MARQUETTE — On Thursday, a nonprofit corporation set up by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) regulators and mining industry executives, the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA), will appear in Circuit Court in Marquette claiming that it is not a public body and therefore is not subject to public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act in response to requests for financial information.
In 2008 high-ranking State officials directly charged with enforcing mining safety and environmental regulations formed the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association as a ‘non-profit’ corporation while Rio Tinto was in the process of planning and constructing Eagle Mine. The NMGRA Board of Directors features Rio Tinto and Bitterroot Resources mining executives in addition to DEQ officials.
The Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association is intended to fund and operate a “core shed” — a warehouse dedicated to storing mineral core samples which is a function of the Office of Geologic Survey according to Michigan law. As a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, the contributions the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository received from individuals and corporations, including over $32,000 from Rio Tinto in 2012, are fully tax-deductible.
While Rio Tinto executives assisted in the formation of the NMGRA with state regulators, Rio Tinto constructed a 10 megawatt substation — 400% the power previously existing in Big Bay — to electrify a core shed adjacent to the Eagle Mine site. Once the power infrastructure had been installed, the core shed was removed, and Eagle Mine permit was granted a minor modification without due process or public participation.
Jana Mathieu, the attorney suing NMGRA to disclose their financial information said: “The murky facts surrounding the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association exemplify the need for the Freedom of Information Act and the purpose for which it was enacted: to shine a light on the actions of government officials which directly impact the citizens whom they purport to represent.”
Local attorney Michelle Halley, who challenged the Eagle Mine’s permits in court, says the public deserves to better understand the NMGRA’s funding. “The MDEQ’s partnership with corporations demonstrates its inappropriate relationship with the mining industry. The MDEQ’s motto of ‘the industry is our customer and we trust them’ is plain wrong. MDEQ’s job is to regulate the industry, not form partnerships with them — they’ve got it wrong, again,” said Halley.
“It can’t be overstressed how valuable these rock core samples are — to both the mining industry and the State of Michigan. The cores are key to understanding the safety of the proposed mine, the valuation of the proposed mine, and the toxic cocktail of heavy metals that will soon be raining down on Marquette County, when the mine’s exhaust vent stack begins spewing unfiltered mining dust into our clean air. Further, as the TWS is currently permitted, Eagle Mine will discharge over 500,000 gallons of water that will flow into the East Branch of the Salmon Trout River. That’s why, from the beginning, public access to information has been denied, and the core samples have been kept from scrutiny,” said Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. vice president.
“The collaboration with mining executives for the creation of a non-profit in order to accomplish state mandates by a high level state of Michigan manager is classic regulatory capture: when an agency is captured to operate for the benefit of a private entity and no longer functions in the state’s best interests. We must end this regulatory fiasco,” said Jeffery Loman, former federal oil regulator and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal member.
“I find it interesting that NMGRA would bring in the same high-powered downstate law firm on a simple Freedom of Information Act issue that Rio Tinto hired to run interference for the MDEQ in the Concerned Citizens of Big Bay’s administrative law case over the permitting of electric lines for Eagle Mine. It almost makes you think they have something to hide,” said Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, a grassroots group which has been active in monitoring regulatory oversight of Part 632, the legislation governing non-ferrous mining in Michigan.
“It’s in the best interests of Michigan taxpayers and workers that state regulators are doing their jobs of watching the mining industry, not holding hands with its executives. That is why we are also calling for a federal investigation of this so-called nonprofit,” said Margaret Comfort, president of Save the Wild U.P.
On June 8th, Save the Wild U.P. joined with Concerned Citizens of Big Bay and others calling for a federal corruption investigation of the mining industry and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Save the Wild U.P. is a grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s unique cultural and environmental resources.