Friday, July 02, 2010

EPA: Federal permit not required for Kennecott wastewater infiltration system

"Ore body 150 feet down" is the title of this photo of the Salmon Trout River, which flows above the site of Kennecott Minerals' proposed sulfide mine near Marquette. The River contains a rare population of Coaster Brook Trout. (File photo © 2007 Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and courtesy Reprinted with permission.)

By Michele Bourdieu

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A letter from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- dated July 1, 2010, and addressed to Jonathan Cherry of Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company (a subsidiary of Rio Tinto) -- states that the EPA agrees with Kennecott that a federal Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit is not required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for a Treated Wastewater Infiltration System (TWIS) to be constructed at the Kennecott Eagle Mine, a sulfide mine for nickel and copper in Marquette County, Michigan, located only 10 miles from Lake Superior.

The letter states, in part, as follows: "We have reviewed the revised plans for construction of the TWIS and agree that a permit is not required under the federal UIC program for the infiltration system as currently designed. Based upon our review of the modified TWIS design, the lateral perforated piping that constitutes the fluid distribution system is above ground and is thus not a subsurface system. If there are further changes to the design of this unit, we will have to reconsider whether federal UIC requirements apply. ..."

Keepers of the Water, a local group opposed to Kennecott's sulfide mine, issued a press release today, July 2, noting the decision comes three months after Rio Tinto unilaterally announced that it did not need to obtain the federal permit, after making minor adjustments to its plan to dispose of roughly 180 million gallons of treated wastewater every year on the Yellow Dog Plains, an area that houses some of the most sensitive drinking water aquifers in the continental United States.

"Regardless of the EPA’s recent decision, for over two months Rio Tinto engaged in illegal activity that violated the terms of their land lease with the State of Michigan and state law regulating sulfide mining," said Teresa Bertossi, an organizer with Keepers of the Water. "Without legal authority to begin construction work, Rio Tinto bulldozed the entire mine site around Eagle Rock, fenced off public land and squandered taxpayer resources to get three people arrested for being on that public land; Rio Tinto’s lease with the state should have been revoked in April, when they first started bulldozing."

Eagle Rock, a sacred site to the Ojibwa people, located on State land leased by Kennecott for its sulfide mine, was fenced off in mid-June 2010, after mining opponents camping and praying here were arrested for trespassing. (File photo courtesy Stand for the Land)

In response to the EPA letter, Kennecott issued a July 1 statement on its Web site, saying, "Today’s determination by EPA that a federal permit -- separate from a comparable state permit issued previously to Kennecott -- is not required of Kennecott for its system to return clean, safe water from mine operations back to the environment provides clarification important for the community as mine facility construction proceeds."

In its letter to Kennecott, the EPA affirms its authority to address possible contamination from the TWIS that may endanger underground drinking water sources, regardless of design or permits.

"We understand that discharges from the TWIS are subject to a State permit that includes monitoring and response requirements," the EPA letter says. "We will continue to coordinate with the State to determine whether any federal response action with respect to the TWIS is necessary."

The EPA letter adds an acknowledgement of "significant community and tribal interests involved in the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Project," and encourages Kennecott to continue dialogue with the local community and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC).

The author of the letter, Peter S. Silva, EPA assistant administrator for Water, concludes, "It is EPA's expectation that Kennecott will follow through on efforts to consider all viewpoints, and consider any appropriate environmentally beneficial changes to the Project."*

Kennecott's statement adds, "Kennecott takes seriously our obligation to comply with all laws and regulations pertaining to our activities, and we understand that the community must have confidence that they are being properly applied and strictly followed."*

Opponents of the mine insist, however, that Kennecott has already broken the law and that the Eagle Project threatens the environment.

"Michigan regulators apparently felt comfortable with letting Rio Tinto decide, on its own, what laws it needs to follow," said Bertossi. "Rio Tinto and Michigan regulators need to be held accountable in federal court for willfully breaking the law."

In addition, a lawsuit against Kennecott continues, according to National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Attorney Michelle Halley.

Joining NWF in the suit are the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Huron Mountain Club -- all of whom claim the project does not meet legal requirements for protecting the environment.

Opponents of the mine also fear the mine's ceiling could collapse beneath the Salmon Trout River, a Lake Superior tributary home to the rare coaster brook trout. Serious pollution of this and other waterways in the region could occur from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD).

When excavated, if sulfide ore or the tailings piles are exposed to water and air a chemical reaction can create sulfuric acid. Precipitation can cause sulfuric acid to drain from the mine site as AMD, which can enter water resources and thereby harm people, plants, animals and metal and concrete structures. AMD also dissolves heavy metals (lead, zinc, copper, and mercury), allowing them to enter groundwater and surface water.

There has never been a metallic sulfide mine that has not polluted water resources where water was present.*

*Editor's Notes:
The full text of the EPA letter can be found on Stand for the Land.

More information on Acid Mine Drainage can be found on

Kennecott's statement in response to the EPA letter can be found on their Web site.

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