Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Letter to EPA: Comments on CR 595 road proposal

Editor's Note: The following letter, dated Apr. 6, 2012, was sent to the Watersheds and Wetlands Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5, Chicago, Ill., during the public comment period on the Marquette County Road Commission's permit application for the proposed CR 595, a haul road for the Rio Tinto-Kennecott Eagle Mine.

These observations do not deal with the details of road planning and construction and the environment -- but with the underlying fundamentals, essentially that the applicant, Kennecott Eagle Mining Corporation, is not and never has been negotiating in good faith.

We, a small group which evaluated the application for mining permits, initially for the National Wildlife Foundation but without sponsorship when NWF funds ran out in 2008, have found and reported that the application document was, and still is, unacceptably ill-conceived, erroneous, deceitful and fraudulent.

It is strange, but true, that we have presented the evidence to the regulating agency (MDEQ), to the courts and to all legal authorities up to the State Attorney General, then the U.S. Attorney General, then the FBI, and all simply said, "No thank you. End of conversation," and all refused to even investigate the charges. We have the proof.

Since the operations went underground in September 2011 MSHA entered the picture, being held specifically responsible for Mine Safety and Health Administration. We handed them proof of two specific allegations: That the mine design was based upon incorrect and falsified design data and that the mine design, if followed, would be unstable and might well collapse without warning (as did the Athens iron mine near Negaunee, MI, despite the 1800 ft. thick crown pillar) and as did the Ropes gold mine near Ishpeming.

NB: Sainsbury, the technical expert hired by MDEQ to evaluate the mining aspects of the application, testified that he was told by MDEQ to delete those "case histories" from his report. That surely should have raised a red flag over the permitting proceedings. But it did not.

At this time MSHA tells us that in Metallic Mining law their mandate is to deal with unsafe operations as they show up, but not preemptively. In Coal Mining law they do have power to evaluate and allow or reject planned activities. Judging from the Athens mine collapse events we will have to wait for the Eagle to collapse then send in an investigative team or two, much as we did at the two recent major coal mine disasters in Utah and W. Va.

This attitude fits the generally recognized pattern within the industry -- which is to "Do anything and to say anything to get the permits -- then make changes as necessary." Law 632 requires supported amendments for each of these changes, unless the DEQ deems them to be "insignificant" -- which is what the DEQ usually does -- without the required public hearings and input. To me, a plain old engineer, that looks like collusion.

The Federal agencies have some degree of independence and in the earlier evaluation of a haul road displayed it by declaring that the name "Woodland Road," or "Wetland Road," was deceptive in that a simple truck count or tonnage count would show that haulage of ore from mine to mill was/is the primary purpose for building it, and if there were no mine then no new road would be built.

The deception continues. Behind the scenes Kennecott deals with local authorities and induces them to get state funds to help with the haulage roads, and still they have no permitted route. Incidentally 632 requires that ALL mining-related permits be in hand before other mining-related activities begin. That ruling has been ignored, or defied, since Day One, by extension of power lines, for example.

As evidence of gross deception Kennecott continues to soothe local objections by sticking to their original story that the mine will produce an average of 1500 tons/day, i.e thirty 50-ton truckloads per day. The locals appear to have accepted that proposition. But the Humboldt Mill is being constructed to handle not 1500 but 10,000 tons/day. Obviously they intend to mine more, not thirty but two hundred round trips per day. That, of course, would make a lot of difference -- first to their claim to be open and transparent in their dealings with the public -- thence to the degree of opposition aroused. Revelation of the truth could sink the project.

That intentional opacity is again demonstrated in their refusal to answer all questions about the most basic questions concerning the design of a new road -- How much traffic per day? How heavy the loads? What speed limits, gradients, vertical and horizontal curves? Trucks do not have to go 55 mph! Think about noise, dust and accidents.

For what length of time will the haul road be needed? 

More specifically -- how many years would KEMC mine at the Eagle prospect? If, as planned, they take only the high-grade ore ($1,000/ton) they could do it in five or six years; but if they mined more responsibly they could recover an additional billion dollars worth of $150 ore and extend the life of the mine another 15 years. That would be much more desirable from our point of view.

The numbers are in the application.

They do not disclose their intentions directly but the corporate (Rio Tinto) business plan is to seek out and operate only projects which will be profitable through times both thick and thin -- which implies that they will take only high-grade -- as they did at the Flambeau mine in Wisconsin. Is it to be a 5-year life? Or 20 years?

Another question which they avoid -- although you asked it for "Woodland Road" -- is this: "How many other destinations will the haul road serve?" How much additional environment will be disturbed? I am reasonably sure that they have strong, if not conclusive, indications from their airborne and other exploration efforts. But that, of course, is called proprietary information. Behold the cloak.

Conclusion: I believe that all road-planning to date has been based on intentional deception, and should therefore be thrown out, and that KEMC should be required to start again, specifically without deception, thus displaying their vaunted openness and transparency. If the facts are not forthcoming there should be no new road. (Say anything to get the permits!)

I would not be surprised if the original transportation plan would have been the best -- if they were mining only high-grade ore -- to truck it to a railhead close to Marquette and ship trainloads direct to refinery. No Humboldt mill was needed. There is still doubt concerning that 10,000 tpd operation -- and tailings disposal. (Some day somebody will discover that a large tailings pond would have to be built in the wetlands there. Another surprise!) Try this one: "Why was the multi-million dollar monumental Bridge to Nowhere built on CR510 in 2006 forward. The motive? Ask for a photograph of the finished product.

Respectfully submitted,

Jack Parker, Mining Engineer
Baltic MI 49963

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