Looks like Lundin Mining inherited a transportation route mess from Rio Tinto when it bought the Eagle Mine located 30 miles north of Marquette.
The Marquette County Road Commission (MCRC) is considering a plan to use eminent domain to seize private property to build a new 55 mph highway from CR 550 (“Big Bay Road”) to the Eagle Mine. The MCRC has said it wouldn’t be making these improvements if not for the Eagle Mine, making it illegal to use eminent domain for the benefit of this multi-national mining company. Area property owners and residents are speaking out against the highway and the threat of eminent domain.
This is not a plan for road upgrades, this is a plan for a brand new highway — and we must speak out! Check out the proposed route changes to the Triple A and CR 510 and responses to questions raised at the recent public hearing. Area residents deserve a new Public Hearing to weigh in on the new proposed upgrades.
The MCRC modified the proposed realignment based on public outcry. But the process is on an accelerated path; as the MCRC approved its plan modifications at the same meeting the modifications were proposed.
Your voice is important! Write a letter to the editor, or call your local Marquette County Commissioner to discuss the proposal for a new highway.
Meanwhile, the City of Marquette is struggling with Lundin Mining’s plan to run ore trucks through the city and Northern Michigan University’s campus. In July, the City Commission’s request to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to have transportation be considered part of the Eagle Mine’s permit was denied, which would have forced the mining company to mitigate environmental impacts of truck traffic in Marquette.
Though the Lundin Eagle Mine says they’ll only increase total truck traffic by a small percentage, these trucks will be filled with ore, increasing the weight on the roadways by an estimated 50%. This poses not only a financial burden on taxpayers for years to come, but, more importantly, a huge safety risk for our communities.
** Update** The City of Marquette Public Hearing was cancelled. We are disappointed that the City of Marquette has chosen to postpone tomorrow’s Public Hearing on a truck ordinance en lieu of private meetings with Lundin Mining Company.
Stay up-to-date with these rapidly-evolving issues by checking out our FB page at Facebook.com/SavetheWildUP — together we will keep da U.P. wild!
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.
Both Loman and Alexandra Thebert, executive director of Save the Wild U.P. agreed that “the decision to file the notice to sue was done after great circumspection and careful review of what is occurring at the Eagle Mine.”
“We seek to correct what is nothing short of a regulatory fiasco at the Eagle Mine. This is just the first step in a multifaceted plan to do that in full measure — we are also calling for a federal investigation of the relationship between State of Michigan regulators and the mining industry,” said Thebert.
“In order to protect our communities and environment, we must ensure that regulations are followed,” said Margaret Comfort, Save the Wild U.P. president. “Rio Tinto — and other mining companies — cannot operate outside the law.”
The 60-Day Notice to Sue was sent by certified mail Monday, June 24 at 2:00 p.m. EST. The notice went to the Acting Administrator of the EPA in Washington D.C., the EPA Region 5 Administrator in Chicago, the U.S. Attorney General, the Governor of Michigan, and Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine President Adam Burley.
Concerned citizens demonstrate near the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Upper Peninsula office outside Marquette with signs calling for a Department of Justice investigation of the alleged “non-profit” Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA), whose board members have included mining company executives and state regulating agency officials. (Photos © Sally Western and courtesy Save the Wild U.P. unless otherwise indicated.)
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:
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.
*** See Part 601, Section 324.60105: Michigan geological survey; collection and conservation of cores, samples, and specimens.
**** See the Oct. 28, 2008, article, “DEQ and Kennecott Form a Non-Profit Corporation,” in Lake Superior Mining News.
***** Click here to learn about the Michigan Ethics Act.
“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.
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.
My name is Kathleen Heideman, and I’m commenting tonight as a Marquette resident and tax payer, and as a Michigan citizen concerned about environmental quality. I’m also speaking on behalf of my family, which is an adjacent landowner to Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Eagle Mine site. When Rio Tinto says they want to be a “good neighbor,” they’re talking about being our neighbor.
Rio Tinto promised us a world-class mine with state-of-the-art environmental protections. The Bag House air-filter system they pledged to install was an environmental protection. According to Cynthia Pryor:
“This 65-foot-tall high stack sits within 150 feet of the Salmon Trout River. We worked hard to get the air filter included as part of Kennecott’s original air quality permit as they intended the mine exhaust to be vented directly to the air. Now, they are backpedaling and want this air filter to be removed. We are vehemently opposed to such a notion and want to make this clear…”
Let me be clear: Rio Tinto’s request to remove the air filter from their Main Vent Air Raise (MVAR) is based entirely on finances, with blatant disregard for environmental quality. It hasn’t been a good year for Rio Tinto. Perhaps tonight’s hearing should be called a “profit maximizing” permit review.
Rio Tinto wants us to believe their air filter is no longer necessary, due to changes underground, or that it would simply not be compatible with their special sort of mine. Actually, Rio Tinto wants to break this promise because air filter systems are notoriously difficult and costly to maintain. Regardless of the source or size of the emission particulates, emissions will build up on the filter, just as lint accumulates on a dryer screen, or dirt coats the air filter of a truck. Instead of discarding the filter, the bag house (depending on design) must shake, blow or electrostatically discharge the material that builds up on the filter, collecting this “caked” debris for proper treatment as a pollutant. This is a nasty cake, containing heavy metals from exhaust and sulfur-rich ore dust. Air filters fail when they develop tears in their fabric (allowing pollutants to stream through unchecked), or when moist material accumulates on the filter (reducing filter efficacy or blocking exhaust flow) or when acidic compounds in the emissions attack the filter fabric. While difficult to maintain, the whole point of installing an air filter and bag house is Process Control: avoid sending this stuff out into the environment, period.
According to their permit modification request, a mine worker will now simply stand near the MVAR stack once a day, and make a visual “observation” recording whether emissions other than water vapor from the stack are VISIBLE on a gray-scale (limit of 5% opacity). Seriously? This is an unacceptably primitive “alternative” to an air filter system.
It must be noted that Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine proposes to have a below-ground heating system functioning most of the days per year, Spring – Fall – and Winter, whenever the outside air temperature falls below 32°. Conveniently, their heater is considered “exempt” for purposes of emissions control, so we are supposed to disregard all the hydrocarbon pollutants present in their heater emissions (which also exit the MVAR stack). In fact, the mine is proposing to increase the amount of underground heating, increasing the BTU output (and emissions) of the heaters. This mine will be heated 24-7, most of the year. Air exhausted from this mine will contain vehicle exhaust from underground mining vehicles, emissions from the heating system, and clouds of ore dust particulates released through blasting, loading, and hauling — and on most days of the year, exhausted air will be warmer than ambient air temperature. Warm, moist air — from a damp mine!
Rio Tinto had to have known from the beginning there would be condensation issues for the MVAR filter they were proposing. Any other conclusion doesn’t make sense. Condensation is a common problem, which the air filter industry routinely handles by recommending insulation and heating of the air filter bag house. Again, this increases total cost of operation. Condensation issues reduce the effective life of the air filter, whatever filter fabric is selected, which again makes the air filtration system more expensive to maintain. Added to this situation is the fact that ore dust will be sulfide-rich, creating (sulfuric) acid condensate on the air filter (as well as the MVAR and bag house equipment), leading to yet more expensive maintenance.
Clearly, Rio Tinto’s proposal to remove air filter controls from the MVAR is a cost control decision, not a pollution-control or process-control decision.
Sending an unfiltered plume of high velocity mine exhaust directly into the clean air over the Yellow Dog Plains is unconscionable. Notwithstanding the peaks of the Huron Mountains, the Yellow Dog Plains are the height of land for Marquette County. There has never been heavy industry in this location, but according to Rio Tinto’s air pollution dispersal maps (based on dubious weather models unconnected to the Yellow Dog Plains), mine pollution will soon be raining down over half of Marquette County. The unfiltered particulates they propose to send into our skies will be blanketing the blueberries we harvest, changing the PH of our lichen-covered soils (destroying these lichen, which are highly sensitive to acid rain), damaging the ecosystems of the Huron Mountains and Silver Lake Basin, accumulating in the watersheds of the Salmon Trout River, Yellow Dog River and countless wild streams, and contaminating our air with particulates that present an inhalation hazard for humans and wildlife. Rio Tinto may plan on issuing dust masks to employees at the mine, but they certainly won’t be handing them out to deer hunters, berry pickers, the deer and moose and wolves, or anyone with camps on the Yellow Dog, or homes in the Big Bay area. We all deserve clean air to breathe.
It is curious to note: Rio Tinto states in their Permit that they may need to change underground operations to respond to economic considerations, which are “constantly changing”:
“The underground ore handling system is based upon “best facility economics. Because economics are constantly changing due to market conditions, changes to the underground ore handling system may be necessary to reflect future market conditions.”
Of course, another factor that is “constantly changing” is industrial technology and the best facility practices related to process control and air pollution abatement measures! Curiously, the permit makes no mention of changing practices to align with future environmental practices.
Rather than use a filter system, Rio Tinto proposes to spray water inside the mine. Spraying groundwater on air-polluting dust? That’s a 19th century bandage, not a pollution control. Rio Tinto’s “solution” to air pollution assumes that Michigan groundwater is endlessly available, free for the taking, and unconnected to aquifers supplying drinking water to surrounding residents of Marquette County. Those assumptions are unacceptable.
Rio Tinto repeatedly promised to build a world-class mine, using world-class technology, and world-class safety practices. Was that a bait and switch strategy? If they made an empty promise, regarding their MVAR air filter, the Eagle Mine permit was fraudulent.
If allowed, Rio Tinto’s permit modification would allow the mine to spew an unfiltered plume of air pollution for the winds to disperse over Marquette County. The “Solution to Pollution is not Dilution” – that was 19th century approach. Rio Tinto received a mine permit from the DEQ because of environmental assurances they made, including the MVAR’s filter.
They do not have free license to pollute Michigan’s air and water. Please deny this permit modification on the grounds that it is based on economic considerations and terrible science, and will functionally increase both air and water pollution.
While the air filtration system Rio Tinto proposed will be expensive to implement and difficult to maintain, such control measures are essential, not optional. Clean air is priceless.
Kathleen M. Heideman
Marquette MI 49855
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.