Friday, May 31, 2013

Citizens voice concerns at second set of Rio Tinto community forums; video report on L'Anse forum

By Michele Bourdieu

During the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto community forum in L'Anse, Mich., Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member Jeffery Loman (center, foreground, in hat), a former federal regulator, asks a question about water discharge from the Eagle Mine to groundwater and surface water. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

L'ANSE, MICH. -- Rio Tinto recently held the second in a series of "Community Scorecard" forums in several Upper Peninsula locations affected by the company's Eagle Project, a copper and nickel mine still under construction near Big Bay, Michigan. The forums are intended to be held every six months to show the company's progress. The first community scorecard forums, allowing the public to vote on Rio Tinto's performance in five areas, were held in September 2012 in Baraga/L’Anse, Michigamme, Humboldt, Ishpeming, Marquette and Big Bay. Additional events with community scoring were held in Ishpeming and Marquette in October 2012.

Rio Tinto's Eagle Project Web site states the following purpose of these forums: "The Eagle Mine Community Scorecard allows community members to rate our performance in five areas you said are important. Those five areas are: environmental performance, local hire, safety, transparency and communication, and leave more wood on the woodpile."*

In May 2013 the second round of forums took place in Ishpeming, Humboldt, Marquette, L'Anse, Michigamme Township, and Powell Township (Big Bay).

Chantae Lessard (standing), principal advisor on communities and social performance for Rio Tinto Eagle Mine, explains the community scorecard voting procedure to attendees at the May 15, 2013, community forum in L'Anse, Mich.

Critics of the project have questioned the value of the Community Scorecard for several reasons. Save the Wild UP recently issued a press release questioning the scientific basis for the data presented at the forums and noting the small number of forum attendees.

"Rio Tinto portrays this data as scientific -- but that could not be farther from the truth," said Kathleen Heideman, vice president of Save the Wild U.P. "Their 'data' from the last round polled less than 300 people -- hardly representative of the 76,502 residents of Marquette and Baraga counties. It's a global mining corporation's idea of democracy: first they show slides about how great they are -- then we should click to indicate our agreement. That's meaningless. It's not voting."**

During the May 15 Rio Tinto forum in L'Anse, Geri Grant, left, Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP) senior planner, speaks about SWP's detecting uranium at the Eagle Mine site. SWP does independent monitoring of the Eagle Mine.

Mindy Otto, new Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve executive director, attended the May 22, 2013, community forum in Powell Township (Big Bay area).

"It seems to me that the scorecard process is another way for Rio Tinto to attempt to press their opinions on our community, but the effort is not actually working for them," Otto said. "As concerned citizens we need to be present at these forums and make use of them to expose the inadequacies. In all categories the largest percentage of people present at the meeting stated Rio Tinto is 'below expectations' in Powell Township."

Otto reported these scorecard results from the Powell Township vote:
Environmental Performance -- 39 percent said they were below expectations.
Safety Performance -- 40 percent said they were below expectations.
Local Hire -- 48 percent said they were below expectations.
(11 people laid off, 3 reassigned to other RT projects)
Transparency -- 48 percent said they were below expectations.
Leave More Wood on the Woodpile -- 67 percent said they were below expectations. 

Cynthia Pryor, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve Sulfide Mining Campaign director, also attended the Powell Township forum and mentioned the high percentages of "below expectations" votes.

"The Powell Township forum had 21 voters with about 10-12 more folks from Rio Tinto. The message is still the same -- they continue to try to convince the public that they are doing everything above expectations," Pryor reported. "The bulk of the issues the public saw was the lack of transparency and only more gamesmanship relative to environmental permits, local hires and even safety. The Wood in the Woodpile continues to irritate those who attended -- as Big Bay wants and wishes are not being sought and what is an improved road to someone from away is a loss of our 'way of life' in northern Marquette County."

Powell Township resident Gene Champagne said he was unable to attend the Powell Township forum but had attended the May 14, 2013, Marquette forum. He found it disappointing.

"There were between 40 and 50 present at the Marquette Forum with the majority of attendees being RT (Rio Tinto) employees or contractors," Champagne said. "Only 17 people were unaffiliated with RT and able to vote. Unfortunately, the process varied little, if at all, from the last forum. RT cites all of the wonderful things they have done for the environment (as an example) and then asks people to grade their performance. RT then has a discussion after the vote where data that the general public may not be aware of is talked about. At the last forum, I asked that the format be changed to have the discussion first, then the grading. This suggestion, obviously, fell upon deaf ears."

However, at the May 15, 2013, community forum in L'Anse, Rio Tinto responded to members of the public who requested that questions and comments from the audience be allowed before each vote rather than after the vote as was done in September 2012. Discussion was allowed before the vote and questions and suggestions welcomed after each vote.

On the Rio Tinto Eagle Web site, the company defends this type of forum as unique and states their expectation that the number of attendees will increase and the scoring will become more reliable as they add more opportunities for the public to evaluate their performance.

"To our knowledge no other mining company has introduced a tool that allows the community to regularly rate their performance, which is then made public," the Web site states.*

Video Report: May 15, 2013, forum in L'Anse

The forum normally begins with a presentation by one of the Rio Tinto Eagle Project staff members giving a summary of the project so far, noting the Eagle Project activities and progress in the previous six months. Here is a video clip from the introductory presentation by Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto Eagle Mine government and community affairs manager, at the May 15 forum in L'Anse:

Matt Johnson, Rio Tinto Eagle Mine government and community affairs manager, begins the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto Community Forum in L'Anse, Michigan, with an overview of the history of the Eagle Mine and a description of the mine site, located near Big Bay, Michigan. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

Johnson also pointed out how far the company has drilled from the portal under Eagle Rock, the sacred Ojibwa site now fenced off on the surface, towards the ore body located under the Salmon Trout River. [Click here for a second clip of Johnson's presentation, in which he shows diagrams and photos of the drilling progress.]

Work at the Humboldt Mill is now on hold, Johnson noted. In the following video clip, he gives a brief history and description of the mill and explains Rio Tinto's plans for depositing tailings (mine waste) in the pit at the site, which still contains tailings from previous mining companies:

Rio Tinto's Matt Johnson speaks about the Humboldt Mill and its tailings pit during the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto Community Forum in L'Anse, Michigan. Johnson said further work on the mill is presently on hold. It is intended to be used for processing nickel and copper ore from Rio Tinto's Eagle Mine. 

Joe Derocha, Humboldt Township supervisor, recently told Keweenaw Now he is aware that Rio Tinto's global office has directed that they postpone some parts of the Eagle project, including a hold on work at the Humboldt Mill; but he is quite happy with the cleanup Rio Tinto has done there so far.

"They've done some fantastic work with the cleanup," Derocha said. "That's a big thing for us."

Environmental Performance raises questions at L'Anse forum

At the May 15 forum in L'Anse, a number of concerns were expressed particularly in the area of environmental performance.

In this video clip Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) member Jeffery Loman asks about Rio Tinto's core storage and about discharge of treated wastewater to groundwater and surface water:

During the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto Community Forum in L'Anse, Michigan, Jeffery Loman of KBIC asks questions concerning Rio Tinto's storage of cores and about discharge of water from the Treated Wastewater Infiltration System (TWIS ) of the Eagle Mine to groundwater and surface water.

Jessica Koski, KBIC mining technical assistant, asked questions about the length of Rio Tinto's monitoring of the tailings disposal at the Humboldt pit, the effects of climate change, and potential future financial responsibilities should pollution such as acid mine drainage occur. Kristen Mariuzza, Rio Tinto Eagle Project environmental and permitting manager, replies to her questions in this video clip:

Jessica Koski of KBIC asks questions about the tailings facility at the Humboldt Pit -- whether the water treatment plant will remain after operations cease, whether the facility will be able to withstand potential increased flooding that could be caused by climate change and how long Rio Tinto will continue to monitor the site and assume responsibility should acid mine drainage occur. Rio Tinto's Kristen Mariuzza replies.

In the following video clip, Rio Tinto staff field questions on uranium found by Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP, an organization doing independent monitoring at Eagle Mine) at the Eagle Mine Temporary Development Rock Storage Area at the mine site in March 2013. Geri Grant, SWP senior planner, adds that SWP, when they found the uranium, also tested the water treatment plant to be sure uranium was not being discharged into the TWIS:

Questions on uranium found by Superior Watershed Partnership (organization doing independent monitoring at Eagle Mine) at the Eagle Mine Temporary Development Rock Storage Area in March 2013 are answered before the audience is asked to vote on Rio Tinto's Environmental Performance.***

Catherine Andrews of Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK) asked Rio Tinto staff if they had proof of a liner that never leaked, but they were unable to give her a definitive answer. She said she had asked that question at the first L'Anse forum six months ago and they had said they would try to find the answer. Kristen Mariuzza noted management of the amount of water and monitoring would prevent leaking, and uranium is removed in the water treatment plant. [Click here for the video clip with this discussion.]

The results of the community scorecard vote on Environmental Performance at this May 15, 2013, L'Anse forum (with 19 people voting) were as follows: Exceeds expectations, 32 percent; meets expectations, 11 percent; below expectations, 42 percent; and need more information, 15 percent.

Following the vote, Jim Hahn of Skanee noted one problem with the vote on environmental performance is that one vote is expected to cover multiple environmental issues. [Click here for the video clip with this discussion.]

Jeffery Loman also asked whether the uranium finding was really a  "non-event" since it was not considered a contaminant of concern in the state permits. Mariuzza pointed out the amount of uranium detected was less than the 3 parts per million national average. While the amount in the sump exceeds drinking water standards, it is contained and then removed from the water in the water treatment plant, she explained. [Click here for a video clip with this question.]

Safety, Local Hire receive satisfactory votes at L'Anse forum

In the category of Safety, Rio Tinto reported only three injuries in the past six months. Results of the vote were positive: exceeds expectations, 40 percent; meets expectations, 35 percent; below expectations, 15 percent; and needs more information, 10 percent. One member of the audience commented this safety record would be envied by other companies.

In the category of Safety, Rio Tinto received a high approval, since only three minor injuries occurred in the past six months.

Questions on Local Hire indicated people would like more detail on the actual numbers of people hired from the local area, including those hired by contractors working for Rio Tinto. In this video clip Chantae Lessard presents employment numbers and percentages; and Jessica Sandstrom, Human Resources coordinator for the Rio Tinto Eagle Mine, clarifies the statistics:

Audience members at Rio Tinto's community forum in L'Anse ask questions on details of local hire statistics before voting in this category of the company's community scorecard.

Results of the vote on local hire at the L'Anse forum show considerable satisfaction: exceeds expectations, 30 percent; meets expectations, 55 percent; below expectations, 15 percent; needs more information 0 percent.

Transparency, Leave More Wood on the Woodpile raise concerns

During a discussion preceding the vote on Transparency and Communication, Doug Welker of Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK) asked if more detailed information on Rio Tinto's future plans to remain in the area could be made available to the public (information on mineral rights, cores, etc.) In the following video clip, another audience member notes his experience in asking questions about core samples at the Keweenaw Copper exploration site near Gratiot Lake in Keweenaw County. Welker also asked if more geological information on the mineralogy of the rock surrounding the ore body could be made public. Rio Tinto's Kristen Mariuzza noted very detailed information on this mineralogy is available in the air permit, if not the mining permit:

At the May 15 L'Anse forum Doug Welker of FOLK asks for more transparency from Rio Tinto on their future plans, mineral rights and mineralogy.

Results of the vote on transparency were as follows: exceeds expectations, 39 percent; meets expectations, 17 percent; below expectations, 33 percent; needs more information, 11 percent.

The last category for the vote, "Leaving More Wood on the Woodpile," refers to positive contributions the mining company believes it is making for the economic benefit of the local communities. Among these are their "Accelerate U.P." program to help entrepreneurs start new businesses in the area, 12 miles of new or improved roads and 30 miles of electrical power lines. The company also wants, in the future, to set aside land they've purchased, which will not be used for mining, but for use in "the areas of biodiversity, recreation and culture."

Some forum attendees questioned the value of Rio Tinto's infrastructure "improvements."  Note the comments in this videoclip:

During the Rio Tinto Community Forum in L'Anse, Rio Tinto's Chantae Lessard explains the company's "Accelerate U.P." program to help entrepreneurs. Doug Welker of FOLK questions the value of Rio Tinto's infrastructure if local communities will have to to maintain it after the company leaves. Jim Hahn of Skanee questions the appropriateness of the title, "Leave More Wood on the Woodpile" since, while wood is a sustainable product, mining is unsustainable.

Gene Champagne of Powell Township, who lives quite close to the Eagle Mine, also commented on Rio Tinto's infrastructure claims.

"The electric lines never went to Big Bay and it can easily be debated if this was even an improvement," Champagne said. "I live in Big Bay and see no real improvement in the amount of black-outs I have experienced at my house. Alger-Delta had worked on the system-switching problems back in 2005, or so, and did not require any new upgrades. The only difference in electric service has come from the brush below the wires being cleared along 550, which Alger-Delta should have been doing all along. Not one more kilowatt of electricity comes into Big Bay as a result of Kennecott’s ill-gotten permit.****

Champagne noted also that most people in Big Bay do not look at the roads used by the mine as improved, but rather the opposite.

"They look like some freeway or drive through an urban park downstate," he notes. "Some locals who have lived in Big Bay their entire life will not travel out 510/AAA anymore because of the way it looks and the speed of the traffic as a result."

Results of the L'Anse forum vote on "Leave More Wood on the Woodpile" were these: exceeds expectations, 38 percent; meets expectations, 17 percent; below expectations, 28 percent; needs more information, 17 percent.

At the end of the forum, Jeffery Loman suggested Rio Tinto consider leaving technological infrastructure to improve Internet access and cellphone reception in the local area. Here are his comments:

At the May 15, 2013, Rio Tinto Community Forum in L'Anse, Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member, makes a suggestion on Information Technology improvements Rio Tinto could leave for the community after they finish mining.

After the forum in L'Anse, Jessica Koski of KBIC commented to Keweenaw Now on Rio Tinto's attitude toward Eagle Rock, the sacred Ojibwa site they use as the portal to their mine.

"I think it's complete negligence or ignorance on Rio Tinto's part that they don't acknowledge the different Native American perspectives on the meaning and significance of our sacred lands," Koski said. "Despite their fence, from our perspective Eagle Rock is not separate from the mining site and the surrounding area. Viewshed is part of assessments of sacred sites as historical resources."

Val Gagnon, a doctoral student in social sciences at Michigan Tech, who is studying environmental and energy policy, also spoke after the forum about her impressions of the scorecard.

"I just think that the whole idea of the scorecard is that they're just one piece," Gagnon noted. "They show it as several pieces (fitting together like a puzzle), but in reality there a lot more pieces. I think the puzzle is important to use, but the environment is larger than what they show. Environment and human health are very strongly connected. The environmental scorecard doesn't seem to include people in the environment."

Dan Blondeau, Rio Tinto advisor for communications and media relations, said "roughly 115 people voted" in this round of community forums.

"We had more attendees but not everyone participated in the voting." he added.

Rio Tinto update:

Rio Tinto recently announced their contractor Redpath Mining has completed its contract for pre-operations underground work  at the Eagle Mine -- over two miles (3.7k) of underground tunnels, reaching approximately 800 ft. (244 m) below the surface at the deepest point.

Redpath had 40 employees working on the project. Of these, 21 are local.

"These people now have specialized skills that can be used at other projects or for future mining at Eagle," said Dan Blondeau, Rio Tinto advisor for communications and media relations. "Eagle will request bids for the mining during operations, the remainder of the surface facilities at both the mine and mill, and the ore transportation. In addition, the Marquette County Road Commission will start work on upgrading the existing roads."

Notes:

* Click here to read more about the Community Scorecard Forums on the Rio Tinto Eagle Web site.

** See "Upper Peninsula citizens skeptical of Rio Tinto 'Community Forums.'"

*** Click here to read about Superior Watershed Partnership's independent monitoring of the Eagle Mine and their findings about uranium at the mine site.

**** See our Feb. 22, 2011, article, "Concerned citizens file contested case: Kennecott Eagle Mine," concerning the electric power issue.

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