Sunday, March 17, 2013

Concerned citizens, groups oppose Rio Tinto's modified air permit for Eagle Mine

By Michele Bourdieu

MARQUETTE -- Snow and icy roads on March 12, 2013, prevented many concerned citizens from attending the MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) public hearing on Rio Tinto's Permit to Install (PTI) application for Rio Tinto Eagle Mine LLC’s proposed modifications to their nickel and copper mining facility near Big Bay, Mich. The modifications include eliminating on-site ore crushing, adding an enclosed aggregate storage building, and eliminating the fabric filter dust collector, along with other changes.

Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve says air quality concerns dominated hearing comments

The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve (YDWP) reported recently that about 60 people attended the hearing, held at Northern Michigan University, and nearly all who spoke during the comment and question and answer sessions were opposed to the permit modifications, especially because of concerns about air quality.

View of the Salmon Trout River. Rio Tinto is drilling toward an ore body of copper and nickel located under this trout stream. The Main Ventilation Air Raise is located very close to the river. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

In an article on their Web site posted March 13, 2012, YDWP states, "Although public questions were well articulated and based on the documents provided, the panel was not able to answer all questions satisfactorily. The experts evaded questions related to water stating they were not water quality experts. One main topic of discussion was the proposed plan to eliminate the fabric filter dust collector or Bag House on the MVAR (Main Ventilation Air Raise). In other words, the main vent for all underground operations will not have a filter at all if this permit is approved by the DEQ."*

MDEQ: Fabric filter for mine exhaust not required

The MDEQ fact sheet on this application states the following:
"Any emissions produced by underground activities would be vented through the MVAR (Main Ventilation Air Raise). Components of mine exhaust would be mine heater combustion products and particulate generated by vehicle travel; drilling; blasting; underground ore and development rock handling; and backfill material handling.

"The original air permit for the Eagle Project required a fabric filter system to be used on the MVAR. Note that this fabric filter was not required in order for the emissions from the MVAR to meet state and federal standards. Rio Tinto agreed to install a fabric filter as a result of comments received during the public comment period.

"Rio Tinto submitted PTI application 50-06B proposing no fabric filter on the MVAR exhaust. The MVAR emission estimate for this application does not include a fabric filter but does account for the design changes (elimination of underground screening, rock breaking, and the ore pass) and dust suppression systems, such as water sprays, that will be used to reduce emissions from underground ore and development rock handling. As noted in the modeling discussion, the emissions from the MVAR meet all state and federal requirements without a fabric filter. It should also be noted that the wet conditions in the mine are not expected to be conducive to generating significant amounts of particulate emissions."**

Concerned citizens request air filter, question modeling

Comments from concerned citizens -- some who attended the hearing and others who were unable to attend but sent written comments -- indicate considerable dissatisfaction, not only with the attitude of MDEQ officials, but also with Rio Tinto's plan to eliminate the fabric filter dust collector they had included in their previous (2007) permit in response to public comments and with Rio Tinto/MDEQ dependence on questionable modeling as a basis for modifications to the project.

Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) tribal member, attended the hearing and spoke during both the question-answer period and the official public comment period. Here are some observations he shared with Keweenaw Now:

"I would like to thank the MDEQ for their question and answer session and public hearing. The conversations at these events were telling in that it is obvious that MDEQ's executive management has allowed or otherwise indicated to its staff that it's appropriate for their technical staff to regulate Rio Tinto as Rio Tinto sees fit. The technical staff, and not senior management, ran these public meetings and answered 98 percent of all questions. This is a sign of ill-informed and possibly even weak leadership. The technical staff demonstrated their lack of experience in mining operations and even a fundamental misunderstanding of Michigan law. Statements like 'there aren't many baghouse filter systems being used at mines' and 'it is Rio Tinto's ore and we relied entirely on Rio Tinto to decide what chemical analysis to perform and their laboratory results and other data' are extremely troubling. MDEQ will experience endless challenges and increasing distrust unless it changes this dynamic and starts telling Rio Tinto what to do instead of the other way around."

Big Bay resident Carla Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay also addressed MDEQ officials at the hearing. She shared the following notes for her comments with Keweenaw Now:

"This permit to install is completely inadequate as to the protection of the air of Marquette County," Champagne says. "The MVAR is the major source of mine emissions. These emissions will be created by vehicle travel, drilling, blasting, ore and development rock handling, backfill material handling, and mine heaters. No testing of those emissions will be done until production reaches 1660 tons per day or 12 months. Then only the emission rate will be tested."

Champagne adds that anything could be spewing out the the MVAR at 50 mph for a whole year and residents would have no way of knowing what was coming out.

"All figures saying the metals and sulfides are below criteria are based on modeling," Champagne notes. "Modeling at this mine has already proven to be wrong. The sulfate levels in part of the TDRSA (Temporary Development Rock Storage Area) have been three times the predicted levels. Did modeling show there would be arsenic in the drinking water? What about the fact that Rio Tinto is going to be asking for changes in one of their water permits because of higher than expected levels of some contaminants? Was that a modeling error also?"

This Temporary Development Rock Storage Area (TDRSA) is for all rock removed from the Eagle Mine underground that is not considered ore. The facility features a multi-layered liner, leak detection system and sump pump to collect water which will be treated by the water treatment plant. All development rock is to be returned underground as fill. (August 2012 file photo by Keweenaw Now)

Noting that fugitive dust was a problem at Rio Tinto/Kennecott's Flambeau mine and other sulfide mines, Champagne says, "The dust suppression systems suggested in this permit need more explanation other than just spraying things down with water and paving some roads. Is the water they are going to be using for this spraying the arsenic- contaminated well water? Are they going to be spraying that 8.6 acres of uncovered storage piles?"

Like Loman, Champagne told MDEQ officials they should be telling Rio Tinto what to do, not the reverse.

"You need to require this company to prove their modeling numbers are accurate with real data. A filter on the MVAR is one way. If there are better ways, great, require Rio Tinto to use them. Relying on modeling when real data can be obtained is unacceptable when dealing with this type of historically toxic mining," Champagne says. "They will monitor the air at that mine site and/or coming out of the MVAR if you require them to. The reasons for the promise Rio Tinto made to put a filter on the MVAR have not changed significantly enough for them to break that promise."

Catherine Parker of Marquette, who also spoke at the March 12 hearing, addressed both MDEQ and Rio Tinto in her comments, noting that Michigan's Part 632 mining law requires the applicant to demonstrate that its operation will work and will not pollute the environment.

"Kennecott (Rio Tinto's subsidiary) agreed to install a filter system in their mine ventilation stack in response to public concern about particulate matter emissions, but they could not demonstrate that it would work as planned," Parker said. "Humid, corrosive air exiting at gale force was more than their baghouse could handle, and they knew it. I suggest they re-design it."

Parker asked, "Does Rio Tinto have detailed information about the chemistry of the rocks they’re working with, and if so, have they shared it?  Elevated sulfate levels in the TDRSA last July, and more recently, arsenic in the drinking water, demonstrate that things do not always go according to their plans."

Parker, like others who criticized the modeling, gave this example: "Another serious problem with the modeling for the amended MVAR is that climate information was plugged in from a Sawyer/Green Bay database with added observations from the Munising Airport. There are many microclimates in Marquette County, and as a frequent traveler from the city of Marquette to the Yellow Dog Plains, I’ve learned to be prepared for something quite different from what I left in my front yard. What about prevailing winds, for example? It seems impossible to accurately forecast deposition into soils and water without accurate meteorological information."

Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay shared some of his written comments to MDEQ concerning this permit.

Like Parker, Gene Champagne comments on the weather data as problematic because of its source, adding that weather data from Rio Tinto's own weather station at the Eagle mine, operating since 2007, is the data that should be used.

"The weather on the Yellow Dog Plains, as far as the extremity in temperature and precipitation can be significantly different, even from that in Big Bay a mere 10 miles away," he notes.

"Computer modeling has a bad reputation, especially in the mining industry, for being overly optimistic, unreliable, and even deceptive," he writes. "The modeling will spit out information based upon the the data inputted. This is can be a 'garbage in - garbage-out' proposition."

Gene Champagne also questions data that indicates sulfides are in the 30 percent range. Kennecott's original permit, he says, "states that the sulfides in 1,477,00 metric tonnes are greater than 80 percent; between 30 percent and 80 percent in 2,573,000 metric tonnes; and less than 30 percent in ore that Rio Tinto has no intention of extracting. This could actually be considered a fraudulent application and rejected on those grounds alone."

He calls for collecting two years of baseline air data before operations begin without a fabric filter.

"Air emissions and data need to be collected for a year past the 1,660 tons per day average before the fabric filter is removed," Gene Champagne writes. "If the fabric filter is allowed to be removed from the current permit, then 24/7 air monitoring needs to be in place before mining operations begin. Placement of air monitors should be decided by the DEQ with assistance from the EPA and encompass the most likely places for worst case scenarios as well as for capturing fugitive dust along the transportation route." 

Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community's (KBIC's) Department of Natural Resources, was unable to attend the hearing, but sent a
letter to MDEQ stating several concerns, beginning with the tribe's rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather on traditional lands ceded to the United States under the 1842 Treaty of LaPointe.

"The Eagle Mine project and associated infrastructure, including the permitted release of air emissions that will extend within and beyond the fence line, are located within this ceded territory," Koski writes. "Fugitive dust and uncontrolled air emissions will adversely impact tribal members more so than the general public due to subsistence living practices and the exercise of treaty-reserved rights. The proposed changes pose disproportionate health risk particularly to tribal members who gather and consume plants and wildlife nearby, and those who continue to visit our sacred place within the mine's fence line, Migi zii wa sin, Eagle Rock."

Eagle Rock, the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) sacred site, is now surrounded by a fence. The decline tunnel blasted under the Rock to access the ore body is at right. (August 2012 Keweenaw Now file photo © and courtesy Steve Garske)

Koski's letter requests several actions from the MDEQ, including these:

1) Require controls on the MVAR (main ventilation air rise) stack and request that Rio Tinto reconsider including a fabric dust collector, which was included in the original permit and expected to capture 99 percent of all emissions.

2) "We ask for proof that their models are correct, including review and analysis of the models and any further modeling, by the Environmental Protection Agency air quality staff," Koski notes.

She also recommends installation of air quality monitors at the site for the life of the mine.

In addition, Koski expresses concern that the present air permit application does not look at potential environmental health effects of nickel, copper and particulate matter deposition predicted for areas beyond the fence line of the mine, including the Salmon Trout River, the Yellow Dog Watershed and the communities of Big Bay and Marquette.

3) Koski reminds the MDEQ that, according to Michigan's Environmental Justice Plan of 2010, MDEQ's review of projects should identify disproportionate adverse health effects on minorities, including tribal communities and members. She notes also that this Plan indicates state environmental regulators should consult with tribes on environmental justice matters when their decisions may impact tribal members' health and environmental well being.***

Superior Watershed Partnership: Applicant must demonstrate Best Available Control Technology

The Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP), which is conducting independent monitoring of the Eagle Mine, recently submitted comments to MDEQ on the air permit application, including the following statements:

"Per State Air Regulations, the applicant must demonstrate that it is installing the Best Available Control Technology (BACT) in order to assure that the area will continue to meet the NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Applicant is to identify all air pollution control options available, feasibility, effectiveness and why each represents BACT. AQD (Air Quality Division of MDEQ) is to verify applicant's determination of BACT and review BACT determinations for similar facilities in Michigan and nationwide."

"...There is no documentation contained within the permit that demonstrates a review or recommendation of Best Available Control Technologies."

"MDEQ has proposed a one-time stack test of the MVAR after peak production has been reached. The SWP questions the accuracy, relevance and significance of any one-time test. The Clean Air Act National Stack Testing Guidance issued by USEPA requires that Rio Tinto be able to demonstrate that it can 'continuously comply.' How will MDEQ ensure continuous compliance from a one-time test?"

"The proposed stack test will only use AQD Method 5 to test for particulate emissions. A host of other methods are readily available and would provide relevant data concerning emissions from the MVAR.

"Additionally, the draft permit fails to specify what happens if the proposed test exceeds limits to PM (particulate matter) emissions."

SWP includes a list of recommendations should MDEQ approve this permit.****

Parker summed up the critical response of the public to Rio Tinto's current air permit application, as follows: "We, the public, have not withdrawn our request for a filter on the main exhaust system at the mine. We are not interested in degrading our water and air sheds to levels that are acceptable to state and federal agencies. We want a system that is guaranteed to work, and an air monitoring system at the mine site beginning yesterday -- a demonstration that Rio Tinto’s operations will not pollute, impair or destroy our natural resources."

Monday, March 18, is the final deadline for submitting written comments on this air permit (Permit to Install Application No. 50-06B). Click here to find links to more information and to submit comments on line.


* Click here to read the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve article on the March 12, 2013, hearing.

** Click here for the MDEQ Air Quality Division's Fact Sheet on this permit application.

*** Click here to read Jessica Koski's letter to the MDEQ concerning this permit.

**** Visit the Superior Watershed Partnership Web site to learn about their monitoring program for the Eagle Mine. Their comments to MDEQ should be posted on their Web site soon.

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