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.
April 5, 2013
MARQUETTE – Testing by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership has confirmed the presence of uranium in water samples from the bottom of a rock storage area at the Eagle Mine, which exceeds the federal maximum concentration level for safe drinking water.
The finding does not violate any state or federal regulatory permits at the mine, but technicians will continue monitoring and testing to learn more about the uranium.
“The significance largely is that it was unexpected and (yet) there it is, present; and trying to identify the source and is it being contained and removed,” said Jon Becker, a communications and development specialist with the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette. “We feel the public is going to be interested in that and we want to make sure that they know that we’re all looking at it and evaluating.”
Superior Watershed Partnership senior planner Geri Grant collects a water quality sample from the Temporary Development Rock Storage Area sumps at Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine in Michigamme Township during the first quarter of 2013 verification monitoring.
The mine’s Temporary Development Rock Storage Area is designed to be an environmentally secure feature which holds waste rock from mining tunnel excavation until it is later put back underground to fill voids where ore was removed.
The bottom of the storage area has two multi-layered lining systems: a primary contact water sump and a lower secondary lining, called the leak detection sump.
Last month, a laboratory in Indiana determined a water sample taken from the leak sump in February by partnership staff – as part of its ongoing Community Environmental Monitoring of Rio Tinto’s mining activities – was found to contain 72.6 parts per billion of uranium.
Partnership staff was test sampling water quality in the leak sump to compare with previous test results produced by Rio Tinto.
Since December 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been regulating uranium in community drinking water supplies to reduce the risk of kidney disease and cancer.
A Western Upper Peninsula Health Department advisory on uranium said the EPA standards for safe drinking water are based on assuming a person drinks two liters of water each day for 70 years.
The EPA maximum concentration level for uranium under the Safe Drinking Water Act is 30 parts per billion, with concentrations exceeding that level considered unsafe. Consequently, the laboratory was required by law to report the uranium level from the leak sump water sample.
“It’s a reporting requirement of the act because they don’t necessarily know what the source of that water is,” Becker said. “If it was a drinking well, it’d be an issue of concern. This is not drinking water.”
Rio Tinto’s rock storage area and water treatment plant are not governed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, but by the company’s mining and groundwater discharge permits.
Dan Blondeau, a Rio Tinto spokesman in Humboldt, said the estimated 26,000 gallons of water in the leak sump came primarily from rain that fell when the rock storage area was being built three years ago.
Since September 2011, Rio Tinto has removed 2,864 gallons of that water to contact water basins and then to the mine’s water treatment plant for processing.
Blondeau said that process includes ion exchange and reverse osmosis filtration, which are two methods federal regulators recommend for removing uranium from drinking water.
After being treated, water is either recycled back into the mining process or discharged into the ground through the mine’s treated water infiltration system.
“The mine site is designed to collect and treat water that comes into contact with mining activities,” said Eagle Mine environmental and permitting manager Kristen Mariuzza. “We are confident in the system and the methods being used to ensure that only clean water is released back into the environment.”
Becker said the partnership has tested water going into the treatment plant and coming out of it to see if the uranium is being removed. Results are due back from the lab next week.
Until then, Becker declined to speculate on the possible impact.
“Just the word (uranium) is going to be alarming to some people,” Becker said. “It’s helpful to know that the processes that are in place at the water treatment plant are the processes that EPA recommends as the best treatment. But until we have monitoring results that demonstrate the efficiency of that, we don’t want to speculate.”
Meanwhile, Blondeau said tests on solid wastes from the water treatment plant showed uranium levels consistent with Upper Peninsula geology in one waste test and none in another, indicating the treatment plant is successfully removing the uranium.
However, those results have not been substantiated independently by the partnership, which will make new similar tests next week. The solids removed by the process are disposed of at a municipal landfill.
When the initial leak sump water sample results were received from the lab in mid-March, partnership staff quickly returned to the mine to retest the water.
Expedited results from the partnership’s lab showed uranium levels of 61 and 58 parts per billion and no uranium in the contact water sump.
Rio Tinto’s test results from its samples and lab showed 56 parts per billion of uranium in the leak sump and a low concentration of 0.13 parts per billion in the contact water sump.
To help identify the source of the uranium, the partnership requested core samples from Rio Tinto in addition to samples of the waste rock and the aggregate used in the storage area leak detection liner.
Steve Casey, district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s water resources division at K.I. Sawyer, said he thinks the uranium source may be the aggregate. If obtained from a Big Bay area quarry nearby, the material may contain Jacobsville sandstone.
The sandstone is known from several counties in the U.P. and its formation extends along the Lake Superior shoreline, east toward Big Bay.
Casey said the sandstone’s composition is known to include uranium, while the waste rock from the mine portal is not.
One Michigan Technological University study focused on testing bedrock wells in Jacobsville sandstone found 25 percent of 270 wells tested with uranium exceeding the EPA maximum concentration limits.
Casey characterized the uranium detection at the Eagle Mine as “not terribly surprising or uncommon.”
“We’ve seen numbers about three times that high in wells,” Casey said.
Casey said the DEQ tested 419 private wells and 20 percent exceeded the safe drinking water standard for uranium, including one well registering 202 parts per billion.
Western U.P. Health Department materials said uranium occurs naturally in some area bedrock and groundwater, making wells susceptible to contamination. High levels of uranium have been found in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Gogebic and Ontonagon counties.
The department said “the amount of uranium in bedrock and well water will vary greatly from place to place and without testing, it is not possible to determine if the water is safe for drinking.”
Health department officials said bathing and showering with water containing uranium is not a health concern.
Construction of the Eagle Mine’s rock storage area began in September 2010. By October, the secondary liner was installed and a leak survey performed. The primary liner, risers and the pumping system was completed by November.
In September 2011, the DEQ approved a certificate of quality assurance for construction of the liner systems. That same autumn, Rio Tinto began monitoring the rock storage area as it began digging the mine portal and storing waste rock.
Becker said early last year, Rio Tinto also discovered elevated sulfate levels, which periodically were above the reporting level and have been trending downward since August 2012.
A mining company investigation did not identify a source, but similar to Casey’s uranium source theory, Rio Tinto speculated a small amount of sulfate material was contained in the aggregate used to build the liner.
Monitoring of sulfates and uranium will continue regularly by Rio Tinto and the partnership, with results reported to the public at:www.cempmonitoring.org.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.
Wow- our Tele-Town Hall with activist and scholar Al Gedicks was a total success. Stay tuned for more info and be sure to sign up for our upcoming Tele-Town Hall on a special topic. Have a recommendation for a Tele-Town Hall topic or speaker? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (906) 662-9987. Thanks!
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) should be paying Isthmus contributor Larry Kaufmann for his able job of parroting their misleading talking points on the new mining bill introduced last week by GOP mining cheerleaders. The “new” version of AB 426, the Strip Mine Giveaway Bill (AB 1/SB 1), is essentially the same bill from last session. A new network of more than 80 state, regional and national organizations immediately asked legislators to reject this extreme legislation that guts state mining laws for one company’s destructive proposal.
The legislation will create a streamlined, less protective ferrous (iron) mining regulatory program for what will be the largest open pit iron mine in the world, based on no scientific evidence to justify treating iron mining different than other metallic mining. If Gogebic Taconite (GTac) proceeds with their proposal, Phase 1 alone would be larger than the acknowledged largest taconite (iron) mine in the world, the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing, Minnesota. The taconite ore body here runs 22 miles in length, meaning that the expansion of mining after Phase 1 could result in an even larger mine with additional impacts on rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater.
Over 900 million tons of wastes and tailings (over 35 years of Phase 1) will be dumped in the wetlands and streams of the Bad River watershed, and could produce the same acid mine drainage that has resulted in fish advisories for mercury and a wild rice dead zone for 100 miles downstream from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range in the St. Louis River watershed.
The main proponents of the bill, including GTac, WMC and the Wisconsin Mining Association (WMA), have consistently misled legislators with claims that the iron ore in Ashland and Iron counties is more environmentally safe compared to metallic sulfide mining and thus requires separate regulations. They claim that since this is an oxide ore and not a sulfide ore, it can’t produce acid mine drainage and poison local water supplies with dissolved toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.
Science proves mining proponents are making a false claim. Oxide ores can contain the same sulfide materials (pyrite) that cause acid mine drainage. The Wisconsin Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey have reported that pyrite is associated with the ore and waste rock in 1929 and 2008, respectively. Independent geological studies have confirmed that there are significant sulfides in pyrite in the waste rock adjacent to the ore. The independent geologists estimate that just one cubic kilometer of the waste rock could contain the pyrite equivalent of 10 billion gallons of sulfuric acid of car battery strength.
In other words, GTac’s claim that ferrous mining should be regulated separately is based on an artificial distinction without scientific merit. Legislators who voted for AB 426 were deliberately misled by GTac, WMC and WMA about the safety of taconite mining and cast votes based on unproven mining industry rhetoric over scientific fact.
The biggest lie coming from WMC and mining proponents and repeated by Kaufmann is that the law “doesn’t alter a single water-quality, groundwater or air-quality standard.” The nonpartisan Legislative Council’s memo to legislators on the bill reveals dozens of instances of exemptions or reduced applications of current environmental law for this company’s proposal. Even Wisconsin DNR’s mining administrator, Ann Coakley, stated “there are a lot of changes that could easily be seen as weakening of environmental regulations,” as reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
For example, current mining law (a compromise hammered out with mining companies) already allows a groundwater sacrifice zone where pollution is allowed up to 1,200 feet in all directions from the edge of a waste site or mine. The bill allows DNR to double that boundary to 2,400 feet if the company’s design can’t meet the 1,200-foot standard. The numerical standard for groundwater pollution may not change, but the amount of polluted water would be dramatically increased.
The bill requires the DNR to approve water withdrawals in any amount, from any location, regardless of whether the withdrawal will cause lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, wetlands or wells to go dry. It allows the company to fill lake beds and dump wastes into sensitive wetlands, shorelands and floodplains. It exempts the company from meeting local zoning approvals. It removes the contested case hearing before the permit decision is made, which deprives the public of their right to have the company’s claims and DNR decisions reviewed while under oath.
The bill limits state regulators’ ability to adequately review the proposal by imposing arbitrary time deadlines of 420 days for permit decisions, and places an unreasonable cap on the costs of review. The creation of an artificial deadline for permit decisions alone virtually guarantees that federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers will initiate analysis independent of the state due to the federal trust responsibility to protect resources of Native Americans. The Bad River Band of Ojibwe also has sovereign authority under the Clean Water Act to protect its wild rice from mining pollution. This means that regardless of any new bill passed here, federal permit decisions are unlikely to be made for many years in the future.
There is no debate that this proposal will cause enormous and devastating effects on the air, land and waters of the Bad River watershed of Lake Superior, even if it somehow meets current environmental standards, let alone the gutted regulations in the bill. It is no exaggeration to state that mining proponents are lying to legislators and the public about the impacts of this legislation.
by Al Gedicks and Dave Blouin
Al Gedicks is the Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. Dave Blouin is the Mining Committee Chair for the Sierra Club – John Muir Chapter and co-founder of the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin. “Citizen” is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Page: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=38846
June 3, 2012
The time has come to seek the best available, and least disputable, science with regards to air quality monitoring for the Eagle Mine in northern Marquette County and any other hard rock (sulfide) mines that follow. Continue reading
By DAN KAUFMAN
May 24, 2012
This past March, standing outside a Shell station in Mellen, Wis., in the state’s far north, Mike Wiggins Jr. told me about a series of dark and premonitory dreams he had two years earlier. “One of them was a very vivid trip around the North Woods and seeing forests bleeding and sludge from a creek emptying into the Bad River,” Wiggins said. “I ended up at a dilapidated northern log home with rotten snowshoes falling off the wall. I stepped out of the lodge, walked through some pine, and I was in a pipeline. There was a big pipe coming in and out of the ground as far as I could see. Continue reading
Stop House Proposal to Disenfranchise Communities and Contaminate Our Water House Floor Vote This Week on HR 4402
HR 4402 is the latest huge giveaway to the mining industry.
The House of Representatives is voting on this bad legislation THIS WEEK. If this bill becomes law, it will allow the mining industry to poison our lakes, rivers and streams and disenfranchise local communities. Continue reading
by Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
A new nickel and copper mine being built at Marquette, Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula, will be a major addition to the state’s mineral extraction industry. (AP)
MARQUETTE, Michigan – It’s a long drive from Marquette to Lansing: more than 400 miles in all, including a five-mile trip across the Straits of Mackinac, divider of Michigan’s peninsulas. So it’s easy to see why local officials here might not feel connected to lawmakers in the state capital. Continue reading
March 6, 2012
Madison – The state Senate rejected mining legislation on Tuesday, prompting a prominent mining company to say it was abandoning a project after months of often bitter debate that pitted conflicting claims of economic development against environmental protection.
“Senate rejection of the mining reforms . . . sends a clear message that Wisconsin will not welcome iron mining. We get the message,” said a statement from Bill Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite LLC. “(We are) ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine.” Continue reading