Monday, December 06, 2010

Mining expert Jack Parker says Eagle Mine likely to collapse

By Michele Bourdieu

TOIVOLA, Mich. -- Addressing the structural stability of Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine is a matter of life and death.

"Of course it is," says mining expert Jack Parker, semi-retired mining engineer/geologist, well respected for his practical experience in more than 500 mines around the world. Parker -- who has degrees in mining engineering, geological engineering and geology from Michigan Technological University -- specializes in practical rock mechanics, which he defines as "an understanding of the properties and behavior of rocks and rock structures -– and what to do about it."

Jack Parker of Toivola, semi-retired mining engineer / geologist, specializes in practical rock mechanics. He recently published two reports on the instability of Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine. (Photo courtesy Jack Parker)

Parker has written numerous technical papers on this practical approach and, since 1971, has independently given advice to miners and engineers to help them resolve problems in mine design and operation.

Most recently, Parker published two reports on the Eagle Mine, pointing out reasons why it is likely to collapse if mined as planned in Kennecott's mining permit application, which was approved by the former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), now part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (MDNRE). The permit has been challenged in a contested case, in which the MDEQ's Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson ruled in favor of both Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. (KEMC) and the company's apparent partner in the case, the MDEQ.*

Catherine Parker of Marquette, daughter of Jack Parker, reads an excerpt from Jack Parker's August 2010 report on the Eagle Mine at the Sept. 28, 2010, Marquette County Commissioners Sept. 28, 2010, Meeting of the Committee of the Whole Meeting. Catherine Parker gave commissioners copies of the report. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

This case is now being appealed by the groups challenging the permit: National Wildlife Federation, Huron Mountain Club, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve. Parker was one of several experts testifying in the contested case held in the spring of 2008. He testified that the Eagle mine, as designed in Kennecott’s permit application, was likely to collapse. Later he published the reports to call attention again to the stability issue.

Jack Parker’s April 2009 report on the Eagle Project

In his first report -- dated April 2009 and titled "KEMC Eagle Project: A Fraudulent Mining Permit Application?" -- Parker said he had studied Kennecott's permit application for three years and concluded that the mine and its crown pillar (the rock above the mine) would not be stable. He called the application "misleading, deceitful and potentially dangerous." The report questions Kennecott's use of computer modeling as an approach to mine design. Parker also illustrates the report with photos of drill cores, showing weakness in the rock and pointing out missing numbers in Rock Mass Ratings that betray an effort to hide the poor core, thus misrepresenting the strength of the crown pillar. Samples of drawings also show how Kennecott concealed weak areas of rock in their use of color in the designs -- which would have deceived and misled the hired mine planners.

Parker says in this first report that he agrees with David Sainsbury, a rock mechanics expert hired by the MDEQ, who, in his 2006 Technical Review of the geotechnical portion of the application drafted by Kennecott's mine design consultants, Golder and Associates, was highly critical of the design.

Parker quotes Sainsbury as saying, "'The analysis techniques used to assess the Eagle crown pillar stability do not reflect industry best practice. In addition, the hydrologic stability of the crown pillar has not been considered. Therefore the conclusions made within the Eagle Project Mining Permit Application regarding crown pillar subsidence are not considered to be defensible.'"

"That was Sainsbury’s polite way of saying they were not supported by fact," Parker says.

As Parker points out, Sainsbury was asked more than once to rewrite his report and omit certain details, but still came to the same conclusion about the instability of the crown pillar.

"They hid those reports but hired a second expert, Wilson Blake, Ph D, also respected in the industry," Parker writes. "In a hasty response he gave KEMC/MDEQ some support but added that although he used to use their methods (numerical modeling), he gave up on them years ago, preferring instead to go look at the problem situations."

Although Blake testified for the MDEQ in the contested case, the Petitioners' Brief in support of their appeal of the contested case decision refers to Blake's respect for Parker's expertise: "According to the MDEQ's own expert, Parker's study of the geologic stresses in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and the significance of those stresses for mine construction, remains the seminal work on the subject. MDEQ's expert voluntarily identified Mr. Parker as an 'icon' in his field. Parker testified unequivocally that the risk of collapse at the proposed Eagle Mine is 'likely.'"

Parker's practical approach is evident in the examples he gives of questionable sampling (choosing only the best rock samples to represent a rock mass and basing calculations, analyses and designs on these samples) and questionable testing (for example, using dry samples in a lab to test rock strength, thus assuring more optimistic results since wet rocks lose much of their strength).

During an interview with Keweenaw Now, mining expert Jack Parker explains photos of rock core samples in his April 2009 report on the Eagle Mine. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Noting that the MDEQ told their expert Sainsbury to leave case histories out of his reports, Parker says a geologist or person planning a mine should always look at similar mines in similar conditions in order to anticipate problems. Their second expert, Blake, said the same thing. Parker describes the 1987 collapse of the Ropes Mine near Ishpeming and the 1932 collapse of the Athens Mine south of Negaunee. In the latter case, the crown pillar was 1800 feet thick and described as "jaspilite," an extremely strong rock.

"Remember that KEMC/Golder first said that a crown pillar about 100 ft. thick would be stable," Parker writes. "After questioning they doubled it to 200 ft, and eventually, tripled it, to 300 ft. No confidence in their calculations and predictions? Strange that their hi-tech calculations would add an even 100 ft each time they were challenged. At the Athens mine the crown pillar, 1800-1900 feet thick, was 'Not relevant!' they say."

Parker adds, "It was 1800-1900 feet thick, but it did fail."

Parker concludes his 2009 report with an explanation of the importance of horizontal stress on the crown pillar.

A major problem with Kennecott's design, Parker says, is this: "NOBODY KNOWS EITHER THE ORIENTATION OR THE MAGNITUDE OF THE STRESSES IN THE CROWN PILLAR. IT FOLLOWS THAT NOBODY CAN PREDICT THE DEGREE OF STABILITY OF THE CROWN WITH CERTAINTY. NOBODY!" (Emphasis is Parker’s.)**

Jack Parker's second report, August 2010

In August 2010, Parker published a second report on the Kennecott Eagle Project. This one, only 16 pages long, is titled "THE KENNECOTT EAGLE MINE PLANNED FOR UPPER MICHIGAN IS PREDICTED TO BE UNSTABLE." Parker said he wrote this second report because it seemed no one had paid attention to the first one, perhaps because he had presented so many details on the errors in Kennecott's application.

"The reports begin to resemble encyclopedias, full of facts, perhaps, but nobody reads encyclopedias from beginning to end," Parker writes in his Introduction to the August 2010 report. "This time I confine my observations to the most significant errors -- those concerning health and safety, primarily the stability of the mine and the crown pillar in particular."

The crown pillar, says Parker, is all the rock between the top of the mine and the top of the bedrock.

In their permit application, Parker explains, "Kennecott includes everything above the top of the mine, including the weathered and fractured rock."

Parker considers that a grave error.

Parker's second report includes a page of color photos of 50 ft. of core samples (all dry) from the crown pillar of the Eagle Mine. His comment on these is as follows:

"Stability depends more on rock structure than on laboratory measurements of strength of small, select, intact samples."

This is one of the core samples Parker includes in his August 2010 report. "Would you care to work under this roofrock?" Parker asks. (Photo courtesy Jack Parker)

In just a few pages, Parker shows how Kennecott and their consultants, Golder Associates, used a computer modeling approach and arrived at designs based on numbers that are arbitrary -- or even missing, as in the example of the missing Rock Mass Ratings (RMRs) for 87 feet of the weaker rock types in the crown pillar -- which hid the potential instability of the rock.

"The rocks don't lie but the numbers do," Parker writes.

He also points out, as he did in his first report, that RMRs from dry samples have to be adjusted (lowered) since the actual rocks are wet.

"THE CORRECTED RMRs, APPLIED TO K/G (Kennecott/Golder) METHODOLOGY, PREDICT THAT THE MINE AND THE CROWN PILLAR WILL BE UNSTABLE," Parker notes with emphasis. ***

Two other nationally recognized experts on mining engineering and geological issues -- Dr. Marcia Bjornerud of Lawrence University, Appleton, Wis., and Dr. Stanley Vitton of Michigan Technological University -- testified for the Petitioners in the contested case. The Petitioners note that, along with Parker, Bjornerud and Vitton provided days of detailed testimony, corroborating, explaining and supporting the criticisms of the application made by Drs. Sainsbury and Blake, as well as the prediction of likely mine collapse.

According to the Petitioners' Brief, "Bjornerud studied extensive photographs of the core samples which showed the quality of rock in and around the intended crown pillar and, using generally accepted formulas, determined that the rock was of very low quality (rubble) and that the crown pillar itself could fail through crumbling or longer-term deterioration."

(The Petitioners' Brief also explains that Kennecott refused to produce the actual core samples so these Petitioners' experts had to conduct their analysis from photographs obtained through FOIA requests. The Administrative Law Judge in the contested case refused to order the actual samples and then, ironically, dismissed these experts' testimony based on the photographs because they didn't have access to the core samples!)

In their Brief, Petitioners question Administrative Law Judge Patterson's reliance on "experimental backfill procedures" to prevent crown pillar failure: "Even before blasting occurs in the secondary stopes, right up against the backfill in the primary stopes, the strength of that backfill is only a tiny fraction of that of the ore it is replacing (20,000 psi vs. 218 psi).

They note that Vitton's calculations show the blasting against the backfill combined with acidic action would lead to a prediction of 12 or more feet of settling beneath the Salmon Trout River. Respondents in the case did not contradict this conclusion.

Vitton recently told Keweenaw Now that, while the 12 foot of settlement would be in the backfill material, not necessarily the total settlement of the crown pillar, it would be close to that if the crown pillar failed.

View of the Salmon Trout River. Kennecott's ore body is under this trout stream. The river is at great risk if the mine underneath it should collapse. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

The Petitioners' Brief refers to the testimonies of Parker and, Bjornerud and Vitton as "Unrebutted."

On the other hand, the Administrative Law Judge's Proposal for Decision (PFD), for reasons unknown, concludes that the mine will not collapse.

According to the Petitioners' Brief, "The way the PFD reaches a 'conclusion' that this mine will not collapse, against all of the testimony and calculations of the five geologic and mine engineering experts which indicate that it will likely collapse, was by either omitting (with respect to Sainsbury and Blake) or dismissing out of hand (with respect to Parker, Bjornerud and Vitton) all of the testimony indicating the likely catastrophic collapse of this mine."

Faced with all the expert criticism warning of the instability of the crown pillar, Kennecott proposed that the whole application "would be subject to future revisions during the course of excavation and mining, this time without any public review whatsoever," the Petitioners add.

Parker's main point in both of his reports is that safety was intentionally compromised by omission and guesswork, resulting in violation of Part 632, Michigan's Nonferrous Metallic Mining Regulations.

Parker includes in his August 2010 Report an excerpt from Section 324.63223 of Part 632, concerning violations and penalties. These include making a false statement in a permit application under Part 632 (a felony, punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and fines of $2500 to $25,000 per day for each violation or, in the case of a second conviction for this same violation, fines of $25,000 to $50,000 per day). If the court finds evidence of substantially endangering the public health, safety or welfare, that is punishable by five years in prison and fines of at least $ 1 million). ****

Recently, Parker told Keweenaw Now he sees compromise as the only solution to the dilemma of Kennecott breaking the Part 632 law but being allowed to proceed by the DNRE.

"Four and a half years of study still uphold the early findings that Kennecott doctored the technical data in their application to assure issue of permits," Parker says. "And they still maintain that they 'have a good plan and will stick with it' despite the fact that when corrected data are inserted into their design approach the results show that the mine will be unstable -- thus endangering life, limb, property and environment."

Parker notes Kennecott continues to work on mine construction, ignoring the requirements of the law and reinterpreting the law when necessary.

"MDEQ (now MDNRE) allows them to do so," he says.

Construction at the Kennecott mine site (shown in this Nov. 9, 2010, aerial photo) is ongoing, despite litigation still claiming the company is ignoring Part 632, Michigan's Nonferrous Metallic Mining Regulations. Click on photo for larger version. (Photo © 2010 and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

Despite this, as Parker sees it, the dilemma is that the ore bodies are very valuable, the State needs money and many local people need jobs.

"A fair number of them are already enjoying their work at the mine site and their paychecks and they ought not to be punished," Parker adds. "Put yourself in their
place."

Parker says he believes all of the existing plans could be improved upon immensely -- the access, the mining, the duration of mining, the ore processing, the transportation, the marketing and the sharing of proceeds.

"I would expect Kennecott to make such changes piecemeal, by subterfuge, by rewriting the law," he notes.

Editor’s Notes:
* "The consolidated contested case hearing began on April 28, 2008. There were 40 days of testimony, concluding on July 16, 2008, followed by a site visit. During the hearing, 59 persons testified, many of them expert witnesses. In addition, the de bene esse deposition of Dr. Sainsbury was admitted, as were numerous detailed technical exhibits. All parties' closing arguments and proposed findings of fact were filed by October 15, 2008." (Appellants’ / Petitioners' Brief, pp. 15-16) Click here for the Appellants’ Brief.

** Click here to read Jack Parker’s April 2009 report on the Eagle Project.

*** Click here to read Jack Parker’s August 2010 report, predicting the Eagle Mine to be unstable.

**** See Michigan's Nonferrous Metallic Mining Regulations: Part 632 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, Act No. 451 of the Public Acts of 1994.
Parker’s excerpt is taken from p. 14.

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