Monday, March 12, 2012

DEQ hearing on Orvana mine project attracts local support, critiques of tailings pile near Lake Superior

Geologist Chuck Brumleve, mining specialist for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), presents KBIC's critique of the planned Orvana Resources Copperwood mining project during the Department of Environmental Quality hearing on the project last Tuesday, March 6, at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Mich. (Photo courtesy Steve Garske)

By Steve Garske*

IRONWOOD, MICH. -- More than 300 people attended the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hearing in the gymnasium of Gogebic Community College in Ironwood on Tuesday night, March 6, 2012, to give their views of the Orvana Resources "Copperwood Project." This proposed underground mine would be located north of Ironwood and east of Black River Harbor, near the Lake Superior shoreline. The company has submitted plans for the mine and has received a draft permit from the Michigan DEQ.

Nearly all the people who commented said they were in favor of the mine and believed the DEQ should issue a mining permit to Orvana. Most who spoke were either local officials or business owners who would likely profit from the mine.

Local officials, residents express support for proposed mine

A representative of the Gogebic Range Water Authority (GRWA) started the comment session, saying that the GRWA could supply the mine with up to 5.5 million gallons of water per day, though he thought they would use much less than this. Ironwood School Superintendent Tim Kolesar said the mine would help reverse a long-term decline in school enrollment. Wakefield mayor Dick Bolen said the mine would "make this special place even more special."

Nearly all the people who spoke thought that the mine would help revive the local economy.

Several people stated their belief that the old mines scattered around western Gogebic County haven't hurt the environment at all, so this one wouldn't either. Dr. Jeff Miller (MD) commented that "even if things went wrong" and there was a serious problem with acid mine drainage from the tailings pile, that "nature is resilient" and always recovers.

Others gave nostalgic reasons for supporting the mine: mining is our heritage, life was good back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when the mines were operating, and by approving this mine we can start to bring back those days. At least half a dozen people said that Orvana had been open about their plans and that they trusted the company completely. Several said Orvana has financially supported various community events, and noted the company cares about the local communities.

Orvana Copperwood Project Coordinator Dave Anderson said Orvana has fulfilled all the requirements of Part 632. He said they have been collecting data for four years now and "no one has questioned their data." He said the mine "will not release any contaminants" and the discharge water would be cleaner than Lake Superior water. Anderson said they were working on a solution to the subsidence problem. (Until recently, the company had planned to remove the pillars when they were done mining and allow the overlying rock layers to collapse, dropping surface levels as well. Now they are looking into leaving the pillars intact to support the underground mined openings indefinitely.)

Critics note safety concerns, risks from above-ground tailings piles

Only a few people had comments that were critical of the proposal. One resident (a retired miner named James Anderson) told the panel that he was in favor of mining, but that the DEQ should pay attention to safety concerns. He said when he worked at the White Pine mine two co-workers were killed in an underground accident. He related how they knew that particular part of the mine was unstable but were ordered to work there. He said that if the workers had had a union, they could have refused to work in that dangerous mineshaft without being fired, and the union could have forced the company to make repairs. The former miner also related how pollution from the White Pine mine made its way to the Mineral River, killing the trout. He suggested hauling the tailings to the White Pine smelter to be processed.

A major point of contention with this mining permit stems from the fact that instead of moving the tailings back into the mine when ore extraction is finished (the industry standard), the company plans to simply pile them on the surface, in what is termed a "tailings disposal facility" or TDF. The tailings waste pile would eventually reach 140 feet high and cover 346 acres, or a little over one-half square mile. It would directly fill in about 8,000 feet of streams and 60 acres of wetlands. This tailings pile would be at risk of leaching heavy metals and other contaminants into nearby creeks, ravines and groundwater -- and eventually into Lake Superior. Tailings piles can leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals for centuries.

Geologist Chuck Brumleve, mining specialist for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), pointed out that KBIC is only 70 miles east of the Orvana site and reminded the audience that the tribe reserved the right to hunt, fish and gather in the ceded territory under the treaty of 1842. Noting how Native American tribes typically consider the impact of their decisions on seven generations, Brumleve said the decisions the company and the DEQ make will determine if we have a clean mine or a dirty mine. He pointed out that backfilling the mine with the tailings would be a much better solution than piling them above ground, where they will need perpetual monitoring and treatment. He said backfilling after the ore has been extracted has become a common practice in underground mines around the world.

Michelle Halley, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, questioned whether Orvana had fulfilled the requirements of Part 632. While she was pleased that Orvana had made a verbal commitment to abandon its plans to allow subsidence, she also expressed the view that the mine should be backfilled, thereby greatly reducing the size and environmental impact of the TDF. Halley pointed out that the planned leachate collection system underlies only a small portion of the TDF and therefore is inadequate, and would be a violation under Part 632. She also noted the proposed mine would encounter an underground fault zone, suggesting that the conductivity of the fault should be tested before they reach it, to ensure that they be prepared to correct the problem when they do reach the fault. Finally, she said the 180 days that Orvana would be allowed to submit updated models and predictions about ground water impacts and subsidence if monitoring shows unexpected results is much too long.

As one of the participants mentioned to this author, it seemed very few people of typical high school or college age were present at the hearing. In fact, it appeared that about 90 percent of the audience consisted of people of middle age or older. Yet young people are those who will be most affected by a poorly-planned mine. While looking to revive the good old days of mining, we might also want to revive the much older tradition of considering the seventh generation when making decisions about resource extraction in the UP.

Written comments accepted until April 3, 2012

According to their website, the DEQ will continue to accept written comments on their proposed decision to grant a Mining Permit until 5 .m. EDT, April 3, 2012. Comments can be mailed to MDEQ, PO Box 30256, 525 West Allegan Street, Lansing, MI 48909, or emailed to DEQ-Copperwood@michigan.gov. The DEQ is scheduled to issue a final decision on the Mining Permit on or before 5 p.m. on May 1, 2012. The final decision date may be extended if the DEQ requires additional information from Orvana based on questions raised by public comments.

The author thanks KBIC Mining Technical Assistant Jessica Koski for helpful background information relating to the Orvana Resources mining permit application.

*Editor's Note: Guest author Steve Garske is a resident of Marenisco, Mich., in Gogebic County.

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