Concerned citizens from across the U.P., residents of Humboldt township, members of the grassroots organization Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP), members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), and others gathered at the Westwood High School in Ishpeming on Tuesday night, to discuss a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit for Eagle Mine’s Humboldt Mill.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) held the Public Hearing to discuss a proposed “reissuance” of an expired NPDES Permit, which originally authorized Eagle Mine’s Humboldt Mill to discharge wastewater into a wetland located between the Humboldt Pit and US-41.
During the hearing, residents raised serious questions and provided critical feedback to the MDEQ. Many believe that draft permit will degrade water quality in the Escanaba River. Unresolved environmental issues plague Humboldt Mill. Tailings produced by Eagle will be deposited into an existing pit, adding to legacy contamination. There is an ongoing investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the mill’s status as a Superfund site. An additional outflow pipe was recently built between the tailings pit and wetlands of the Escanaba River without permits or public involvement. Residents are especially alarmed by increased discharges— 2.8 million gallons per day (MGD), compared with 0.82 MGD in the first permit. The new discharge pipe (“Outfall 002”) will handle 50% of that discharge.
“As we learned at the State hearing Tuesday night, in addition to problems like flooding the private property of nearby residents, MDEQ’s proposed NPDES permit for discharges at the Humboldt Mill is inconsistent with federal law and it fails to protect the Escanaba River Watershed that once was cherished fishing ground,” said former federal offshore oil regulator and KBIC tribal member Jeffery Loman. “I intend to hold the EPA accountable for these failures. The EPA is responsible for overseeing the Clean Water Act and they are the trustee for treaty-protected tribal resources at stake here.”
During the hearing, Steve Casey, MDEQ’s District Supervisor of Water Resources, seemed uncertain as to why baseline environmental assessment were needed for a wetland receiving NPDES discharges, or why “additive impacts” (such as legacy pollution of wetlands and sediment scouring) must be calculated before a NPDES permit is granted. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Agencies have an obligation to evaluate waters in terms of how they interrelate and function as ecosystems rather than as individual units, especially in the context of complex ecosystems where their integrity may be compromised by environmental harms that individually may not be measurably large but collectively are significant.”
“The MDEQ was obviously unprepared for the level of precision shown in the commentary at this public hearing. But our community has been tirelessly committed to protecting our land and water from mining interests for more than ten years now. We know that regulators aren’t enforcing the rules and are instead relaxing them to benefit multinational mining companies — threatening our clean water as well as our democratic process,” said Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP’s Interim Director.
Residents voiced concerns over numerous changes (deemed “Insignificant Changes” by MDEQ staff) which have allowed Eagle Mine to radically change plans for Eagle Mine and Humboldt Mill, violating Michigan’s Nonferrous Mining Regulations. Under Part 632, Eagle’s permits require amendment. There was no public input or environmental impacts assessment for construction of a pipeline terminating at the newly-constructed “Outfall 002” — this significant structure and related wetland impacts were deemed “insignificant” — yet the draft NPDES permit will authorize use of the outfall, a clear violation of due process. The public was not notified when the location of Humboldt’s Water Treatment Plant (WTP) was switched, and the draft permit fails to mention the WTP’s treatment capacity, 1.44 MGD. Given the WTP’s design flaws, up to 50% of Humboldt’s wastewater discharges may bypass the treatment plant, sending the mill’s tailings water directly into the environment. “Environmental concerns and due process concerns are one and the same,” said attorney Jana Mathieu.
Richard Sloat was angered by the permit’s failure to require stream monitoring or discharge monitoring. “Water temperature data is not being recorded for the Escanaba River. This pipe will discharge ‘treated or untreated’ waste into that river. There is only one instance of a recorded temperature at the water treatment plant, documented because of a contamination leak in September, when the wastewater temperature reached 78.1 degrees — they want to discharge warm water into the Escanaba River, a cold-water fishery, in September?!”
“I find it outrageous that MDEQ and Eagle Mine failed to consider the environmental impacts of increased discharges — 240% more! — authorized by this permit!” said Kathleen Heideman, SWUP president. “No baseline information was provided, either for the wetland or the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. Eagle Mine’s original permit failed to evaluate these sites, and now they want to dump wastewater into unassessed ecosystems! No wetland hydrology or biology data was included in the draft permit, so there’s no way to calculate the risks, and the certain degradation that will result.”
Water quality will clearly be undermined by this permit, a violation of the Clean Water Act, but Eagle Mine is seeking an exemption in its Antidegradation Demonstration, stating that the lowering of water quality is necessary for “important social and economic development in the area” — however the Humboldt Township Board announced during Tuesday night’s hearing that they were unanimously opposed to the permit. Concerned citizens and representatives of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) raised objections to Eagle’s Antidegradation Demonstration, collectively requesting updated and comprehensive proof of the social and economic benefits.
Residents are concerned about the enormous increase in discharge — from 0.82 to 2.8 million gallons per day (MGD). Both mass limits and concentration limits for pollutants have been increased, allowing more pollution of wetlands, and the Escanaba River. The first NPDES permit allowed discharge from only a single pipe (“Outfall 001”).
Pollutant limits are substantially increased for multiple parameters, according to the draft NPDES permit. Below are two tables showing increased limits for quantity (Figure 1) and increased limits for concentration (Figure 2):
Attorney Michelle Halley, who has worked extensively on Eagle Mine issues, said, “This NPDES permit allows discharges to the Escanaba River that do not protect the fishery. Because of that, it violates the Clean Water Act.”
“It is important to remember that ore being processed at the Humboldt Mill comes from Eagle Mine, containing valuable copper and nickel — along with dangerous sulfides, salts, and a long list of toxic metals,” said Maxwell. Water monitoring at Eagle Mine has documented more than 100 exceedances of groundwater discharge limits since the permit was issued in 2007, including serious exceedances of arsenic, copper, lead, molybdenum, silver, and vanadium — and uranium levels in water at the Eagle Mine facility have risen to 103 ug/L, more than 3 times higher than the EPA’s Maximum Concentration Level. Since uranium monitoring was not included in Eagle Mine’s permit, the mine claims that no permit violation has occurred.
To protect aquatic life, conservative water quality standards should be calculated for all potential contaminants. The draft NPDES permit fails to list limits for many contaminants, including: Aluminum, Antimony, Barium, Boron, Calcium, Chromium, Fluoride, Iron, Lithium, Magnesium, Molybdenum, Potassium, Silver, Sodium, Thallium, Tin, Titanium, Strontium, Sulfate, Vanadium, and Uranium.
“The problem really boils down to a regulatory process focused on permitting rather than preventing pollution,” said Steve Garske, SWUP Board member and western U.P. resident. If contaminants are present in the ore from Eagle Mine, it is reasonable to expect they will also be present in Humboldt Mill’s tailings. It is unclear why discharge limits at the mill do not reflect known contaminants from the mine, and all legacy contaminants previously found in testing of the Humboldt site.
At the hearing, MDEQ’s Steve Casey provided a brief update on Eagle Mine’s Groundwater Discharge Permit, which was considered deeply flawed by concerned citizens. Casey acknowledged Eagle’s ongoing vanadium exceedances, shared some theories as to why contaminant levels might be increasing in the groundwater — and confirmed that MDEQ has still not approved Eagle Mine’s Groundwater Discharge Permit, which expired two years ago. “You cannot understand the impacts of this endeavor until you understand the water,” said Cynthia Pryor, watershed resident and longtime community watchdog. “Neither the mining company nor MDEQ understand how hydrogeology functions at the Eagle Mine and at the Humboldt Mill.”
Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) was notified early Saturday morning (December 13th, 2014) by a concerned citizen that one of Eagle Mine’s ore trucks had overturned. The truck, hauling double trailers and fully loaded, was heading southbound on County Road 550 near Wetmore Landing.
Eagle Mine spokesman Dan Blondeau sent out a reassuring email on Saturday morning, in which he stated, “The load was contained and the truck was out of the way of traffic.” But Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP’s Interim Director, observed that “ore had spilled from the overturned truck, and the tarp of the second trailer was torn open.” Photographs from Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve document the spilled ore. Maxwell watched as crews working with heavy equipment and wreckers tried to raise the second trailer of the damaged ore truck. Their efforts closed CR 550 to traffic in both directions for more than an hour; later visits by Save the Wild U.P. confirmed that the road was closed most of the afternoon, blocking traffic until at least 5pm.
Eagle Mine stated, “Any potential impacts to the environment are being mitigated by Trimedia.” According to Maxwell, however, workers on the scene “were occasionally stooping over to pick up rocks from the ditch by hand, and tossing them into a container. Was that their mitigation plan? One worker was carrying a shovel, others were standing around two closed cardboard boxes, presumably containing environmental mitigation supplies. No plastic barriers were placed in the ditches — although snow was melting.”
Save the Wild U.P. has long raised concerns about Eagle Mine’s lack of a transportation plan, as required by Michigan’s Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Regulations, Part 632. Under Rule 103, “Mining Activity” clearly includes transportation of ore, and Rule 203 states: “The mining, reclamation, and environmental protection plan (…) shall include, at a minimum, (xviii) roads, railroads, docks, piers, and other transportation infrastructure, and provisions to prevent release of contaminants to the environment from ore or waste rock during transportation.”
According to attorney Michelle Halley, “This accident demonstrates why it is important for the State of Michigan to require Lundin to assess the environmental impacts of all mining activities including hauling ore on the designated transportation route. That analysis is required under Part 632, but to this day the State has failed to apply or enforce it.”
Alexandra Maxwell agrees. “Throughout the process, we’ve seen Eagle Mine ignoring environmental impact assessments while burying infrastructure, building bridges, and funding a paved haul road. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
For Cynthia Pryor, Big Bay resident and longtime environmental advocate, Saturday morning’s accident raises serious safety concerns. “We should reexamine Eagle Mine’s hauling operations. First, vehicles are traveling at excessive speeds. Lundin needs to self-limit these heavily loaded, top-heavy trucks to 45 miles per hour, from Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill. Second, why are they hauling double trailer loads in winter? Workers at Tilden Mine say they never transport the second pup (trailer) in winter, due to safety concerns.”
Pryor notes that “Eagle Mine’s permit stated the ore would be contained by a hard cover, but they asked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a permit amendment, stating it was easier to load and unload with soft covers. The canvas cover was torn in this accident, and sulfide ore was released into the environment. Finally, how many loads had this driver already hauled? The trucks are running multiple round-trips per day, 24/7. The accident happened at 3:00 am on clear roads. Was the driver properly rested?”
Peter Sheret, a nearby resident, has observed ore trucks and other mine vehicles exceeding the speed limits on a regular basis. “Last Saturday night, as I was heading toward Eagles Nest Road, I met one of these ore trucks just coming down from ‘Passing Lane Hill’. He whizzed past me at the fastest speed I have seen yet. It’s clearly risky.”
SWUP board member Chip Truscon fears such incidents will be repeated. “This isn’t simply metallic ore, it is massive and semi-massive sulfide ore, which turns into sulfuric acid when it hits air and water. And what if Eagle Mine is moving radioactive rock? How do we protect our water?”
Pryor asks, “Why are these trucks not marked clearly ‘Eagle Mine’? All trucks carrying sulfide ore in our community should be clearly marked. We have a right to know that a truck passing our home, business or school is carrying sulfide ore — emergency responders need this information, too.”
SWUP president Kathleen Heideman is outraged. “There’s no way that Eagle Mine could have fixed the problem if that ore truck had overturned on the other side of the road — it would have ended up in Lake Superior! Where’s the emergency plan for that?”
Save the Wild U.P. was formed in 2004 to protect the U.P.’s unique communities, lakes, and lands from the hazards of sulfide mining, which threatens to contaminate the Lake Superior Watershed with acid mine drainage.
We’re delighted to host an informational (and free!) Open House at Java by the Bay in L’Anse, Michigan on Saturday, February 22nd 4-6 pm.
Please come on out to meet SWUP President Kathleen Heideman, SWUP Adviser (and former federal oil regulator) Jeffery Loman, and SWUP Executive Director Alexandra Thebert. They’ll be answering your questions, talking about our plans to protect our lakes, lands, and communities in 2014 — and how you can get involved!
The Daily Mining Gazette | November 6, 2013
By Garrett Neese - DMG writer (email@example.com)
HOUGHTON – Despite the economic benefits of mining, the instability and other drawbacks mean the western Upper Peninsula is better off looking elsewhere for prosperity.
That conclusion was reached by Thomas Power, who presented the results of a recent study on the economic impact of copper mining Tuesday night in the Upper Peninsula. Power, a research professor and former economics department chair at the University of Montana, prepared the report for Friends of the Land of Keweenaw, an environmental advocacy organization.
Power appeared at Michigan Technological University Tuesday as part of its Green Lecture Series.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Thomas Power, a research professor and former economics department chair at the University of Montana, delivers his talk “The Economic Anomaly of Mining: Treasure and Tears” at Michigan Technological University Tuesday night.
In his report, he argues the western U.P. should concentrate on “economic gardening” – supporting start-up and existing businesses – and protecting and enhancing environmental amenities and other “quality of life” assets.
Power said he doesn’t have any animosity toward mining. He came from a metal mining family, and spent the first 18 years of his life falling asleep to the “soft thump” of the Bay View Rolling Mill in Milwaukee. But in many cases, the drawbacks of mining outweigh the positives.
Mining grew popular because of some very real economic benefits: the ability to extract valuable minerals, the high wages for workers – at times, averaging 40 percent higher the average working wage – and the tax revenues for municipalities.
However, any positive impact is tempered by instability, Power said – not just the familiar boom-bust trajectory, but the “flicker.” That occurs as prices in the international metal markets fluctuate, affecting the mine’s profitability. In turn, the mines compensate by reducing the labor force.
“It’s one thing to talk about high wages, but if the high wages are unreliable, the impact of those high wages on the local economy is going to be different than wages people think that they can count on,” Power said.
Technological advances have made mineral extraction more feasible in spots. But the increase in productivity has also reduced the number of employees neede. From 22 workers in 1970, the number needed to produce a thousand megatons dropped to six in 2004, rebounding slightly for unknown reasons to 10 now.
Because the mining job paid better than most of the alternatives laid-off miners are likely to find, they’re more likely to stay around the area and hope to be rehired, Power said.
“They hang on, hoping to be rehired,” he said. “Instead, what they see is more people being laid off.”
The economic benefits to mining are often least felt in the immediate area. Because of their high wages, miners can afford to live in more upscale areas. Often, they don’t want to live near the mine, where environmental degradation or the end of the mine can hurt property values. That potential for instability also discourages investment in local infrastructure, such as schools.
Power didn’t call for an end to mining, but said residents should apply the same kind of cost-benefit thinking mining companies use when they approach projects.
“We have to make choices, and we have to make choices because there are costs as well as benefits,” he said. “What citizens have to do, from a public interest point of view, is to weigh the clear economic benefits associated with mining, but also recognize the potential cost to the community, then make their decision and urge their representatives in government to do the same thing.”
William Keith of Houghton said he hadn’t known miners would commute so far for work.
“I thought it was an engaging presentation,” he said.
Join us on Saturday, December 7th beginning at 7 p.m. for an amazing evening celebrating the wild U.P. at the Marquette Federation of Women’s Clubs.
It’s been an amazing year and we’re honored to celebrate with The Terminal Orchestra, a eclectic collection of strings, percussion and more of contemporary classical musings that capture the U.P.’s unique beauty.
John Stauber, author of “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” joins us as our keynote speaker to inspire and inform a new year ahead. Author of multiple books and founder and former director of Center for Media and Democracy, John first came to the Upper Peninsula in the 80s as an activist, but became active on mining issues following a tour of cave-in grounds in Negaunee and Ishpeming.
With a curated locally-inspired silent auction of art and experiences, hand-selected wines, and hors d’oeuvres featuring local goods, this is an event not to be missed.
Buy your tickets today to reserve your spot for our biggest jubilee yet! All proceeds will kick off our 2014 programs protecting the U.P.’s communities and environment from the hazards of sulfide mining.
Join us on Wednesday, November 20th at 7:30 p.m. at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette to hear the lively tunes of Finnish reggae band extraordinaire Conga Se Menne and the witty and macabre folksinger Sycamore Smith.
BERGLAND — On Sunday, August 18th, the Trap Hills Conservation Alliance (THCA) and Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) hosted an inaugural day of events celebrating the Trap Hills, a rarely-visited scenic area featuring stunning views, at the Bergland Township Park.
Participants traveled from places as near as Wakefield and as far as Big Bay, Houghton, and Duluth for the event. Nearly 30 hikers, ages 5 and up, enjoyed guided hikes on the North Country Trail and the Cascade Falls Trails north of Bergland. Wisconsin folksinger Skip Jones played tunes inspired by nature and labor history as hikers enjoyed a free picnic lunch from local businesses.
Nona Trealoff of SoulsShine in Hudson, Wisc. led a blessings ceremony on the shore of Lake Gogebic prior to the hike. Said Margaret Comfort, president of SWUP, “The Trap Hills are indeed a blessing to behold! We are proud to host this free day of events in conjunction with the Trap Hills Conservation Alliance, as we seek to educate the public and introduce them to the splendor of this truly magical place.”
Two hikes, led by botanist Steve Garske and geologist and retired Ottawa National
Forest wilderness ranger Doug Welker, featured 40-mile views from the edge of a spectacular rock bluff, a trip to Cascade Falls, and a vista that included a 350-foot sheer cliff, the highest in Michigan.
As Welker noted, the Trap Hills are perhaps the most spectacular and fascinating of Michigan’s largely-undiscovered secrets. With high rock bluffs, seemingly endless views, remote and relatively pristine areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, 50 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT), numerous other trails including the Pioneer Multi-use Motorized Trail, and a long historic and prehistoric copper mining history (interpreted at Old Victoria and in area museums), it’s hard to find such a concentration of special places and recreational opportunities anywhere.
“That’s why some of us are working to get the Trap Hills designated as a federal National Recreation Area (NRA), to protect special areas, increase and promote recreational opportunities, and bring more recreation-related dollars into the local economy. Done right, it could be a win-win opportunity for the variety of diverse groups who would have a stake in both developing and protecting this area,” said Welker.
Steve Garske, local botanist and board member of Save the Wild U.P., said, “A Trap Hills National Recreation Area would help protect the beautiful Western U.P. and contribute to a sustainable economy for the region as well.”
SWUP Executive Director Alexandra Thebert agreed. “Many people who live just a few minutes away have never known about the Trap Hills. We’re dedicated to protecting the Trap Hills for future generations — and glad this will include even more hikes, cook-outs, and educational events!”
Assistant Surveyor and SWUP Advisory Board Member Richard Sloat added, “I’ve lived in the Western U.P most of my life, I have visited the Porkies but I had no idea an area of such beauty and geologic diversity as the Trap Hills area existed. Why? Nobody told me.”
Doug Welker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the North Country Trail or to get involved in crafting a National Recreation Area proposal.
A primer on the Trap Hills is available at http:// www.northcountrytrail.org/pwf/traphills.htm
Save the Wild U.P. is a grassroots organization focused on preserving the U.P.’s unique cultural and environmental resources. Visit SavetheWildUP.org for more information and to get involved.
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.
MARQUETTE – Local residents, including KBIC tribal members, Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, and Save the Wild U.P., rallied at a joint press conference on Saturday, June 8, 2013, calling for a corruption investigation related to activities of an unusual “non-profit” corporation, the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA), based in Marquette County.
Nearly two dozen citizens spent that Saturday afternoon in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Upper Peninsula office parking lot in Gwinn, holding hand-lettered signs that outlined corruption concerns, speaking with locals driving by, participating in a question-and-answer session, and reviewing what they call “the murky facts surrounding NMGRA.”
Signs like this one at the June 8 demonstration refer to NMGRA’s refusal to disclose financial information requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Pictured here are, from left, Rich Sloat of Iron River (Mich.); Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay; Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. Board vice president; and Alexandra Thebert, Save the Wild U.P. executive director.
In 2008, while Rio Tinto was in the process of planning and constructing the mine at Eagle Rock, 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, whose Board of Directors featured Rio Tinto and Bitterroot Resources mining executives alongside DEQ and DNR officials. At the same time, according to Save the Wild U.P. and other environmental groups, these state officials were failing to enforce environmental and safety regulations enacted to protect the health and well-being of U.P. citizens.
Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) tribal member and former federal oil regulator, led the group on a walking tour of a large cinder block warehouse building located nearby, identified by signage as a “State Warehouse.” The property is actually leased from the Marquette County Economic Development Corporation by the nonprofit Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association — and serves as its core shed, housing valuable core samples. Local workers report seeing only Rio Tinto vehicles accessing the warehouse.
This “State Warehouse” building at the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, near the Upper Peninsula DEQ office outside Marquette, serves as a core shed for the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA).
According to Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, the warehouse building is a great place for hiding something.
“It looks totally neglected. Here’s this big building covered with peeling paint, surrounded by invasive knapweed and erosion gullies — anyone driving by would assume it was a giant meth lab, not a top-secret core shed set up by mining executives and controlled by the Michigan DEQ,” Champagne noted. “Peeking in the windows, you can see an emergency list of contact people that includes not only police agencies and hospitals, but Kennecott/Rio Tinto employees, and DEQ officials.”
Near the Upper Peninsula District Office of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Gwinn, this map taped to the wall of a large warehouse labels the facility a “State Warehouse.” Core samples are stored within, but the DEQ claims no further association with NMGRA, the non-profit that has leased the warehouse and is attempting to raise money to make it a state geologic repository.
Champagne says citizens can FOIA information on this for a reason.
“We need to be the watchdog of government to ensure that our business is conducted in the light of day and in the best interest of the people, not special interest,” he explains. “Our elected local, state, and federal representatives and officials who all decry this type of secrecy in government need to demand action and ask questions of the DEQ.”*
DEQ: State not part of NMGRA but new repository needed
Despite the “State Warehouse” sign, though, the warehouse is not (yet) an official state repository, according to at least one DEQ official.
“It’s not officially part of the state at all,” said Melanie Humphrey, geological technician in the Michigan DEQ Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, Upper Peninsula District. “NMGRA is hoping to make it a geological repository for core, rock samples and records that have geological information.”
Humphrey is the contact person for anyone who wishes to visit the existing geologic repository in Harvey, near Marquette. That facility is full to capacity — thus the need for a larger storage area such as the warehouse in Gwinn. At present the repository in Harvey receives visits from the U.S. Geological Survey, graduate students, archaeologists and other persons interested in studying the core and rock samples. The repository serves as a library. Anyone can come and visit the facility in Harvey by making an appointment with Humphrey, who will open it for visitors.**
“I think it would be very nice to have a research center up here,” Humphrey said.
The Geologic Repository (there is a second one in Kalamazoo) is needed because of a law that requires industries (oil, gas and mining) to give the state core samples or related documents left over from exploration on state land or land with state mineral rights, Humphrey explained. If the drilling is on private property the company is not required to do this.
“It could be valuable information,” Humphrey noted.
While NMGRA was formerly associated with the DNR, which leases surface state land, and the DEQ, which regulates it, apparently the non-profit organization is now separate from the state but trying to raise money to pay for the warehouse in Gwinn with the idea of making it a new state repository. Humphrey described it as “a group of people that see the value of having this repository for the state to preserve geological information.”
“We wouldn’t get core from an active mine, but once the mine closes the leftover core could be donated to the repository,” Humphrey added. “The core that we have at our repository in Harvey is all open-record.”
Hal Fitch, state geologist and chief of the DEQ Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals in Lansing, explained that the repository fulfills a function required by Part 601 of NREPA (Natural Resources Environmental Protection Act 451), which states, “The Michigan geological survey shall provide for the collection and conservation of cores, samples, and specimens for the illustration of every division of the geology and mineralogy of this state, to the extent that facilities and funds are available to do so.”***
Fitch was a member of the NMGRA board of directors when the non-profit was established in 2008 but is no longer associated with it, he said.
Fitch told Keweenaw Now he is aware of the community group’s intention to request a Department of Justice investigation of NMGRA.
“I would say go right ahead because there’s nothing improper (about the non-profit), and at the time we (the DEQ and the DNR, Department of Natural Resources) were involved there was nothing improper about our involvement,” Fitch said.
Because of the Part 601 requirement and the fact that he was unable to secure state funding for a suitable repository to continue to collect and preserve core samples and related data, Fitch was involved in establishing NMGRA in order to provide for the future support of a repository, he explained.
“We were looking for people who utilized the core repository to support the concept,” he said. “We didn’t get to the point where we were soliciting funding while we were members.”
Geologic repositories are a function of the Geological Survey. In 2008 Fitch’s department, the Office of Geological Survey, was the Geological Survey established by Part 601. In 2011 Part 601 was revised, and the Geological Survey was established within Western Michigan University. While that is a state university, the Geological Survey is no longer part of the DEQ, Fitch explained.
Fitch was unable to say exactly when he and the DNR representative on the NMGRA board, Milton A. Gere, Jr., who is now retired, left NMGRA; but it was before 2011, he noted.
“I never contemplated seeking funding from an outside source, such as industry, for the state of Michigan or for the association (NMGRA) during the time I was a member of it,” Fitch added. “The association would be a separate entity that would receive funding later. That was the concept.”
Fitch noted he just wanted to get the association established. He said he believed industry, academia or grant sources might fund NMGRA later, when he would not be a part of it.
He also said there was no connection between NMGRA and the issuing of mining permits.
“No mining company or outside source offered any money to NMGRA while I was on the board of it,” Fitch said.
An Oct. 28, 2008, article in the Lake Superior Mining News, states that Hal Fitch (at that time director of the DEQ’s Office of Geological Survey, or OGS) formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation with Kennecott and Bitterroot Resources, “registering the non-profit under the DEQ’s address with himself as the primary contact.”
The article also notes, “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.’”****
Electric infrastructure for Eagle Mine “core shed” installed without permit
In October 2008, Rio Tinto claimed it needed a 10-megawatt substation and miles of private power lines to electrify a core shed adjacent to the Eagle Mine site.
This was approved by Jim Sygo, DEQ deputy director, in a letter to Rio Tinto (Kennecott Eagle Minerals, or KEM) dated Nov. 7, 2008, in which he says,”The DEQ considers the planned core shed to be part of KEM continuing exploration program. It does not constitute nonferrous metallic mineral mining or reclamation and therefore is not subject to a mining permit under Part 632, Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended.”
This October 2010 photo shows power lines being run along the AAA Road leading to the Eagle Mine without a request from (Rio Tinto’s) Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. (KEMC) for an amendment to their mining permit for this infrastructure. (File photo byKeweenaw Now)
However, once the power had been installed, the core shed was deemed unnecessary, and Eagle Mine was electrified instead — a bait-switch move that sidestepped permitting, due process, and public participation.
“This core shed symbolizes Rio Tinto’s end-run around Part 632, the legislation governing non-ferrous mining in Michigan,” said Loman.
Mining companies fund core shed for state
During recent Rio Tinto community forums in Marquette and in L’Anse, Loman asked Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto Eagle Mine government and community affairs manager, about funding for the NMGRA non-profit and questioned its report of an annual income of less than $25,000 (an amount that exempts them from reporting financial information) when it has signed a 5-year lease totaling $400,000 for the core shed in Gwinn. The non-profit receives tax-deductible donations but will not reveal information about the donors or amounts.*
During the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto Community Forum in L’Anse, Michigan, Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member and former regulator, asks Rio Tinto’s Matt Johnson questions concerning the non-profit (NMGRA), FOIA requests about it that were unanswered, and the 14th Amendment. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)
Johnson later commented on Loman’s questions. In the following video clip, Johnson says state officials are not members of the NMGRA non-profit:
Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto Eagle Mine government and community affairs manager, speaks about NMGRA, the non-profit Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association, in response to questions from Jeffery Loman at the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto community forum in L’Anse.
“Their continual denial of access to information about their core shed (warehouse near the DEQ office) is a violation of the 14th Amendment,” Loman said. “Something smells bad here. Why create a private non-profit to perform a function of the state of Michigan? The circumstances surrounding these dealings between state officials and mining companies look like a bad rash on this administration,” he added. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Hopefully Governor Snyder will agree.”
Mary Ellen Krieg, a resident of Big Bay, called the situation “a barrel of rotten apples.”
No response to FOIA requests for facts about NMGRA
Attorney Jana Mathieu, who represents the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, has sent a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request for financial information to NMGRA’s registered agent, Ron Greenlee, a Marquette attorney; but Greenlee has repeatedly failed to respond. Mathieu eventually served him with a lawsuit for violation of the Freedom of Information Act, to which he also has refused to respond.
In her Feb. 11, 2013, FOIA request sent to Greenlee, Mathieu asked for any and all of the following: year-end reports on activities, full annual budgets and/or year-end financial statements, audits of finances, year-end reports on assets and liabilities, reports on equity ownership, statements regarding tax-exempt status, tax statements and filings, and lists of the board of directors and/or officers for three entities — the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association, the Northern Michigan Geology Data Library, and the Northern Michigan Geological Repository.
“The citizens of Michigan have consistently been denied access to information with regard to this so-called non-profit,” Mathieu said. “Today we are pulling back the veil of secrecy.”
Demonstrating for access to information near the Upper Peninsula DEQ office on June 8 are, from left, Jana Mathieu, attorney; Jeffery Loman, KBIC member and former federal regulator, Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. board vice president; and Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay.
NMGRA is a public body under the Freedom of Information Act because the DEQ and Michigan Office of Geological Survey were key players in the formation of the non-profit, Mathieu explained.
The non-profit status of NMGRA allows mining companies to make tax-deductible donations to state (public) agencies, she noted.
“They’re donating this money to the state regulators who are responsible for regulating their mines and enforcing safety and environmental regulations against these mining companies,” Mathieu said.
Loman agreed: “I just think it’s an extremely bad way to do government business — to form a non-profit with mining companies that the state is supposed to regulate,” he added.
Mathieu noted the question becomes “What are these mining companies getting from this?”
“That’s why we’re calling for an investigation by the Department of Justice of this non-profit,” Mathieu said. “There’s a strong argument that it does violate the Michigan Ethics Act.”*****
Attorney Michelle Halley of Marquette said, “As things stand, there’s no plan for any independent review of the quantity, content and grade of the ore removed at Eagle Mine. Essentially, that means the state is allowing Rio Tinto to self-report its income which serves as the basis for the taxes due the state. The DEQ’s Hal Fitch will just take Rio Tinto’s word for it; and in turn, Hal Fitch wants every taxpayer in Michigan to take his word for it.”
For several years Halley represented the National Wildlife Federation in a contested case against the DEQ and Kennecott (Rio Tinto), challenging the mining permit for the Eagle Mine. The case is now at the Michigan Court of Appeals. Other parties challenging the permit in the case are the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and the Huron Mountain Club.
“It was through the contested case, for which I was one of the attorneys, that we found out about this non-profit organization,” Halley said. “I support citizens finding out the truth and state officials being accountable for accepting money from private industry, especially when it’s the same state officials who make the permitting recommendations for those same companies.”
“There are serious concerns about the connections between the mining industry and the regulatory role of the state,” agrees Alexandra Thebert, executive director of Save the Wild U.P. “In the best interest of all Michiganders, we are calling for the Department of Justice to investigate.”
Projected sale of Eagle Project to Lundin Mining Corporation would not alter plans for investigation
The news (released last week) about Rio Tinto’s plans to sell the Eagle Project to the Lundin Mining Corporation does not change the plans by Save the Wild U.P. and other groups to call for a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation.
“No change here — same mine, same state permits and lousy state regulators,” says Jeffery Loman. “If Rio Tinto executives violated the law, selling Eagle Mine isn’t going to get them off the hook.”
Gene Champagne agreed: “As far as I am concerned, it does not change my call for a DOJ investigation. The NMGRA is going nowhere and neither is RT. They still have large landholdings and mineral leases in the UP. RT is just moving on to another deposit in the UP and leaving Lundin with the mess they started at Eagle.”
In response to a question from Keweenaw Now, Rio Tinto had little to say about the potential investigation.
“We are aware of the recent allegations made by a group of community members,” said Dan Blondeau, director of communications and media relations for Rio Tinto Eagle Mine.
Concerning Rio Tinto’s future plans in the region following the sale of the Eagle Project, Blondeau said, “The binding agreement between Rio Tinto and Lundin Mining Corporation is for Eagle Mine — which includes the mine, mill, and selected property adjacent to the mine. Rio Tinto controls roughly 400,000 acres of mineral rights in the UP and is assessing future plans with other exploration efforts.”
* Click here for an overview of NMGRA’s non-profit status.
** Click here for the DEQ page on Michigan’s two geological repositories. The page gives contact information for Melanie Humphrey and links to information on the repositories.
*** SeePart 601, Section 324.60105: Michigan geological survey; collection and conservation of cores, samples, and specimens.
MARQUETTE — Local residents, including KBIC tribal members, Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, and Save the Wild U.P., rallied at a joint press conference on Saturday June 8th, calling for a corruption investigation related to activities of an unusual ‘non-profit’ corporation, the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA), based in Marquette County.Nearly two dozen citizens spent Saturday afternoon in the Michigan DEQ parking lot, holding hand-lettered signs that outlined corruption concerns, speaking with locals driving by, participating in a question-and-answer session, and reviewing the murky facts surrounding NMGRA.
While Rio Tinto was in the process of planning and constructing the mine at Eagle Rock, 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. The NMGRA Board of Directors features Rio Tinto and Bitterroot Resources mining executives alongside DEQ officials. At the same time, these state officials were failing to enforce environmental and safety regulations enacted to protect the health and well-being of U.P. citizens.Rio Tinto claimed it needed a 10 megawatt substation and miles of private power lines to electrify the core shed adjacent to the Eagle Mine site. However, once the power had been installed, the core shed was deemed unnecessary, and Eagle Mine was electrified instead — a bait-switch move that sidestepped permitting, due process, and public participation.
“The citizens of Michigan have consistently been denied access to information with regard to this so-called non-profit. Today we are pulling back the veil of secrecy,” explained attorney Jana Mathieu, who filed requests for information related to NMGRA which went unanswered.
Jeffery Loman, KBIC tribal member and former federal oil regulator, led the group on a walking tour of a large cinder block warehouse building located nearby, identified by signage as a “State Warehouse.” The property is actually leased by the nonprofit Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association, and serves as its core shed, housing valuable core samples. Local workers report seeing only Rio TInto vehicles accessing the warehouse.
“This core shed symbolizes Rio Tinto’s end-run around Part 632, the legislation governing non-ferrous mining in Michigan,” said Loman.
“Something smells bad here. Why create a private non-profit to perform a function of the State of Michigan? The circumstances surrounding these dealings between State officials and mining companies look like a bad rash on this administration,” said Loman. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Hopefully Governor Snyder will agree.”
“This is a barrel of rotten apples,” said Mary Ellen Krieg, resident of Big Bay.
“As things stand, there’s no plan for any independent review of the quantity, content and grade of the ore removed at Eagle Mine. Essentially, that means the State is allowing Rio Tinto to self-report its income which serves as the bases for the taxes due the State. The DEQ’s Hal Fitch will just take Rio Tinto’s word for it, and in turn, Hal Fitch wants every taxpayer in Michigan to take his word for it,” explained Michelle Halley, an attorney based in Marquette.
“Great place for hiding something. It looks totally neglected. Here’s this big building covered with peeling paint, surrounded by invasive knapweed and erosion gullies — anyone driving by would assume it was a giant meth lab, not a top-secret core shed set up by mining executives and controlled by the Michigan DEQ,” says 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. “The more you look into this, the more it looks like either incompetence or fraud or even both.”
“There are serious concerns about the connections between the mining industry and the regulatory role of the state,” agrees Alexandra Thebert, Executive Director of Save the Wild U.P. “In the best interest of all Michiganders, we are calling for the Department of Justice to investigate.”
Save the Wild U.P. is a grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the Upper Peninsula’s unique cultural and natural resources.