Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Citizens question, challenge MDEQ proposed Groundwater Discharge Permit for Eagle Mine

By Michele Bourdieu

Steve Casey, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Upper Peninsula District Supervisor, Water Resources Division, right, answers a question from the audience during a lengthy question-answer session preceding the March 25 MDEQ Public Hearing on re-issuance of the Groundwater Discharge Permit for the Eagle Mine near Big Bay, Mich., a projected nickel-copper mine now owned by Lundin Mining Company. On the panel with Casey, from left, are Jeff Warner, MDEQ geologist, Lansing office; Jeannette Bailey, Groundwater Permits Unit, Lansing; and Rick Rusz, groundwater permits chief, Lansing, and decision maker for this permit. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

ISHPEMING, Mich. -- It's about the water. That was the first concern of most of the nearly 150 citizens who showed up at Westwood High School in Ishpeming for the March 25, 2014, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Public Hearing on the reissuance of the Groundwater Discharge Permit for Eagle Mine.

Eagle Mine, February 2014. On the right is Eagle Rock, an Ojibwa sacred site with the mine portal (right, foreground). The building on the bottom of the photo is the aggregate storage/back-fill plant. Here aggregate or crushed development rock is stored prior to being used as cemented rock fill (CRF) in the mine. The enclosed building above it is the coarse ore storage area or COSA, where the underground trucks unload the ore. The over-the-road trucks enter this building and are loaded. Prior to leaving the site for the Humboldt mill, they drive through the truck wash to remove any debris. (Photo courtesy Lundin Mining Co. Reprinted with permission.)

Some braved the cold to drive an hour or more in the prolonged winter weather the U.P. has been experiencing this year. Several MDEQ officials from both the Lansing office and the regional Marquette office were on hand -- both on the panel conducting the hearing and in the audience -- to answer questions during the question and answer session, which lasted about two and a half hours, and to listen to comments from the public, expressed more formerly during the hearing portion, which lasted another hour and a half.

Both the quality and the quantity of water to be discharged into the groundwater and eventually into surface water -- including springs (or seeps), wetlands, rivers, streams, lakes and Lake Superior -- were subjects of discussion and comments at the hearing on this proposed draft permit.

Water Quality: Rules determine setting limits for substances in groundwater

Before the question period began, MDEQ officials offered a preliminary Power Point slide presentation to attempt to answer some questions or comments they had already received from the public. In the following videoclip, Steve Casey, MDEQ Upper Peninsula District Supervisor, Water Resources Division, who conducted the hearing, points out some of the issues MDEQ is already considering based on the public's concerns:

In a presentation preceding the question period at the March 25, 2014, public hearing on the re-issuance of the Groundwater Discharge Permit for Eagle Mine, Steve Casey, who conducts the hearing, presents several issues taken from public comments on the permit and gives an example of one issue, the need for specific limits rather than just reporting, using nickel as an example. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

Another concern expressed by the public before the hearing concerned uranium that was detected in water from the Temporary Development Rock Storage Area (TDRSA) at the Eagle Mine.

The MDEQ's fact sheet on this permit states, "The source (of this uranium) is thought to be a natural occurrence from rock that was used in construction and brought in from another site. Uranium is removed from the wastewater by the (water) treatment system."

According to Casey, the amount of uranium detected from the water from the TDRSA was lower than drinking water standards, while, in other parts of the U.P. uranium is higher than drinking water standards. In fact, he noted, 20 percent of the wells in the UP exceed drinking water standards for uranium.

Casey speaks to this issue in the following video:

During MDEQ's presentation preceding the question session, Steve Casey of MDEQ addresses a public concern about uranium detected at the Eagle Mine.

One important change in the proposed permit (which is a reissuance required five years after the first permit was issued) is what the public perceives as relaxed limits on vanadium and pH. Here Casey explains why these limits were changed to higher values than those in the original permit:


Steve Casey explains why limits for vanadium and pH were changed, following rules for setting limits.

During the question session, Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay and Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve asks for further explanation of the pH limit (9.7).

Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay and Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve challenges the 9.7 pH limit. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

MDEQ panel members attempt to reply to Pryor's questions:


MDEQ panel members address Cynthia Pryor's question on pH.

During the official part of the hearing, when citizens in the audience were invited to state their comments, but with no reply from MDEQ officials, Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. president, expressed her concerns about pH limits. She also spoke about air pollution from the mine that could impact the groundwater and surface water.

During the hearing, Kathleen Heideman, Save the Wild U.P. president, challenges the permit limit of 9.7 for pH, noting it could cause problems downstream. She also expresses concern that relaxed limits for airborne pollution could result in pollutants from the air being washed into the soil and into the groundwater. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

Margaret Comfort of Michigamme pointed out in her comments at the hearing that vanadium can have many harmful impacts on human health. Vanadium pentoxide dust and fumes, she noted, can cause illnesses from bronchitis to lung damage. Comfort also cited a study that showed high concentrations of vanadium (which can cause kidney damage) in acid mine drainage from coal mining in Indiana.

"Your job is to regulate, not facilitate," Comfort told the MDEQ panel.

Casey told Keweenaw Now that vanadium has not been detected in Eagle’s discharge.

"The highest amount allowed (by Eagle’s draft permit) in the groundwater is 3.6 ug/l," Casey noted. "This value has been approached and even exceeded due to natural variation in the groundwater."

Groundwater limits in the permit are set by the rules, which state that limits for most inorganic substances are set at halfway between background groundwater quality and Part 201 generic residential cleanup criteria.

This slide in the MDEQ presentation explains how rules provide for groundwater limits in the permit. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

While the Eagle Mine's Wastewater Treatment Facility, using reverse osmosis, is used to remove ions from water before it is discharged into the groundwater and eventually surface water, specific (electrical) conductance is used to indicate whether the treatment system is working right and successfully treating the water.

In this video clip, Erik Moisio of Marquette, a Save the Wild U.P. volunteer, asks about the groundwater limits:

During the question session  Erik Moisio of Marquette, a volunteer for Save the Wild U.P., asks about how limits are set for substances in groundwater. Chromium is used as an example in the MDEQ slide presentation.

Corey Kelly of Marquette, also a volunteer for Save the Wild U.P., asked what the procedures would be if the company violates limits on the permit:

Corey Kelly of Marquette, a volunteer for Save the Wild U.P., asks what would happen if the company violates the Groundwater Discharge Permit. Casey explains how specific conductance is used to monitor the water treatment and describes some circumstances under which the discharge could be shut down.

Casey also noted the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) has suggested a better way to use specific conductance as an indicator of water treatment effectiveness. MDEQ staff are working with KBIC on this, he added.

In their Jan. 20, 2014, letter to MDEQ on this draft permit, KBIC notes that specific conductance monitors the effluent from the Waste Water Treatment Facility (WWTF), but the Groundwater Discharge Permit does not require monitoring the chemical characteristics of the influent for comparison.

"The chemical profile entering the WWTF in the influent would seem to be a critical component of evaluating the efficiency and performance of the water treatment process," the letter states. "This would require just one more sample to be collected during sampling of the rest of the WWTF yet would yield very useful information."

Casey and other MDEQ officials met with KBIC Tribal Council members and other tribal members in Baraga the morning of March 25, before the hearing.

"We’re working with KBIC to improve the accuracy of the "Allowable Operating Range," which is used to determine whether the treatment system is working right or whether the discharge should be stopped," Casey told Keweenaw Now. "Influent monitoring is part of that conversation."

In her statement during the hearing, Jessica Koski, KBIC mining technical assistant, mentions the need for strict enforcement to protect groundwater and surface water:

Jessica Koski, KBIC mining technical assistant, thanks MDEQ officials for their visit and consultation with KBIC leaders. She expresses concern for the potential of acid mine drainage from Eagle Mine in a pristine watershed and the need to recognize the interface between groundwater and surface water in setting limits.

KBIC member Jeffery Loman spoke during the hearing and requested that MDEQ regulate the groundwater permit under the same standards as the Clean Water Act:

KBIC member Jeffery Loman expresses appreciation for the MDEQ officials' visit to consult with the KBIC Tribal Council and other tribal members. Loman says he is glad to hear the MDEQ share his goal of protecting surface water as well as groundwater in the tribe's ceded territories, where treaties protect KBIC's rights to hunt, fish and gather. He asks that MDEQ, with the authority delegated to them by the federal government, issue a permit with Clean Water Act standards.

Attorney Michelle Halley, whose analysis of the permit was recently posted on the Save the Wild U.P. Web site, also spoke about the Clean Water Act in her comments at the hearing.

Attorney Michelle Halley comments during the hearing that MDEQ should require a Clean Water Act permit. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

Halley noted the difference betweeen the (federal) Clean Water Act and MDEQ's Groundwater Discharge Permit.

"Under the Clean Water Act greater federal oversight would be involved," Halley said. "The anti-degradation rule would be applied."

Halley noted the mining company has intentionally formulated their mine plan to avoid federal permits, and the MDEQ has perpetuated this.

"You have the ability to require a Clean Water Act permit, and that's exactly the tool you should be using to accomplish your stated goals," Halley said.

Other speakers offered their personal views on the importance of water protection, based on their experiences living in other regions that have been degraded by mining or other industries.

Sara Culver of Marquette spoke about her experience in Grand Ledge, Mich., where the Grand River, once a popular fishing spot, is now polluted.

"We should not be putting a mine at our water source," Culver said. "We need water. We don't need more pollution."

Culver also referred to Thomas Power's report on the economic effects of mining on communities that often suffer from the boom and bust industry.*

Robert Tammen of  Soudan, Minn., who worked 30 years in Michigan's Empire and Tilden mines and has opposed PolyMet's proposed open-pit sulfide mine in northeastern Minnesota which would impact the Lake Superior watershed, spoke about the detrimental effects of Minnesota mining on the local economy and the environment.

"In Michigan and in Minnesota, mining does not have a good record for economic development," Tammen said.

Noting in the discussion preceding the hearing how much higher permit levels are than background levels, Tammen said Michigan could use an anti-degradation clause in their statute.

Richard Sloat of Iron River noted mines of the past, such as the Buck and Dover mines, are examples of how pollutants were not regulated. He said their hazardous waste was trucked to sites right near Lake Superior. Sloat also said he wondered if state officials had ever done a study on the cumulative effects of metals and other substances released into the environment from mining.

Water quantity: Will the Eagle Mine be able to handle the amount of groundwater discharge and still protect surface water?

MDEQ's Fact Sheet on this draft permit, distributed at the hearing and available on their Web site, states, "The discharge permit is designed so that surface water quality standards will be met at the ground water surface water interface."**

In addition, Casey told Keweenaw Now that the Part 632 permit requires monitoring of springs. 

Several questions and comments at the hearing referred to concerns about the need for a hydrologeological study to determine whether or how the Eagle Mine can guarantee that groundwater discharges will protect the large areas of surface water on the Yellow Dog Plains -- from springs (seeps) to streams and rivers to Lake Superior.

During the question session, Steve Garske of Marenisco, Mich., a botanist who has done considerable hiking on the Yellow Dog Plains, described the surface water areas that could be impacted by groundwater and requested that a hydrogeological study be done for this permit:

Steve Garske describes how groundwater on the Yellow Dog Plains is not very far below the surface and sometimes becomes surface water. Garske notes reasons why a hydrogeological survey of the area is needed before this permit is allowed.

Offering a detailed explanation of this need for a hydrogeological study, Gail Griffith, retired Northern Michigan University chemistry professor, spoke about a 2004 petition requesting a hydrology survey. She also mentions the change from what would have been an EPA underground injection system to the present above-ground TWIS (Treated Water Injection System) regulated by MDEQ, and she notes the unknown impacts of the groundwater on surface water:

In her comments at the hearing Gail Griffith, retired Northern Michigan University chemistry professor, gives reasons why a hydrogeological study of the area to be impacted by Eagle Mine is needed.

Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay gave more details on the refusal of Kennecott/Rio Tinto (former Eagle Mine owner) to support a hydrogeological study in the past and the problem this lack of a study poses for this groundwater permit:

Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay adds her voice to those calling for a hydrogeological study for the Yellow Dog Plains.

During the question session preceding the hearing, William Malmsten, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition president, asks about snow melt and other climate events that could impact the efficiency of the groundwater discharge at the Eagle Mine. Casey explains the mine's capacity for flood events and snow melt in this video clip:

William Malmsten, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition president, questions whether Eagle Mine can handle snow melt and flood events.

Catherine Parker of Marquette asked about water storage capacity at the mine, noting a report from a DEQ consultant on the Part 632 mine permit, David Sainsbury, who had said mine water inflows were likely to have been underestimated:

Catherine Parker of Marquette cites an MDEQ consultant, David Sainsbury, who questioned estimates of mine water inflows for the Eagle Mine. Joe Maki, MDEQ geologist, replies to her question.

Parker told Keweenaw Now recently that her information for the question on Sainsbury's report was based on a signed and notarized affadavit (March 2007) from Dr. Jack Wittman, documenting a phone conversation he had with MDEQ consultant Dr. David Sainsbury regarding the (Kennecott/Rio Tinto, former owner of Eagle Mine) application to mine.

Not all comments at the hearing were critical of the permit. A few were supportive.

Alvar Maki, Michigamme Township supervisor, while he expressed a preference for holding the hearing in his township since the mine is located in Michigamme Township, said he supported the permit based on the independent monitoring of the Superior Watership Partnership.***

"We think this permit should be approved," Maki said.

Michael Welch, Eagle Mine general manager, spoke at the hearing about his and Lundin's commitment to transparency and communication with the community as well as their commitment to protect water quality:

Lundin Mining Company's Michael Welch, Eagle Mine general manager, expresses support for the Groundwater Discharge Permit and his wish to be transparent with the local community.

On the other hand, Save the Wild U.P. Executive Director Alexandra Thebert, addressing the MDEQ officials in her comments, cited several requests for improved communication with the public and assurances that the groundwater will be protected:

Alexandra Thebert, Save the Wild U.P. executive director, comments on the need for more communication between the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the public.

Thebert noted documents should be posted on the MDEQ Web site to be more accessible so that citizens will be spared the need to resort to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. She also reiterated the request by Carla Champagne of Big Bay and others that future hearings on the Eagle Mine be held in Big Bay or in a large population center such as Marquette so that those most directly affected by the mine can attend.

Toward the end of the hearing Chauncey Moran, who has been monitoring streams and springs on the Yellow Dog Plains for several years, displayed some of his photos related to groundwater issues:

Displaying some of his photographs, Chauncey Moran notes his observations of the TWIS (Treated Water Infiltration System), a drilling rig, water going into the development rock storage and his work with the springs.

Moran said he believes the MDEQ is doing a great job but perhaps receiving information that is not true.

Today, April 1, 2014, is the final day to submit public comments on the permit. According to Steve Casey, these may be submitted by mail and postmarked April 1 or emailed before midnight April 1. Email comments to Jeannette Bailey at baileyj@michigan.gov or mail them to Jeannette Bailey, Department of Environmental Quality, Water Resources Division, Permits Section, P.O. Box 30458, Lansing, Michigan 48909.

Notes:

*Click here to read about Thomas Power's presentations on the economic impacts of mining during his visit to Houghton last fall.
** Click here to access the Fact Sheet, the draft Groundwater Discharge Permit, Eagle Mine contour maps and other related documents on the MDEQ Web site.
*** Click here to learn about the Superior Watershed Partnership's Community Monitoring Program at the Eagle Mine.

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