Mine may open next year as last-chance appeal languishes
By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News
October 7, 2013
MICHIGAMME TOWNSHIP, Mich. – As a tribe awaits resolution of a last-chance appeal to stop mining on land considered sacred, an international company is moving closer to production.
The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has challenged a state permit that allows sulfide mining to extract copper and nickel on public lands in the Upper Peninsula. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case 13 months ago but has not yet heard oral arguments.
In the meantime, the mine is moving ahead, with production scheduled to begin in about one year.
The Eagle Mine is about 80 percent complete, said Daniel Blondeau, a spokesperson for Lundin Mining.
The tribe and three co-plaintiffs – the National Wildlife Federation, Huron Mountain Club and Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve – have been fighting the mine in the courts for more than five years. Inhabited by 1,030 residents, the tribe’s L’Anse Reservation, about 20 miles from Eagle Mine, is the oldest and largest reservation in Michigan.
In the lawsuit, the groups raise concerns that the mine will contaminate water, including groundwater and the Salmon Trout River, which the tribe relies on for food and spiritual ceremonies. The groups also allege that the mine has encroached on land sacred to the tribe, desecrating a place of worship.
When the ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. This acid can drain into nearby rivers, lakes and groundwater – a phenomenon called acid mine drainage.
The company, however, says it is using state-of-the-art technology, at a cost of $10 million, to treat the wastewater and prevent contamination.
The case against the state, filed in 2007, claims that the mine has not completed state requirements, said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. Included are collecting baseline environmental data about the area so it could be returned to its pre-mining state, and examining potential impacts outside the mining site, the lawsuit claims.
The Eagle Mine was the first test of Michigan’s sulfide mining laws, and “the state failed,” Buchsbaum said.
State officials do not comment on lawsuits, said Steve Casey, water resources manager at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. But he said the permitting was done properly and the state agency has been monitoring the air, water and soil since the site first started being developed.
“There have been a few very minor environmental violations so far,” Casey said. “None of the violations have had any public health or environmental consequences and we don’t expect anything different during production.”
A metal, vanadium, has been found at elevated levels in groundwater monitoring wells near the mine site, and, in one well, lead and copper exceeded allowable levels, Casey said. The concentrations of all three elements were higher than the state allows under the mining permit but they did not exceed federal drinking water standards, he said.
“The vanadium found near Eagle [Mine] was naturally occurring,” Casey said. It showed up in tests at those wells before any mining activities.
The lawsuit was shot down by an administrative judge and by a trial court, but the Court of Appeals in 2011 invited the tribe and the organizations to submit the case.
Most Michigan appeals cases are concluded within 18 months, said Marcia McBrien, a public information officer with the Michigan Supreme Court, in an email response.
But she said this case has had multiple extensions for parties to file briefs, which lengthens the time it takes for the case to be heard. The plaintiffs requested an injunction to halt the mine while the case sits, but it was turned down.
The long wait has been a struggle for the tribe, said Jessica Koski, a mining technical assistant with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Access to Eagle Rock, adjacent to the mine tunnel, has been hampered since work began at the site, Koski said. Used for offerings, celebrations and reflection, the area is where the tribe can “really connect with the creator,” she said. The company and the state do not recognize the “inherent degradation of a sacred area,” Koski said. “It’s pretty sad when we do go there to visit.”
But Blondeau said the company, which purchased the mine from London-based Rio Tinto earlier this year, has done everything it can to accommodate the tribe.
“The rock is fenced in and we have contractors and workers stay off it,” he said.
He called he environmental fears unwarranted.
Reverse osmosis technology will treat all the water in the mine. “Once it’s through that, it’s essentially distilled water,” Blondeau said.
The mining tailings – the stuff left over after the nickel or copper is extracted from the ore – will be sent to an offsite mill. The holding area will be double-lined with leak-detection and collection systems, and the tailings will be mixed with limestone to neutralize their acidity.
The company also has taken the unique, voluntary step of allowing Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust, an Upper Peninsula environmental group, to conduct monitoring beyond what the state of Michigan does.
In April, the organization’s tests found uranium in a storage area for water at the mine at twice the level allowed in drinking water. The state and federal government do not regulate water quality in the storage tank, which is not a potable supply, so if not for the independent monitoring, it wouldn’t have been found.
Casey said the finding was not surprising given how prevalent uranium is around the Upper Peninsula. The uranium, like the vanadium, was naturally occurring, he said. The company sampled for any sources that might be causing it and found none.
However, the department will be reissuing groundwater discharge permits to include uranium in response to the finding.
“We’re doing it more to address public concern,” Casey said. “This is not something we think is or will be a health concern.”
The company plans to produce about 23,000 tons of nickel and 20,000 tons of copper a year at the mine, according to the Eagle Mine website. The expected mine life is eight years – after which the company will backfill the tunnel with the rock it took out.
Restoring the site to what it looked like before the mine will take about seven to 10 years, Blondeau said. It will either be returned as close as possible to its natural state, or into whatever the community wants, he said.
But that’s not enough so the tribe is hoping to win its appeal, Koski said.
“We can’t stop fighting what is a threat to our treaty rights and our way of life,” she said.
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