Sulfide mining still a hot topic, by Cynthia Pryor

Kennecott Eagle Mining Company (KEMC), a subset of Kennecott Minerals and a fully-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto has an open permit application proposing an underground nickel/copper mine on the Yellow Dog Plains of northern Marquette County. This mine will be direct-ship, hire ninety to 120 fulltime personnel, run for seven to eight years, and extract a small but extremely rich ore body worth $5 to $13 billion.
The ore body is a massive sulfide magmatic deposit with high acid-potential content of copper and iron sulfides. Kennecott does not own any of the minerals of the ore body, but has leases on fifty-one percent of the ore that is the State of Michigan’s and the other forty-nine percent is owned and leased to them by private individuals.
Kennecott owns 1,600 acres in the area, including the surface over the ore body. Kennecott, however, proposes the use of 160 acres of state land for its surface facilities and tunnel entry for which it has a mineral lease, but not yet a surface lease.
The mine design proposes lined facilities for contact water ponds, waste rock, a diesel generating plant, a double-reverse osmosis water treatment plant, and a groundwater discharge regime for returning treated water to the aquifer. No processing will be conducted on site, except for a surface crusher.
The underground workings will be accessed via a drive-in tunnel starting .7 mile from the ore body. An underground cement plant will have surface silos for fly ash, cement and aggregate. A fifty-foot-high ventilating shaft located 200 feet from the river will ventilate the total mine workings, throwing two million tons of sulfide particulates into the air.
The Yellow Dog Plains sit in the middle of 576,000 acres of undeveloped land made up of hardwood and jack pine barren forests and massive wetlands—all accessible by only a few seasonal gravel roads. There is no power or facilities. The Yellow Dog Plains contains:
• Eighty-nine percent Commercial Forest Reserve that is open to the public for hunting and fishing, with miles of old two-track logging roads for back country recreational activities like snowmobiling, skiing, biking and picking acres of wild blueberries0709iod1
• More than 44,000 acres of protected and restricted land with no road access and large untouched old-growth forests supporting centuries-old White Pine trees.
• 17,280 acres of McCormick Wilderness Area with remote backpacking trails and pristine waterways for backcountry wilderness hiking and camping adventures. The Yellow Dog River is a federally designated Wild and Scenic Riverwithin the boundaries of the McCormick Wilderness Area.
• More than 26,800 acres of a private conservation club (Huron Mountain Club) protecting the Huron Mountains (the oldest mountains in the world) and the Salmon-Trout River. The club currently is managed based on a 1938 Aldo Leopold Report and recommendation. The Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation conducts extensive scientific research of the region documenting many rare and endangered species found only within the boundaries of the Huron Mountain Club.
• Wilderness wildlife such as moose, wolf, cougar, lynx, black bear and many protected or endangered flora and fauna.
• Eleven major watersheds with many major waterfalls, remote scenic rivers, undeveloped lakes and cold spring-fed streams supporting native brook, Coaster brook trout and other species. The water quality of these streams is so pure that the DNR had to pour salt into the Salmon-Trout River to raise the conductivity to a point where they could perform an electro-shock analysis of the fisheries in it. 0709iod2
• Miles of undeveloped Lake Superior shoreline with historic lighthouses, wildlife refuges, red sandstone cliffs, pristine white sand beaches and the cold, clear blue waters of Lake Superior.
In 1992, the State of Michigan began leasing state mineral rights for exploration and development. Kennecott leased hundreds of acres in the Upper Peninsula. In 1994, Kennecott purchased up to 600,000 acres of mineral rights from Ford Motor Company that were a hold over from the massive purchase of U.P. lands in the 1940s.
For decades, mineral rights have been severed from surface rights of much of the U.P.’s properties. In 2002, it became clear that they had an eye on the Yellow Dog Plains when the public became aware that something more than exploration was afoot. Rio Tinto’s strategy, along with that of other mining companies (BHP Billeton, Prime Meridian, Bitterroot Resources and others), is to explore the Upper Midwest’s massive sulfide ore deposits in the U.P., Wisconsin and Minnesota to establish the next hard rock mining district in the nation.
The U.P. has hosted mining operations, both underground and surface, since the mid 1850s—mostly float copper and iron mining. Generations of miners and decades of good jobs have built a mystique and commitment to mining in the area. U.P. legislators have bought into the thinking that these jobs are more important than citizens or the environment and current economic initiatives that are based on ecotourism. Downstate Michigan legislators bow to their U.P. counterparts as to whether these new mining ventures are good for Michigan.
Kennecott has moved forward with its usual playbook of obtaining support from Cleveland-Cliffs mining operations, who have mentored Kennecott’s entrance in Michigan. Kennecott’s promise of big bucks to jurisdictional townships and counties has placed support geared toward the acceptance of money versus representation of constituents.
Governor Jennifer Granholm has taken a fence position behind the jobs if these mines can be done safely. In 2005, new legislation was signed into law regulating the first-ever underground mining and nonferrous metallic mining permitting processes. Bart Stupak, U.S. Representative for the U.P., firmly opposes both the new law and sulfide mining as not good for Great Lakes waters.
Current opposition is becoming more and more widespread as Michigan’s people hear about the trade-off of their land and waters for about seventy-five jobs. U.P. groups consist of local grassroots and community citizen’s groups like the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and Save the Wild U.P.; the Huron Mountain Club (HMC); and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC).
The Huron Mountain Club’s support has made both the new law and oppositional work possible. The tribe’s hard stand is that sulfide mines, and this particular mine on the Yellow Dog Plains, impose on its ceded territorial rights and the treaties of 1842 and 1856.
Local citizen groups and local environmental groups continue to galvanize support via petitions, letters to government and local officials and public education forums. National and state environmental groups that participated in the development of the new law have come out in opposition to this project on the Yellow Dog Plains and include:
National Wildlife Federation (NWF)
Michigan Environmental Council
Sierra Club
National Trout Unlimited
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Clean Water Action
Michigan Land Use Institute
Alliance for the Great Lakes
The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve (YDWP), a small grassroots 501(c)3, and NWF have partnered to lead the opposition. There are now active U.P. and downstate campaigns in force. These campaigns are anticipated to lead to either new legislation or a public referendum within the next two years.
There will be use of experts from Western Mining Action Network (WMAN) and the Wisconsin coalition that fought the Crandon Mine—particularly the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). Hydrologists, geophysicists, experts, mining engineers, botanists, birding/ macroinvertibrate/plant scientists and water chemists will be experts in this issue.
Recently, former Michigan Governor William Milliken has joined the opposition condemning the proposed mine and questioning the economic benefits to the state.
The Kennecott application was filed in February 2006 and has gone through one public meeting where more than 700 local residents attended and where most public comment was in opposition to the application. The application is glaringly deficient and is viewed as a typical mining industry strategy to test the waters and then perfect the application.
KBIC, HMC and YDWP have partnered in a legal challenge of the first step of the application process, which is to determine “administrative completeness” of the application. After ex parte communication between the administrative law judge (ALJ) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the contested case petition was denied review based on jurisdictional issues.
The ruling was appealed to circuit court and remanded back for Contested Case (CC) and the permit application was stayed from further processing until the CC hearing took place. The original ALJ was removed from further review of the case and a new one assigned. Both the state and Kennecott filed appeals and intervention briefs. Kennecott was denied intervention in circuit court proceedings and is now looking for CC hearing intervention.
The state’s appeal to the Michigan court of appeals panel resulted in a dismissal of the suit and a return to the Part 632 application process and timeline. The court of appeals decision was very curt and a paragraph long in which a very narrow definition of “aggrieved” was applied. KBIC, HMC and YDWP were basically told that they were not aggrieved in this process. There was no discussion of the substantive issue and lawyers for the opposition felt that going to the Michigan Supreme court would be of no benefit. On January 9, 2007, the DEQ issued a preliminary decision to approve Kennecott’s application.
Public hearings were scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 in Marquette. The Part 632 permit application along with the Air Quality, Groundwater Discharge and MDNR Land Use permit also were up for approval and public comment.
One week before the hearings, the opposition’s technical team unearthed communication between the DEQ and one of its mining application review contractors (ITASCA) indicating that the crown pillar analysis performed by Kennecott in its application was inadequate, flawed and presented significant risk of subsidence to the proposed mining operation.
The leader of the DEQ Mining Application technical review team had deleted the ITASCA reports and suppressed them from the review team and the public. This information was given to Steve Chester, deputy director of the DEQ, and he subsequently cancelled the public hearings, initiated an internal investigation and reassigned the DEQ technical review team leader. All application activities were on hold pending the results of the internal investigation slated for completion by April 27, 2007.
The opposition filed a deposition with the Ingram County Court asking that the author of the ITASCA reports be deposed in Michigan before his subsequent reassignment to New Zealand in June.
As of July 31, the DEQ rereleased a preliminary approval of the operation. Public hearings are scheduled for September 10, 11, 12 and 13 in the Marquette area and on September 19 in Lansing. Written comment will be accepted through October 17.
—Cynthia Pryor

Editor’s Note: Pryor is the executive director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.

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