Friday, January 09, 2015

MDEQ to hold public hearing on Humboldt Mill surface water discharge permit Jan. 13

Eagle Mine, LLC, is applying for a renewal of their surface water discharge permit for the Humboldt Mill, pictured here, where they process ore from the mine into separate nickel and copper concentrates. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) will hold a public hearing on the draft permit next Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the Westwood High School Auditorium in Ishpeming. (File photo courtesy Eagle Mine)

MARQUETTE -- The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) will hold a public hearing on the proposed surface water discharge permit for the Eagle Mine -  Humboldt Mill in Marquette County beginning at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, at the Westwood High School Auditorium, 300 Westwood Dr., in Ishpeming.

A brief presentation, beginning at 6 p.m., will be followed by a question-and-answer session. The hearing will begin no later than 7 p.m., but may begin earlier. The hearing will end at 9 p.m. and the building vacated by 10 p.m. All interested parties are invited to attend.

Comments or objections to the draft permit and proposed decision regarding the Antidegradation Demonstration received by January 16, 2015, will be considered in the final decision to issue the permit.

Eagle Mine, LLC, operates the Humboldt Mill and the associated tailings disposal facility to process copper and nickel ores. The applicant discharges treated process wastewater, treated laboratory wastewater, and treated water treatment backwash through a pipeline to the wetland contiguous to the Middle Branch Escanaba River in the SW1/4, SE1/4, and in the NE1/4, SE1/4, Section 2, Town 47 N, Range 29 W, Marquette County. This draft permit, a renewal of Eagle Mine's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, includes several modifications on the previously issued permit.

Steve Casey, MDEQ Upper Peninsula District Supervisor, Water Resources Division, said the increase in discharge by the Mill required Eagle Mine to submit an Antidegradation Demonstration.

"Anytime there is an increased discharge, water quality will be lowered," Casey told Keweenaw Now. "We believe the proposed permit and the Antidegradation Demonstration both meet the requirements of the statute."

Two complaints about the water level from discharge into wetlands led to Eagle adding a pipe under U.S. 41 to take some of the treated discharge from the Mill to wetlands that are adjacent to the Middle Branch Escanaba River, Casey explained. Originally the discharge went through culverts from wetlands near the Humboldt pit under the highway to wetlands on the north side of U.S. 41. Some of the increased discharge will continue to take that route and some will go through the pipe.

The DEQ Public Notice on this permit states, "This draft permit authorizes an increased loading of pollutants to the wetland contiguous to the Middle Branch Escanaba River, which will lower the water quality with respect to certain parameters. The permitted discharge shall not lower the existing water quality of the receiving water below State Water Quality Standards."*

Casey also commented on the new discharge limits on various pollutants.

"The limits they are required to meet are protective of water quality in both the wetlands and the river," he said.*

Save the Wild U.P concerned about water quality degradation

Urging concerned citizens to attend the Jan. 13 hearing, Save the Wild U.P. recently made these comments on the proposed permit renewal: "Serious, unresolved environmental issues plague the Humboldt Mill. Tailings produced by Eagle will be deposited into the existing pit, adding to legacy contamination. There is an ongoing investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the mill’s status as a superfund site. An outflow pipe was built between the tailings pit and wetlands of the Escanaba River without permits or public involvement. As proposed, the NPDES permit for Eagle Mine - Humboldt Mill will degrade water quality in the Escanaba River."

Concerning the EPA investigation, Casey noted he was present when EPA officials and Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) tribal staff toured Humboldt facilities last fall, to provide historical information from his long experience with the Humboldt site, but he was not present when EPA met with KBIC officials afterwards.

"They (EPA staff) did not share any conclusions with me," Casey said.

Eagle Mine: Water treatment plant surpasses standards

Eagle Mine also issued a statement concerning the proposed permit: "Since the issuance of the original NPDES permit additional background and operational data has been collected. This data helps ensure the permit conditions align with the operation. For example, the new permit would allow for an increase in discharge volume and a second discharge location which provides operational flexibility and allows for better water management.

"The renewed permit would not change the operation of the water treatment plant. The plant has had an exceptional performance record and continues to treat and discharge water that surpasses NPDES water quality standards."

MDEQ: Eagle's Antidegradation Demonstration "adequate"

MDEQ also states this in the public notice: "The Department proposes that the applicant’s
Antidegradation Demonstration, based on information required by Subrule (4) of R323.1098, shows that lowering of water quality is necessary to support the identified important social and economic development in the area. This is solely for purposes of satisfying state water quality regulations and is not intended to supplant local requirements, including land use or zoning laws. It is not, and should not be construed as, a finding by the Department that the proposed development meets local requirements or ordinances. In addition to the proposed permit, the Department is proposing to accept the Antidegradation Demonstration as adequate."*

Casey also confirmed that, during the Jan. 13 hearing, MDEQ will give an update on the groundwater discharge permit for Eagle Mine, which was the subject of the March 25, 2014, MDEQ public hearing at Westwood High School.

"We had a lot of good comments, and we made changes with regard to those comments -- which took a long time," Casey said. "There's one unresolved issue that we'll talk about on Tuesday (Jan. 13)."**


* Click here to read more details on the permit in the MDEQ Public Notice.

** See our April 1, 2014, article on the March 25, 2014, public hearing: "Citizens question, challenge MDEQ proposed Groundwater Discharge Permit for Eagle Mine."

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