Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Updated: Residents concerned about water quality question Rio Tinto-Kennecott at community forum

Matt Johnson, Kennecott manager of external affairs, begins his presentation on the Rio Tinto-Kennecott Eagle Mine during Kennecott's April 26, 2011, community forum at the Ramada Inn in Marquette. (Photos courtesy Allan Baker.)

By Michele Bourdieu

MARQUETTE -- More than 150 people filled a large room at the Ramada Inn in Marquette on April 26, 2011, for the fourth in a recent series of community forums hosted by Rio Tinto's Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company (KEMC) for open discussion of the Rio Tinto-Kennecott Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains near Big Bay, Mich.

KEMC began construction of infrastructure for the mine about a year ago. It is also a year since a group of Native and non-Native opponents of the mine camped out at Eagle Rock, an Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) sacred site, chosen by KEMC to be the portal for this nickel and copper mine estimated to earn the company $4.7 billion in profits.

Matt Johnson, KEMC manager of external affairs, assisted by Chantae Lessard, KEMC senior advisor for government and community relations, gave a 20-minute Power Point presentation on the project and then opened the forum to questions and discussion. The majority of those in the audience who asked questions or presented their views appeared to be concerned citizens opposed to the Eagle Mine, but some declared themselves to be neutral on the issue or in favor of the mine and KEMC.

Frank Jeff Verito, a 19-year Marquette resident, formerly from Wisconsin, said he came to the forum to hear what Kennecott had to say and to have the opportunity to make a public comment.

During the April 26 community forum, Frank Jeff Verito of Marquette expresses his views on the impacts of Kennecott's Eagle Mine.

"I moved here because it was one of the least spoiled places, and now it’s being spoiled," Verito said.

During the forum, Verito read a statement with his opinions, saying, "We’ve seen Kennecott demonstrate the epitome of the step-by-step, hurdle-by-hurdle approach that corporations use to cram their filth down the throats of residents who want no part of them. First they influenced the DEQ to grant their application, which some of us knew was a done deal from day one. Then suddenly an untold number of trees were destroyed for power lines, followed by the urgent need for a haul road, which would consume more acreage than the mine site itself, not to mention the wetlands, the moose habitat, and access for major future developments over some of the UP’s wildest remaining areas."

Verito said he had spoken with residents of Ladysmith, Wis., site of Kennecott’s Flambeau Mine, (now the subject of a lawsuit over water pollution from that mine). He said he believed there is no safe way to do sulfide mining near a fragile aquifer.

Potential water pollution was a major concern in many of the comments made at this forum.

Johnson, apparently aware of this concern, emphasized the importance of the water treatment facility now being built at the Eagle Mine. During the presentation, Johnson projected a slide with an aerial photo, taken last fall, of the 100-acre site, noting the site has been designed to have water management as a priority. He explains this in the following video clip:

Using an aerial view of the Eagle Mine site on dual screens, Matt Johnson, Kennecott manager of external affairs, with the assistance of Chantae Lessard, Kennecott senior advisor for government and community relations, points out locations where water will be treated and stored during mining operations. (Video clips courtesy Allan Baker)

Johnson noted 75 employees worked this winter on construction of the reverse osmosis water treatment facility, which the company hopes to complete later this year.

A slide in the Rio Tinto presentation states, "Our water treatment facility is at the heart of our commitment to protect water."

Lessard points one of six water tanks inside the reverse osmosis water treatment plant, still under construction. Each holds about 22,000 gallons of water.

Jennifer Silverston, a concerned Marquette resident, asked three technical questions related to Johnson’s presentation on the mining operation. First, she wanted to know how the rock (containing sulfides) removed from the mine and stored on site on a pad or liner would be prevented from reacting with air and water (which can cause Acid Rock Drainage or ARD, aka Acid Mine Drainage) before it goes back into the mine.* Second, she asked where the minerals from the reverse osmosis treatment plant would be deposited when separated from the water. Third, she asked if the company was planning for "a hundred-year storm or a thousand-year storm" with their design.

Kristen Mariuzza of KEMC, answered Silverston’s first question by explaining the rock would be stored on several liners and a leak-detection sump and would be covered as much as possible. As for the question on the minerals filtered out by the reverse osmosis system, Mariuzza said they would be "squeezed" out of the water and tested to determine whether they should go into a hazardous waste site or a regular landfill. She also explained that the company had evaluated both a 100-year rainfall event and a 50-year combined snow melt and rainfall event and decided on the latter for the design, since the combined snow melt and rainfall produced more water.

Silverston appeared dubious about the 50-year design because of climate change:

KEMC's Kristen Mariuzza replies to questions from Marquette resident Jennifer Silverston concerning the reverse osmosis system of the water treatment plant and the long-term planning for water protection at the Eagle Mine site.

Richard Sloat of Iron County said Kennecott's water treatment plant will operate at the Eagle Mine without having been tested. He asked Johnson if Kennecott would sign a letter of agreement to test the reverse osmosis plant with polluted water from the Buck Mine, an abandoned iron mine in Iron County that was located in a highly concentrated sulfide body.

Sloat questioned an explanation he received when he spoke with Rick Thomas, Rio Tinto managing director, Project Delivery Hub (Americas) Technology and Innovation.

He said Thomas told him if the treatment plant doesn't work, "we'll just tweak it later."

Richard Sloat, Iron County resident, brings up the fact that Rio Tinto - Kennecott's reverse osmosis plant, being built on the Eagle Mine site, will not have been tested before mining operations begin. He asks that Rio Tinto test it, in advance of mining operations, with polluted water from an abandoned mine in Iron County.

"I don't think that's unreasonable -- to protect our water," Sloat said. "You basically said, in a video I watched, 'We're all concerned about the water.'"

Mariuzza replied to Sloat that the water treatment plant would have to be tested with comparable water and she wasn't sure the water from the Buck Mine would be comparable. While she could not commit to such testing right away, Mariuzza admitted Sloat had good points and she did not dismiss his request.

"I won't leave this unanswered," she said.

Cynthia Pryor of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve expressed concern about Johnson’s description of where the tunnel would go from its entrance at Eagle Rock. He described it on the aerial photo, saying, "We actually have two plans -- one that curves around to the north, one that curves around to the south …"

Cynthia Pryor of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve asks for clarification on the proposed direction of the Eagle Mine tunnel.

Pryor challenged the idea of the tunnel going south because of the location of the Salmon Trout River to the south and her understanding that the permit and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) are based on a plan to have the tunnel going north.

Johnson confirmed the permit does say the tunnel is going to go north, but the south route was being considered:

Matt Johnson tries to answer Cynthia Pryor's concerns about potential harm to the Salmon Trout River if the Eagle Mine tunnel should be directed to the south.

Johnson then mentioned "many permit amendment approvals" by the DEQ, but Pryor noted the importance of the impact to the watershed if the tunnel were to go south.

A member of the audience asked a question about seepage into the aquifer from the broken rock in the mine.

"The water on the surface that’s supplying the Salmon Trout River -- that’s separate from the water in the underground mine," Mariuzza said.

In addition, the company will be monitoring the water level throughout the life of the mine, she added.

Barbara Bradley of Skandia spoke about the water pollution at Kennecott’s Flambeau Mine in Ladysmith, Wis.; water violations by a Kennecott mine in Alaska and both water and air pollution at their Bingham Canyon mine in Utah.

Barbara Bradley of Skandia reminds Rio Tinto-Kennecott of their past practices that violate both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Johnson claimed Kennecott had worked with the EPA to clean up waste from previous mining at the Utah site in order to prevent it from being a Superfund site. As for the polluted drinking water, he noted Kennecott was providing drinking water to residents there.

Some members of WAVE (Water Action Vital Earth), a new grassroots citizens' group in Marquette, also spoke about water concerns.

WAVE member Laura Nagle of Marquette expressed concern about water from the mine that may go into neighboring wells. She also explained WAVE's purpose.

"(WAVE's) focus is to protect our clean water and create sustainable jobs within our community," Nagle said. "If we find an alternative route, then we and our grandchildren and our children will be able to live without toxins."

Another WAVE member, Margaret Comfort, spoke of toxins she was exposed to when living in the Saginaw area.

"We need to tread softly and carefully and not try to bypass things," Comfort said, "because once the water's messed up it's messed up forever."

Jeffery Loman, deputy director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement and a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who now lives in Alaska, asked several questions dealing with trust and ethics.

He first pointed out that at both the Humboldt community forum, held by Kennecott on April 19, and at this one, Rio Tinto-Kennecott's presentations stated the legal challenges to the Eagle Mine were over. Loman asked Johnson if that is their position -- that there are no more legal challenges to their permits or projected activities for the Eagle Mine.

"There was a contested case on the Part 632 mine permits that were granted, and the judge ruled in favor of the state and the mining company’s position," Johnson replied, "and the National Wildlife Federation and others have filed an appeal on that and that’s coming up."**

Loman said he plans to ask the Administrator of EPA, Lisa Jackson -- as a matter of policy -- to designate the Yellow Dog Watershed an Area of Aquatic Resource of National Interest.

After noting Rio Tinto’s arrogance and lack of ethics in hiring state employees formerly involved with regulating their project to work on the project for them, Loman suggested a way the company could redeem itself:***

Alaska resident and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member Jeffery Loman, deputy director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, suggests that Rio-Tinto-Kennecott do a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) for the Eagle Mine.

To Loman’s request that Rio Tinto-Kennecott do a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), Johnson replied, "Yes, we would consider that."

Johnson noted United Nations core values the company holds are listed on their Web site.

These are listed under the principles of human rights, labor standards, environment, and anti-corruption.****

After the forum, Cynthia Pryor of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve summed up the reason many mine opponents attended the forum.

"Why we all came here was to bring all these issues to the public’s attention so they get a well-balanced view -- not just the company’s opinions," Pryor said.

Editor’s Notes: This is the first in a series of articles on Kennecott’s three-hour community forum held in Marquette April 26. Watch for the next article with more public comments and concerns expressed at the meeting.

*KEMC’s Web site, under "Water Protection," calls this "development rock." It says, "Development rock -- non-ore bearing rock drawn from underground as the mine is built -- contains sulphide bearing minerals. Development rock needs to be stored on the surface during the project’s construction and development, before being used as backfill. As the development period may last several years, there is a risk that ARD may occur." Click here for Kennecott’s explanation of their planned protection against ARD (Acid Rock Drainage).

** Loman noted correctly that the appeal was not mentioned in Kennecott’s presentation on the mine. The hearing on this appeal is scheduled for June 9, 2011.

*** Matt Johnson formerly worked for former US Rep. Bart Stupak and for former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, although not in a regulating capacity. Kristen Mariuzza is a former DEQ employee. A note under the Jan. 28, 2011, YouTube TV-6 video interview with Mariuzza at Kennecott’s water treatment plant, under construction, states, "Mariuzza reviewed and signed off on Rio Tinto's wastewater treatment plans while with the DEQ and shortly after went to work for the company."
Click here for the YouTube video clip, "TV6 Interviews DEQ Employee-Turned Rio Tinto Employee."

**** Click here to read about Rio Tinto’s participation in the United Nations Global Compact.

UPDATE:  Click here for Part 2 of this series: "Kennecott Forum, Part 2: Comments on Eagle Rock, mining permit."


Oshkinawe-Ogichidaag Akiing said...

Kennecott says they value core United Nations principles. However, Indigenous Rights is not one of them listed despite increasing recognition of indigenous rights and overwhelming international support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I have prepared a document highlighting key articles of this declaration needed to protect Eagle Rock from Kennecott and it is available online at: http://newwarriorsforearth.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/indigenousrightseaglerock1.pdf

The company's actions and impacts around the world simply do not speak truth to any of their proclaimed respect for international principles.

Keweenaw Now said...

Miigwech! I think the link should be this: http://newwarriorsforearth.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/indigenousrightseaglerock2.pdf

Eugene Worth said...

I live next to the mill where this company plans tp extract gold silver nickel. The previous mine company had contaminates of extremely high consintration of cyanide and mercy levels which contaminated the local ppls drinking wells. Now this company is going to start processing and not many are aware of the total extent of additional air and water contaminents that will become a major factor in recontamination of the wetlands drinking wells and tje escanaba river once again. I would hopqe the ppl. Would be as concerned about this end of thier project here in humbolt mi. As they are of that of the yellow dog plains

Keweenaw Now said...

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Worth. I'm hoping to do a story on Humboldt soon.

Eugene Worth said...

That would be very appreciated..there is a town hall meeting Monday at the Humboldt reap hall Dec 3Rd would appreciate if someone could show up.....

Eugene Worth said...

Would appreciate more coverage here at the Humboldt mill site this area as stated has been contaminated by previous company and total continent is in question pertaining to water tables used for drinking water

Keweenaw Now said...

Thanks, Mr. Worth. Working on a story now. Please email me at andersm@pasty.com.