[Editor's Note: Save the Wild U.P. sent this press release today, July 31, 2013]
This "State Warehouse" building at the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, near the Upper Peninsula Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) office outside Marquette, serves as a core shed for the nonprofit Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA). (File photos © Sally Western and courtesy Save the Wild U.P.)
MARQUETTE -- On Thursday, Aug. 1, a nonprofit corporation set up by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) regulators and mining industry executives, the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association (NMGRA), will appear in Circuit Court in Marquette claiming that it is not a public body and therefore is not subject to public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act in response to requests for financial information.
In 2008 high-ranking State officials directly charged with enforcing mining safety and environmental regulations formed the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association as a ‘non-profit’ corporation while Rio Tinto was in the process of planning and constructing Eagle Mine. The NMGRA Board of Directors features Rio Tinto and Bitterroot Resources mining executives in addition to DEQ officials.
The Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association is intended to fund and operate a "core shed" -- a warehouse dedicated to storing mineral core samples -- which is a function of the Office of Geologic Survey according to Michigan law. As a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, the contributions the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository received from individuals and corporations, including over $32,000 from Rio Tinto in 2012, are fully tax-deductible.
On June 8, 2013, Save the Wild U.P. joined with Concerned Citizens of Big Bay and others calling for a federal corruption investigation of the mining industry and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.*
Demonstrating for access to information near the Upper Peninsula MDEQ office on June 8, 2013, are, from left, Jana Mathieu, attorney; Jeffery Loman, KBIC member and former federal regulator, Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. board vice president; and Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay.
"It’s in the best interests of Michigan taxpayers and workers that state regulators are doing their jobs of watching the mining industry, not holding hands with its executives. That is why we are also calling for a federal investigation of this so-called nonprofit," said Margaret Comfort, president of Save the Wild U.P.
While Rio Tinto executives assisted in the formation of the NMGRA with state regulators, Rio Tinto constructed a 10 megawatt substation -- 400 percent of the power previously existing in Big Bay -- to electrify a core shed adjacent to the Eagle Mine site. Once the power infrastructure had been installed, the core shed was removed and Eagle Mine permit was granted a minor modification without due process or public participation.**
Citizens are invited to attend the hearing at the Circuit Court House at 234 W. Baraga Ave. in Marquette at 10:30 a.m. this Thursday, Aug. 1, to better understand the NMGRA. More information is available by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (906) 662-9987.
Jana Mathieu, the attorney suing NMGRA to disclose their financial information, said, "The murky facts surrounding the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association exemplify the need for the Freedom of Information Act and the purpose for which it was enacted: to shine a light on the actions of government officials which directly impact the citizens whom they purport to represent."
Local attorney Michelle Halley, who challenged the Eagle Mine’s permits in court, says the public deserves to better understand the NMGRA’s funding.
"The MDEQ's partnership with corporations demonstrates its inappropriate relationship with the mining industry. The MDEQ's motto of ‘the industry is our customer and we trust them’ is plain wrong. MDEQ's job is to regulate the industry, not form partnerships with them -- they've got it wrong, again," said Halley.
Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. vice president, noted a connection between potential pollution from the Eagle Mine and the secrecy surrounding the core samples.
"It can't be overstressed how valuable these rock core samples are -- to both the mining industry and the State of Michigan," Heideman said. "The cores are key to understanding thesafety of the proposed mine, the valuation of the proposed mine, and the toxic cocktail of heavy metals that will soon be raining down on Marquette County when the mine's exhaust vent stack begins spewing unfiltered mining dust into our clean air. Further, as the TWIS (Treated Wastewater Infiltration System) is currently permitted, Eagle Mine will discharge over 500,000 gallons of water that will flow into the East Branch of the Salmon Trout River. That's why, from the beginning, public access to information has been denied and the core samples have been kept from scrutiny."***
Jeffery Loman, former federal oil regulator and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal member, noted, "The collaboration with mining executives for the creation of a non-profit in order to accomplish state mandates by a high level state of Michigan manager is classic regulatory capture: when an agency is captured to operate for the benefit of a private entity and no longer functions in the state’s best interests. We must end this regulatory fiasco."
Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay (CCBB), a grassroots group which has been active in monitoring regulatory oversight of Part 632, the legislation governing non-ferrous mining in Michigan, recalled CCBB's own administrative law case over Rio Tinto's power infrastructure (mentioned above).
"I find it interesting that NMGRA would bring in the same high-powered downstate law firm on a simple Freedom of Information Act issue that Rio Tinto hired to run interference for the MDEQ in the Concerned Citizens of Big Bay's administrative law case over the permitting of electric lines for Eagle Mine," Champagne said. "It almost makes you think they have something to hide."**
Save the Wild U.P. is a grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s unique cultural and environmental resources. For more information about their work, visit their Web site at savethewildup.org.
* See our June 18, 2013, article, "Citizens demand federal investigation of collusion between state regulators and mining industry."
** Read more about the contested case by Concerned Citizens of Big Bay against Rio Tinto/Kennecott over permitting the power infrastructure at the Eagle Mine in our Feb. 22, 2011, article, "Concerned citizens file contested case: Kennecott Eagle Mine."
*** The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010, agreed that a federal permit was not needed for the TWIS at the Eagle Mine. See our July 2, 2010, article, "EPA: Federal permit not required for Kennecott wastewater infiltration system."