Wednesday, August 01, 2012

KBIC Mining Updates

By Jessica Koski

BARAGA -- Jessica Koski, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Mining Technical Assistant, shares her recent article, "Mining Updates," with Keweenaw Now. This article also appears in the KBIC August 2012 Newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.

Orvana Copperwood Project

On April 30, 2012, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved a mining permit for the Copperwood Project near Wakefield and the Porcupine Mountain State Wilderness Area. On July 17, 2012, the DEQ also approved an air permit for the project. The mining permit is not effective until all other required permits are issued -- including permits for water discharges, wetlands impact and stream fill.

On July 8th, the KBIC mining technical review team submitted comments on proposed permits for wetland and stream fill. We found the company to significantly fall short of avoiding and minimizing negative impacts as required by law.*

Map of the proposed Orvana mine, from their permit application. Click on map for larger version. (Map courtesy Jessica Koski)

A primary concern is the proposed tailings disposal facility (TDF), the purple area on the Copperwood Project map (see above). Tailings are the waste materials left over after ore processing. The TDF would fill in approximately 52 acres of wetlands and 13,672 feet of streams. It is predicted to release between 24-62 million gallons of leachate (water that moves through the tailings and transports contaminates) into the environment per year. The leachate is expected to contain sulfate, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, selenium, and zinc. Once mining ends and the water treatment facility is shut off, these heavy metals and other contaminants would migrate untreated into soils and creeks to nearby Lake Superior.**

Rio Tinto Mining Activities

Kennecott (a subsidiary of Rio Tinto) continues sulfide mine construction of the Eagle Project about 23 miles east of the L’Anse Reservation on 1842 Treaty territory. An underground portal tunnel into Migi zii wa sin (Eagle Rock) has been drilled and blasted over 2100 feet towards the ore body under the Salmon Trout River of Lake Superior. The company hopes to start production in July 2013 and begin full production in 2014 with expectations to mine for 5-8 years.
On July 7, 2012, an incident occurred at the mine site in which about 100 gallons of hydrochloric acid (a chemical used in the waste water treatment process) spilled inside a storage area and was subsequently cleaned up. The company said a faulty valve caused a container to leak the chemical. Exposure to hydrochloric acid can have a corrosive effect on human tissue, with the potential to damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines. No injuries were reported.

On the legal front, the KBIC and its coalition partners are awaiting a decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals whether or not they will hear legal challenges to the state’s issuance of mining and groundwater discharge permits for the project. In the meantime, the Huron Mountain Club, consisting of 250 members who own 19,000 acres near the site, filed a federal lawsuit to halt construction of the mine, stating that the company did not obtain necessary federal permits. A hearing took place on June 6, 2012, and a decision has not been issued yet.***

On April 23, 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a federal objection under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to proposed County Road 595, which would serve as a mining haul road for Kennecott’s Eagle Mine and Humboldt Mill. A DEQ permit decision deadline for the road has been postponed until October 1, 2012. If the state issues a permit without EPA approval, the applicant would have to seek a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Exploration in the Ottawa National Forest

Substantial exploration has occurred in the western Ottawa National Forest for sulfide mineral ores and uranium. Currently, Trans Superior Resources (a subsidiary of Canadian-based Bitterroot Resources) is applying to conduct exploration for sulfide deposits in Ontonagon County. Since 1996, the company has been permitted to explore at least four other times. The company proposes to drill 15 sites to look for gold, platinum, nickel, and cobalt.****

In addition, the state of Michigan owns many acres of minerals rights within the National Forest and is working to lease some of them out for exploration. Some of the leases are located about three miles southeast of Kenton and surround nearby segments of the traditional L’Anse-Lac Vieux Desert Trail corridor.

The U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies have a trust responsibility to meaningfully consult and consider tribal interests, including rights reserved in treaties, before they make decisions that impact tribes. Permitting the exploration of sulfide ore bodies poses human health and environmental risk more so than less reactive ore bodies. Potential effects of mineral exploration to consider include:
  • Escape of deep brines to surface waters (underground water containing a lot of salt, common in the western U.P.);
  • Cross contamination of aquifers;
  • Sump pits can consist of waste water, oils and grease, and metal sulfides or uranium from the drill cuttings. Sump water may attract wildlife and is usually left on site with shallow burial;
  • Storm water runoff, wetlands impact, water usage, and fuel storage;
  • Enforcement of stipulations to prevent drilling in close proximity to surface waters;
  • Cumulative, total added, impacts of numerous exploration sites in an area.
Back Forty Project

The prospective Back Forty sulfide gold-zinc-copper project along the Menominee River near Stephenson has been suspended, at least temporarily.

HudBay, who had a 51 percent interest in the project, recently announced an end to its joint venture with Aquila Resources. Aquila Resources, a Canadian company, is exploring for gold at several other sites in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Save the Date: The Lake Superior Binational Forum is hosting a Public Meeting on the Impacts of Mining in the Lake Superior Basin from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette. To listen to speeches and see presentations from the previous meeting in Ashland, WI, visit:


* Click here to read the comments on Stand for the Land.

** See Keweenaw Now's two articles on the June 28, 2012, DEQ hearing on the Orvana Mine: Part 1: Questions and Part 2: Public Hearing.

*** Update: A July 26, 2012, article in the Marquette Mining Journal, by Associated Press writer John Flesher, states, "In an order signed Wednesday (July 25), Judge Robert Holmes Bell rejected a request by the private Huron Mountain Club to stop work on the mine while the club’s lawsuit works its way to trial."

**** Click here for more information on this proposal.

Click here for the August 2012 KBIC Newsletter. This article appears on p. 8.

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