Analysis: Rio Tinto’s Permit Modifications

By Cynthia Pryor

The main and substantive issue, in the new Air Quality permit application for the Rio Tinto Eagle Mine, is Rio Tinto’s assertions that an air emission control is not required for the Main Air Raise Vent (MVAR). The MVAR is a stack that is 128″ (10.6′) in diameter and 65′ high and is the only vent for all the underground workings for the mine. The emissions will include all those items associated with the development and retrieval of the ore body including blasting, ore handling, truck traffic, diesel fuels, large mine heaters, etc. Rio’s original Air Quality Permit was approved with the inclusion of a Bag House and air filter on this MVAR stack – that would capture 99% of all emissions which would include reactive sulfides resident in and broken loose from this ultramafic massive sulfide ore body.

Rio Tinto has reconfigured their plant so that they have moved the original underground cement batch plant and associated material silos (aggregate, cement) to the surface near Eagle Rock. They say there will be no crushing underground and an ore pass system will not be utilized – therefore reducing sulfide dust and emissions to such a low level that a bag house would no longer be required. In fact they say that a bag house would not even function properly – the emissions are so low. They will instead control all underground dust with water spray from a tank truck and and a hose.

All of Rio’s assumptions are based on modeling programs, heater systems whose emissions are exempt from regulation, and the assertion that will be able to control all dust with water spray from a hose. The DEQ does not require them to have controls on this huge MVAR stack, even though there will be controls on every other emission source at the mine, including an emergency generator. The DEQ does not require any air quality monitoring of the site or of this stack. Emission testing of the stack will only take place when Rio Tinto is producing 1,660 tons of ore a day. The DEQ will not require any emission testing during the blasting of adits or production of ore under this tonnage rate. Sulfide, heavy metals, blasting emissions, fuel emissions, etc. will be free flowing into the air on the Yellow Dog Plains with no control, no monitoring, and very limited testing.

The DEQ calls the Yellow Dog Plains an attainment area – which is a geographic area which has air quality below Federal Air Quality Standards. In other words, the air is good on the Plains and Rio has now the ability, under law, to pollute this air until they reach the limit of the air quality standard set by the EPA. Their models show that they can do this at 91% of the attainment level. That leaves 9% left for someone else to pollute to get them at a Saginaw, Detroit Chicago level of Air Quality. These emissions are only representative of the mine area itself. All diesel emmisons and fugitive dust from the transportation of the ore on public roads are not included in this emission standard calculation. The DEQ says they have no regulatory oversight of public roads. Nor do they have oversight of the underground workings to prove they can make their claims of low emissions. That is someone else who takes care of that (Mine Safety and Health – MSHA) . The DEQ is only concerned with what comes out of the stack and Rio’s models say they can do it and that is all the proof they need until they do their first production emissions test.

From the beginning, the State of Michigan has recognized that non-ferrous sulfide mining is different and that sulfides, from metallic sulfide mines, released into the environment and coming into contact with air and water can cause Acid Mine Drainage and damage to our land, our waters and our communities. The DEQ Air Quality staff do not seem to see any danger to the Salmon Trout River which flows a mere 150′ from this stack. They have required no impact assessment of the Yellow Dog watershed, nor an impact statement to Eagle Rock – the KBIC sacred site within the fence of this mine. They see no danger to the community of Big Bay and it’s peoples, lake and streams who are an immediate few miles downwind from the Eagle Mine.

Our job is to ask for proof that their models are correct – by demanding air quality monitors at the site that run 24/7 for the life of the mine.
We must also demand that Rio Tinto keep the promise that they made in their original permit (made as a result of public comment and pressure!) to put an air filter on the main polluting source at the site – the MVAR stack. “PROMISES KEPT” is Rio Tinto’s main motto. Let us make them hold to that promise.


2 thoughts on “Analysis: Rio Tinto’s Permit Modifications

  1. It is impossible for any model to be correct (accurate) because they did not properly account for the proximity of people who are at or near Eagle Rock engaged in worship. The State of Michigan has resisted – even denied in Court that Eagle Rock has any historical use by Indians. This is a lie – period. Currently, the evidence is clear that both Indian and non-Indian people have spent time at Eagle Rock. Rio Tinto would have documented these activities as they facilitated these visits. But there is also a near 24-hour presence in close proximity to Eagle Rock by people who are engaged in spiritual activities. This will only increase as many people, both Indian and non-Indian, correctly believe that only through connection with the Great Spirits can a cave in or other catastrophic event be avoided.

  2. CLEAN AIR ACT REGULATIONS – YOU CAN BE A REGULATOR AND DO A BETTER JOB THAN THE STATE OF MICHIGAN BY READING THIS: The Clean Air Act (CAA) provides for the regulation of hazardous air pollutants, contains an acid deposition control program, a program to protect visibility in national parks and wilderness areas, and a stratospheric ozone protection program. Unfortunately, the USDA/USFS who were willed the McCormick Wilderness have failed to pay any attention to the threat of Rio Tinto’s Eagle operations to the visibility in the MCCormick Wilderness area. If they were paying any attention – like we are, they would know that the CAA has a “Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality Program (PSD) and Protection of Visibility
    in National Parks and Wilderness Areas.” The PSD program provides for preconstruction review of the control technology and air quality impacts associated with new and modified major stationary sources. This preconstruction review is implemented through a permit process, and affected sources are prohibited from beginning construction unless a permit has been issued addressing PSD requirements. The PSD program applies to new and modified major stationary sources in areas designated as attainment or unclassifiable. Areas designated attainment or unclassifiable are areas that either meet the NAAQS or for which there is insufficient information to reach a conclusion about their air quality status. These areas are commonly referred to as clean air areas or PSD areas. Since all areas of the country meet at least one of the NAAQS, all states are required to have a PSD program for areas within their jurisdiction. EPA administers PSD programs for states that have failed to submit approvable programs. All PSD areas are categorized or designated as either class I, II or III. The classification of an area determines the corresponding maximum allowable increases of air quality
    deterioration (increments). Only a relatively small increment of air quality deterioration is permissible in class I areas and consequently these areas are afforded the greatest degree of air quality protection. An increasingly greater amount of air quality deterioration is allowed in class II and III areas. In all instances the NAAQS represent the over arching air quality ceiling that may not be exceeded,
    notwithstanding any allowable increment. New and modified major stationary sources under the PSD program must apply best available control technology (BACT) for each pollutant subject to regulation under the Act. Another fundamental aspect of the PSD program is an air quality analysis which calls for an assessment of a proposed source’s compliance with allowable increments of air quality deterioration and the NAAQS.
    The PSD program provides an additional layer of special protection for federal class I areas. Mandatory federal class I areas are national parks greater than 6000 acres in size, national wilderness areas greater than 5000 acres in size and other areas specified in section 162(a) of the CAA. The McCormick Wilderness is 17,000 acres making it a Federal Class I area. These federal class I areas are mandatory in that they may not be redesignated as any other classification. While all other PSD areas in the country were initially designated as class II areas federal lands not already designated as class I areas under section 162(a) of the CAA – may be re-designated as class I areas.
    A purpose of the CAA is to protect and enhance the quality of ambient or outside air. EPA establishes national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for the protection of public health (primary standard) and welfare (secondary standard) under sections 108 & 109. Welfare includes effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, manmade materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, and climate, damage to and deterioration of property, and hazards to transportation, as well as effects on economic values and on personal comfort and well-being. EPA has established NAAQS for six pollutants: sulfur oxides, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter, and lead. The NAAQS represent the maximum ambient levels of these pollutants that are allowed in any area of the country. Mining and mineral processing activities are most likely to cause significant emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and lead.
    The primary NAAQS for sulfur oxides measured as sulfur dioxide are 0.03 ppm, annual mean, and 0.14, maximum 24-hour concentration. The secondary NAAQS is 0.5 ppm, maximum 3-hour concentration. The primary and secondary NAAQS for particulate matter, measured as particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of ten micrometers or less (PM-10), are 150 micrograms per cubic meter, 24-hour average concentration, and 50 micrograms per cubic meter, annual mean. The primary and secondary NAAQS for lead is 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter, mean calendar quarter. Look carefully at the levels Rio Tinto estimates they will discharge – you’ll see that these regulators have grossly failed to do their jobs.