job creation agency, the DEQ was repeatedly urged to approve the project based on the potential for job creation and economic growth.
County commissioner Deb Pellow said that Rio Tinto’s project is “very important to the county’s overall economic diversification and well being.”
“DEQ: do your job and bring us these jobs,” urged Pellow.
Gerald Corkin, chairman of the Marquette County Board of Commissioners, said the mill project would “provide up to fifty to seventy full-time jobs [and] one-hundred to two-hundred construction jobs.”
“There’s the potential to have mining for another hundred years in the UP,” Corkin speculated.
Joe Derocha, Humboldt Township supervisor, said, “Mining was what raised us, brought us here today.”
“More businesses, more jobs, more people create more economic development,” said Derocha.
Tom Peterson, former Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company general manager and current president of Citizens for Responsible Mining offered his support for the project and represented the hearing’s only complaint coming from a Rio Tinto supporter.
“I did not want to see Kennecott do what they did down in Ladysmith at the Flambeau Mine and that is to high-grade a deposit and leave a lot of ore that could be mined,” said Peterson.
According to Jack Parker, former Rock Mechanics Director at the White Pine Mine, Rio Tinto has similar plans for the Eagle ore deposit. According to Parker, the company plans to leave much of the ore behind, taking only the richest available. Parker maintains that, since much of the ore is owned by the people of Michigan, mining only the high and mid-grades and leaving the rest is “not responsible mining”.
DEQ: “Mercury would likely be a major concern to the public” at Humboldt Mill
According to documents obtained through an open records request, the DEQ believes mercury discharges may be a serious issue at the mill site. Mercury is known to bioaccumulate in fish tissue and is considered a serious danger to public health. According to the DEQ, “There are no proven technologies to consistently achieve [a] low level…Mercury would likely be a major concern to the public and environmental groups.”
At the hearing, some local citizens expressed concerns regarding potential water contamination and fugitive dust control problems at the Humboldt Mill.
Robert Rivera, from Iron River, told the DEQ that he is opposed to Rio Tinto’s milling plans that could process ore currently being explored by Prime Meridian Resources, in Iron County, where he has lived most of his life.
“I grew up in a mining family, in a mining town a quarter of a mile from an abandoned and toxic mine site on the Iron River. It has been remediated and remediated again and it still leaches yellow boy,” said Rivera.
Ely Township resident and miner, Stephen Johnson, said that he lives along the Escanaba River. “Since the thirty years I’ve lived here I’ve seen the Middle Branch of the Escanaba deteriorate as a quality watershed,” Johnson said. “We used to have brook trout galore in it some thirty years ago and I’m not aware of anybody catching a brook trout down by my residency in the last fifteen years.”
Johnson commented on Callahan Mining’s Humboldt Mill application in the 1980s and said that he was “not really happy with the way, at that time, the DNR handled the situation. There were a lot of questions we asked that were never answered.”
“My major concern is here what is the DEQ going to do to ensure that the quality no longer deteriorates anymore and what are we doing to bring it back to the level that it was thirty years ago,” said Johnson.
Only a handful of comments in opposition to Rio Tinto’s milling project highlighted concerns directly related to aspects of the company’s milling application.
Chuck Brumleve spoke on behalf of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and raised concerns regarding water inflow through bedrock surrounding the tailings pit. According to Brumleve, “the applicant seems to treat the pit as if it’s a sealed pool or container for sulfide tailings.”
“There is a whole body of current information by the Canadians and the [Environmental Protection Agency] that indicates surrounding rock considerations are the primary consideration in safe tailings disposal, which is not addressed by the applicant in this mining permit application,” said Brumleve.
Brumleve also addressed the need to clean-up existing mining contamination at White Pine, the Keweenaw Copper district and the Empire and Tilden mines before new mining projects are permitted.
Brumleve urged Rio Tinto supporters to “think of the next seven generations and not of your level of affluence here in today.”
Big Bay resident, Cynthia Pryor, raised concerns that construction plans for a protective berm were not included in the Humboldt application and that the plan lacks adequate contingency plans for such events as an “absolute berm failure”.
“It’s very difficult to give public comment on something that’s not included in the application,” said Pryor.
Defending the DEQ
Even the DEQ’s Office of Geological Survey Director, Hal Fitch, took his turn at the microphone to respond to this writer’s public comment on DEQ malfeasance regarding the handling of Rio Tinto’s Eagle Project application. Fitch also defended his role in forming a non-profit corporation with Kennecott and Bitterroot Resources while the Eagle Project application was under agency consideration.
The Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA) was formed by the DEQ in 2007, with Fitch as president. Meetings were held in the DEQ’s Lansing office building and were attended by paid DEQ and DNR staff. Company representatives expressed an interest in utilizing federal and state grants to fund NMGRA projects.
In an October 2007 e-mail, Fitch acknowledged “that there would be a problem with a state agency forming a corporation” but “came up with an innovative way to address the problem: formation of a non-profit corporation that is not a part of any state agency, but in which OGS is a participating member.”
Hal Fitch resigned from the NMGRA’s board in Fall 2008.
At the Humboldt hearing, Fitch defended his actions: “To suggest that somehow I’m corrupt because I tried to organize a system where we could get the users to pay for something we’re mandated to do, I don’t think that’s very responsible.”
Fitch also defended the actions of DEQ employee Joe Maki, who testified under oath during a recent contested case hearing, that the DEQ did not follow a key provision in Michigan’s new metallic mining law:
“The applicant has the burden of establishing that the terms and conditions set forth in the permit application, mining, reclamation and environmental protection plan and environmental assessment will result in a mining operation that reasonably minimizes actual or potential adverse impacts on air, water and other natural resources and meets the requirements of this act.”
When questioned by a National Wildlife Federation attorney if either he or “the mining team” applied this key section of the new law to their analysis of the Eagle Project application, Maki responded, “I did not, no.”
At the Humboldt hearing, Fitch disagreed, saying, “Joe Maki did not say that we did not, that we disobeyed the law in processing the permit,” said Fitch.
Fitch was presented with a copy of Maki’s court transcript.
Rio Tinto is proposing to produce both nickel and copper concentrates at the Humboldt Mill that would “most likely” be shipped via rail to smelters in Canada. The waste material, containing heavy metals and acid-generating material, would be deposited underwater at the mill site, on top of Callahan’s tailings. The company plans to discharge treated wastewater into wetlands that feed into the middle branch of the Escanaba River.
According to the DEQ, the company must still apply for Air Use, Surface Water Discharge and Inland Lakes and Streams permits before the Humboldt Mill can be used again for mine processing. The DEQ expects to issue a proposed decision in “mid-April.” A new public hearing, addressing all of the required permits would follow.
Citizens are encouraged to send in written comments on the Humboldt Mill mining application. Comments are due to the DEQ by 5:00 pm on Wednesday, March 18.
Letters should be sent to:
Kennecott/Humboldt Mill Comments
DEQ Office of Geological Survey
PO Box 30256
Lansing, MI 48909
Or, by e-mail: