Tuesday, July 10, 2012

MDEQ public hearing on Orvana Copperwood mine: Part 2

By Michele Bourdieu

At the June 28, 2012, public hearing comment session on air and water quality permits for the Orvana Resources Copperwood mining project, Steve Casey, right, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Water Resources Division district supervisor of the Upper Peninsula District Office, invites members of the audience to present their comments for the record. Seated with Casey are, from left, Vince Hellwig, MDEQ Air Quality Division decision maker for the Part 55 permit, and James Caron, Water Resources Division decision maker for the Parts 301 and 303 permit. The hearing was held at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood. (Photos by Keweenaw Now unless otherwise indicated.)

IRONWOOD, MICH. -- Statements of support from several local officials and local residents for Orvana Resources' Copperwood mining project (for a copper and silver mine located very close to Lake Superior in Gogebic County) dominated the officially recorded portion of the June 28, 2012, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hearing on the company's air and water quality permit application. However, some local residents and members of environmental groups continued to challenge the company's plan to store tailings (mining waste) 14 storeys above ground rather than following the industry best practice of backfilling the tailings (returning them to the mine openings). Their concerns also included an eagle's nest near Lake Superior, about a half mile from the mine site, and the nearly 60 acres of wetlands and approximately 13,672 feet of streams to be impacted by the project.

During a break between the question-answer session and the formal hearing for recorded public comments, MDEQ's Steve Casey, right, chats with Margaret Comfort of Save the Wild UP, left, and Rich Sloat of Iron County, Mich., about their environmental concerns. MDEQ staff were available for individual questions outside the formal hearing.* (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

In addition, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), in a letter to the MDEQ, is submitting a list of concerns about the potential copper and silver mine's impacts on the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, whose west entrance, along with the Presque Isle River and its mouth at Lake Superior, are located very close to the mine site. The projected tailings pile may also be a concern for the view shed from the Park.

Following an unofficial question-answer period, a larger crowd filled the Gogebic Community College gymnasium in Ironwood for the recorded comment portion of the hearing. Questions were not answered formally during this portion, but MDEQ staff could be requested to answer questions outside the hearing room. *

A large crowd filled the gymnasium at Gogebic Community College on June 28, 2012, for the public comment portion of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public hearing on air and water quality permits for Orvana Resources' Copperwood mining project. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Steve Casey, MDEQ Water Resources Division district supervisor of the Upper Peninsula District Office, opened this part of the hearing with a review of the information about the project being considered under Parts 55 (air quality), 301 (inland lakes and streams) and 303 (wetlands) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451 as amended, as stated in the MDEQ public notices on the Orvana permit application. In his introduction, he noted especially that the MDEQ decision is not to be based on whether there is widespread support for or opposition to the project, but on whether it meets the standards required by the statutes.

Steve Casey announces the purpose of the recorded, comment part of the June 28, 2012, MDEQ hearing on the Part 55 (air quality) permit and the Part 301 (inland lakes and streams) and Part 303 (wetlands) permit for Orvana Resources' Copperwood mining project. This is an excerpt from Casey's introduction. Click here to watch a a longer version (about 4 and a half minutes) of his introduction. (Video clips by Keweenaw Now)

The project, located northwest of Camp 7 Grade and County Road 519, will include an access road, mine entrance, mill, tailings basin and related structures.

As stated in the MDEQ Public Notice of May 18, 2012, "The mine will be a room and pillar mine with material being removed using the drill and blast mining method. Ore will be processed on site before being sent off site for smelting. Tailings will be disposed on site and aboveground."**

MDNR cites concerns about impacts to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

The project location is directly to the west and southwest of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- a prime Upper Peninsula tourist attraction offering waterfalls, camping, hiking, boating, fishing, both downhill and cross country skiing, spectacular views of the landscape and Lake Superior -- and more. It is Michigan's largest state park (nearly 60,000 acres) and one of the largest wilderness areas in the Midwest.

The Lake of the Clouds -- one of the most scenic views in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The view to the right of the photo (west and south) could be impeded by the proposed 14-storey-high tailings pile. According to Orvana's Alternative Analysis in their permit application, the Tailings Disposal Facility (TDF) and mill site will not be visible from this overlook, but a small clearing and the tops of the TDF dikes may be visible above the trees. Park aesthetics is one of the concerns mentioned by DNR staff in their communication with the DEQ. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

"The Park has been working with the DEQ to address some of the Park's concerns," Debbie Munson Badini, Michigan Department of Natural Resources deputy public information officer (Marquette office), told Keweenaw Now in a recent telephone interview. "At this point it seems most of those concerns (of the Parks and Recreation Commission and Park staff) have been addressed in the way the permits are written for the mine, and we'll continue to work with the DEQ on any concerns that we have."

Munson Badini outlined those concerns as follows:
  • the aesthetics of the Park
  • potential light pollution from the mine
  • potential noise pollution
  • potential impacts to water quality and quantity
The Presque Isle River heads over Manabezho Falls on its way to Lake Superior -- on the west side of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, very near the Orvana mine site to the west.

"Part of the formal process is that we detail these concerns in writing so that they're entered as part of the official record," she said.

The DNR comments are not part of the public comment process but are written in an official letter through an inter-agency process. Munson Badini said she expected the letter to be completed and sent to the DEQ in the next week.

Margaret Comfort of Save the Wild UP, who recently visited the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and hiked near the the mouth of the Presque Isle River and Lake Superior, spoke at the hearing about her own experience growing up downstate in a community affected by water pollution and her concerns about Upper Peninsula water resources. She describes her experience seeing an eagle's nest and a family of eagles (near Presque Isle campground) a half mile from Namebinag Creek -- which is the proposed wastewater outlet for the Orvana Copperwood mine.

During the comment portion of the June 28, 2012, MDEQ public hearing on the Orvana Copperwood mining project, Margaret Comfort of Save the Wild UP speaks about seeing an eagle's nest and some members of the eagle family while she was hiking near the mouth of the Presque Isle River, not far from the proposed mine site. After the hearing Comfort said she learned the actual distance of the nest from the proposed Copperwood mine site is about a half mile. 

This photo shows the eagle's nest observed recently near Namebinag Creek -- which is the proposed wastewater outlet for the Orvana Copperwood mine. (Photo © and courtesy Margaret Comfort)

Copperwood project supported, challenged at hearing

One of the first comments at the hearing was from Jeff King of King and McGregor Environmental, the agent for Orvana's application for the Parts 301 and 303 permit. In this video clip, Jeff King's statements on wetland mitigation are challenged by local resident Rich Sloat, who says, "You can't create wetlands ..."

Jeff King of King and McGregor Environmental, agent for Orvana, speaks about mitigation to restore or replace the nearly 60 acres of wetland to be impacted by the project. Rich Sloat, Iron County resident, challenges the idea of "creating" wetlands and speaks about the public's right to clean water.

Michelle Halley, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, also commented on negative impacts to streams and wetlands, noting the proposed mine also needs to meet federal standards. She notes the Tailings Disposal Facility (TDF) could be made to have a smaller footprint and offers evidence that Orvana has not done enough study on the possibility of backfilling the mine according to present industry standards.

Michelle Halley, National Wildlife Federation attorney, comments on water issues and the Tailings Disposal Facility in Orvana's permit application.

A representative of Golder Associates, the agent for Orvana's water treatment permit and the designer of their water treatment plant for the Copperwood site, expressed confidence in Orvana's commitment to regulatory compliance. He noted recycling of water would reduce discharges and reverse osmosis would help them meet mercury limitations. (Click here for the video of his comments.)

Michael Besonen, a local resident who lives very near the border of Wisconsin, said he is 100 percent in favor of the Copperwood mine. He was in agreement with some signs residents displayed at the meeting to express their opposition to Native Americans not in favor of the mine.

"I'm saying if there's going to be no mine, then there should be no casino," explained Besonen, who identified himself as a Tea Party member.

He said some residents plan to boycott Native-American-owned casinos if the tribes oppose the mine.

"We have natural resources we are not taking advantage of," Besonen said.

Butch Stone of the Bad River Tribe spoke about the 1854 treaty that gave the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) people the right to hunt, fish and gather on ceded territory (which includes the land where the mine is proposed to be built.)

"My concern is about the impacts of the mine on wildlife, plant life and water," Stone said. "Who's going to be responsible for the collateral damage?" (Click here for a video clip with Stone's comments.)

Jessica Koski, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) mining technical assistant, said KBIC's primary concern is the Tailings Disposal Facility and its potential impacts to streams, wetlands and Lake Superior -- impacts that could be avoided by backfilling the tailings according to widespread industry standards.

Jessica Koski, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community mining technical assistant, comments on the need to avoid potential environmental impacts, such as the current plan for the Tailings Disposal Facility, and on the need for long-term jobs for the community rather than short-term mining jobs.

Koski and Chuck Brumleve, KBIC's environmental mining specialist, sent formal comments on Copperwood's impacts on wetlands (Part 303) and streams (Part 301) to the MDEQ on July 8, 2012. Here is an excerpt from that KBIC Mining Technical Review Team letter:

"We believe that the proposed permanent surface disposal of approximately 32.2 million tons of mine tailings on site would lead to unacceptable destruction and degradation of water and aquatic resources:
  • The TDF's footprint would equal 346 acres.
  • It would directly fill in about 52 acres of wetland, making up almost 90 percent of the total wetland impact associated with the project.
  • It would directly fill in approximately 13,672 feet of streams -- an increase of 5,672 feet from Orvana's original mine permit application.
  • It would be located only about one and a half miles from Lake Superior.
  • It would pose a significant long-term perpetual care risk to area streams and wetlands, and Lake Superior.
"The TDF is predicted to release between 24-62 million gallons of leachate into the environment per year. Much of this excess tailings water is likely to migrate to the northwest corner, the lowest point of the TDF called the 'decant sump.' The tailings leachate -- consisting of heavy metals and other contaminants including sulfate, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, selenium, and zinc -- is predicted by Orvana to exceed water quality standards without treatment. After mining ceases and the Waste Water Treatment Plant is decommissioned, these heavy metals and other contaminants may leach into area soils, creeks and waters of Lake Superior."***

Map of proposed Copperwood Project
Map of the proposed Orvana mine, from their permit application. (Map courtesy Jessica Koski)

After the hearing, Koski gave Keweenaw Now her impressions of the comments from the audience.

"Essentially, my observation, based on the most recent Orvana hearing, is that the local people are very hopeful and trusting," Koski wrote in a recent email. "Hopeful for an economic boom to bring their young ones back home. Wholeheartedly trusting that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will do its job to protect their health and environment. However, so many of the individuals and local community leaders who spoke at the hearing seemed uninformed of the project beyond promises made to them directly by the mining company. In my opinion, the majority of the local community is oppressed in a way that they may not realize. They are caught in a framework in which they believe they are dependent upon an outside foreign company and the exploitation of their resources as the only way to save their community and provide job opportunities. The Copperwood project proposes an estimated 13-year mine life. The impacts to the environment, other pillars of sustainable economic development, and the next generation of grandchildren may last much longer into the future."

Steve Garske of Marenisco, Mich., also commented on the TDF, noting Orvana should be able to do it right, i.e., backfill the tailings. He also noted if the tailings were backfilled and not stored on land, that piece of land could then probably be restored to a forest. (See video clips of his questions on the tailings in our Part 1 article.)*

Comments from local government representatives at the hearing were very supportive of the Orvana Copperwood project but lacked any specific mention of environmental concerns related to either the air quality or the water quality statutes. An example is the full endorsement of the project by John Cox, Wakefield Township supervisor, who  expressed full confidence in Orvana to produce an environmentally sound project, including a water treatment plant, a supply of water to local communities, and copper that could be used for a future wind energy project.

Wakefield Township Supervisor John Cox, accompanied by two of his township trustees and the township clerk, expresses full confidence in Orvana's Copperwood project and the company's promises to protect the environment. 

Randy Scott, engineer for the Gogebic Range Water Authority, spoke about the need for jobs in the local communities, echoing a belief expressed by several residents that the Copperwood mine will help fill that need.

"This is a big deal for this community," Scott said. "There's been a recession (here) since I was a kid in the '50s."

Randy Scott, engineer for the Gogebic Range Water Authority, speaks about the need for jobs in the local community and expresses support for the Orvana Copperwood mine.

Scott told Keweenaw Now that the Gogebic Range Water Authority will be withdrawing 5.5 million gallons of water a day from Lake Superior to supply several communities and the mine. Orvana will use 500,000 gallons of that total per day for the mine. It will supply the cities of Wakefield and Bessemer and the townships of Ironwood, Bessemer and Wakefield, he added. Click here for a video clip with Scott's comments.

Jean Verbos, Gogebic Range Water Authority administrator, said the Authority has received a withdrawal permit to take the water out of Lake Superior.

John Garske, president of Coleman Engineering, expressed his company's support for Orvana and confidence in their environmental practices. He also noted appreciation for Orvana's funding of local events and hiring local businesses. Click here for a video clip with Garske's comments.

Toward the end of the hearing, two local residents expressed different perspectives on the project. The audience applauded for one speaker despite the MDEQ officials' request that they not do so during the meeting.

John Runtamaki comments on why he believes the local residents who support Orvana care about the environment. Rich Sloat gives some reasons to look more carefully at the long-term economic effects and the cost of cleanup after mining.

Jim Caron, MDEQ decision maker for the Parts 301 inland lakes and streams and 303 wetlands permit, told Keweenaw Now Orvana's application includes a two-to-one wetland mitigation plan. He noted many of the wetlands are in relatively close proximity to the Tailings Disposal Facility.

"At this point we've got to be objective, just collecting the information," Caron said.

Editor's Notes:
* This is the second of a two-article series on the June 28, 2012, MDEQ public hearing. Click here to read Part 1: "MDEQ hearing on Orvana Copperwood air, water quality permits: Part 1, Questions."

** Click here to read the Public Notice listing stream and wetland impacts of the Copperwood project.

*** Click here to read the letter from KBIC's Mining Technical Review Team on the stream and wetland impacts of the proposed Orvana Copperwood project.

See other video clips of comments from the June 28, 2012, hearing by visiting our Keweenaw News YouTube channel.

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