This aerial view shows the outfalls of discharge from the Humboldt Pit (Eagle Mine's Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility) and the proposed (pink) flow path through wetlands and the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. 1 = Outfall 001; 2 = Outfall 002; 3 = (proposed) Outfall 003; 4 = Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank, Phase 1 South; 5 = Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility (pit); * = asterisks indicate Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. (Photo courtesy Save the Wild U.P.)
MARQUETTE -- Eagle Mine's Humboldt Mill near Champion, Mich. -- the facility Eagle uses to process ore from the mine near Big Bay into separate nickel and copper concentrates -- is a subject of controversy because of environmental concerns over the permitting process that allows treated or untreated wastewater from the mill to be discharged into wetlands and the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River (MBER).
This photo shows the Humboldt Mill, where Lundin Mining Co., now owner of the Eagle Mine, processes ore from the mine into nickel and copper concentrates. The wastewater from the mill goes into the Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility (HTDF), aka, the Humboldt Pit (upper left of photo) and then through a water treatment plant (if necessary) and to two Outfalls, with a third Outfall proposed, that lead through wetlands to the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River (see above map). (File photo courtesy Eagle Mine)
While the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) claims the outfalls from the Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility (HTDF), aka, the Humboldt Pit, carry the discharge, totaling up to 1.4 million gallons per day, through wetlands (classified as warm water) before reaching the river, Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) claims at least one of the outfalls, Outfall 002, empties directly into the river, a cold-water trout stream; and, most recently, SWUP questions the path of the discharge from the newly proposed Outfall 003 -- through a wetland mitigation bank and into the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River.
SWUP is a grassroots environmental nonprofit based in Marquette and dedicated to protecting the wild lands and freshwater resources of the Upper Peninsula.
Public comment on the modified NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit can be received up to Aug. 3, 2015.*
MDEQ announces NPDES permit modification
On July 2, 2015, the MDEQ released a draft wastewater discharge permit modification for Eagle Mine’s Humboldt Mill. On April 7, 2015, the MDEQ had issued the mill an NPDES permit which included a requirement for a hydrological study to determine the best location and discharge strategy to protect the integrity of downstream wetlands. That requirement originated after a Jan. 13, 2015, public meeting where attendees expressed concern about potential impacts to wetland hydrology.
"The permit that we issued on April 7 required Eagle to do a study to monitor the impact of the Humboldt Pit discharge on water levels in wetlands between the Humboldt Pit and the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River," said Steve Casey, MDEQ Water Division Upper Peninsula District supervisor. "Part of the study was to evaluate establishing a new outfall at the location of the post-closure water release. That location is 530 feet west of the original outfall (of the permit). In order to best conduct that study they've requested a modification of their permit so they can discharge at the post-closure location now."
The MDEQ processed Eagle's request, and the draft permit contains the same limitations on flows and water quality as the April 7 permit. The only change to the permit is to add a new outfall location -- Outfall 003.
This is stated in the Public Notice for the permit (NPDES Permit No. MI0058649) as follows:
"The draft permit includes the following modifications to the previously-issued permit:
A new Outfall 003 has been added, which will authorize the discharge of wastewaters (identical to Outfalls 001 and 002) through a pipeline to the wetland contiguous to the Middle Branch Escanaba River. Outfall 003 has been proposed in accordance with the original permit’s requirements in Part I.A.4.b. The new outfall (003) will share the flow restrictions with Outfalls 001 and 002, as outlined in Part I.A.1 and Part I.A.1.j, and does not authorize any additional flow. Upon modification, this permit will supersede Certificate of Coverage No. MIS210034, issued August 15, 2012."
"The discharge goes to the same wetland complex," Casey explained. "It's the location where the Humboldt Pit discharged after it filled up 40 years ago."
SWUP concerned about Outfalls 002 and 003
In a letter to EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) dated May 6, 2015, SWUP petitioned the EPA to veto the NPDES permit issued on April 7 by the MDEQ, acting under delegated authority from EPA Region 5, on the basis that inadequacies of the permit violate the Clean Water Act.
"In response to public comment, the MDEQ made changes to the original draft permit brought forward by Eagle Mine but failed to resolve numerous and serious issues related to a new outfall (Outfall 002) discharging wastewater which degrades water quality in the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River," the letter states.
The letter questions the location of Outfall 002, which, SWUP claims, "was not studied during the Humboldt Mill EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), and remains unassessed."
This aerial photo, taken July 9, 2015, shows the location of Outfall 002 -- marked by a yellow X in the center of the photo. Click on photo for larger version. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)
In response to public comments made before the April 7 permit, MDEQ defined the location of Outfall 002 as follows: "The pipeline for Outfall 002 will discharge to an area upgradient of the wetland adjacent to the Middle Branch Escanaba River (MBER). Flow dissipation will be accomplished in an approximately 40-foot length rip-rap apron, which slopes down to the wetland fringe to promote a slow, gradual entry of water into the wetland. This design also intended to allow some natural infiltration into the sandy outfall and to limit or eliminate transport of sediment into and through the wetland. The distance from the wetland fringe to the bank of MBER is about 150 feet depending on stage of the river."*
In the letter to EPA, SWUP further questions MDEQ's calling the discharge receiving water a wetland:
"Temporarily setting aside critical concerns about preemptive construction and flawed design of Outfall 002, it is simply a gross manipulation to call Outfall 002 a 'wetland discharge' in order to utilize warm-water aquatic values and wetland hardness and pH values, thus allowing higher parameter limits for heavy metals in effluent discharge. Discharges from Outfall 002 into the riverbed receive no ameliorating or assimilating benefit, as would occur in a true wetland; it is an error of fact and judgement to term Outfall 002 either a 'wetland discharge' or a 'warm-water wetland' discharge. During our most recent visit to Outfall 002, in mid-April 2015, discharges from Outfall 002 were observed flowing directly into and merging with river currents."
Outfall 002 is pictured here, with discharge from the Humboldt Pit appearing to flow into the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. Technically, it is described as passing through wetlands, depending on the seasonal flow of the river. (May 2015 photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)
Kristen Mariuzza, Eagle Mine manager for Environment, Health and Safety, replying to questions from Keweenaw Now, said, "Outfall 001 and Outfall 002 both discharge to wetlands that are contiguous to the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. Outfall 002 discharges to the wetland that is located several hundred feet from the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River."
Mariuzza also said the discharge is coming from the Humboldt Water Treatment Plant.
"Tailings from the Mill are sub-aqueously disposed in the pit and process water is treated by the water treatment plant before being recycled to the environment," she explained.
Kristen Mariuzza, Eagle Mine manager for Environment, Health and Safety, replies to questions from Big Bay residents, including Gene Champagne, right, during the May 19, 2015, Eagle Mine community meeting in Big Bay. The meeting allowed the public to meet individually with Eagle Mine staff members and ask about their concerns. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
Save the Wild U.P. also questions the purpose of Outfall 003 and challenges the April 7 NPDES permit for several reasons, noting their concerns expressed at the Jan. 13, 2015, public hearing have not been sufficiently addressed, even though the MDEQ public notice on Outfall 003 states it is in response to hydrology concerns expressed at that public hearing.
SWUP questions discharge through Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank
In a July 23 press release, SWUP cites some public concerns that have not been addressed by the modified permit.
"Citizens remain deeply critical of the MDEQ’s previous permitting decision, allowing degradation of the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River. We asked EPA Region 5 to veto that NPDES permit, in fact, because it was so deeply flawed," said SWUP President Kathleen Heideman. "Now they’re already revising it. Adding a third discharge point does not address citizen concerns about environmental degradation. The pollution remains unchanged. MDEQ is supposed to be protecting the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River as a coldwater trout stream."
According to Casey, though, the NPDES permit limits protect both the wetlands and the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River.
"Limits listed in the permit -- for both metals and other pollutants -- are protective of both wetlands and the cold-water river," Casey told Keweenaw Now in a phone conversation on July 15. "We put a hydrological study requirement in the permit to be sure Eagle's discharge protects the hydrological integrity of downstream wetlands -- both natural and created."
The "created" wetlands are those of the Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank north of U.S. 41. According to Casey, Outfall 002 is intended to alleviate concerns of this Wetland Mitigation Bank, owned by A. Lindberg and Sons. Originally the groundwater under the created wetlands was too high. It would back up if too much water was being pumped from the original Outfall, Casey explained. The revised permit limits total discharge from the Humboldt Pit to 1.4 million gallons per day.
"If the water in the pit meets all the limits in the permit, they can discharge a total of 1.4 million gallons per day divided among the three outfalls without using the water treatment plant," Casey said. (The water treatment plant -- using an ultra filtration method -- is only required if the water in the pit exceeds permit limits.)
However, the path of the wastewater is still troubling to SWUP. They claim the addition of Outfall 003 would divert a portion of the mill’s wastewater to a new location, dumping it into a poor-quality cattail wetland adjacent to the Humboldt Pit, a site already polluted by historic mine tailings discharge. From there, the wastewater will flow north, passing underneath US-41 through a culvert before entering the Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank property, en route to the Escanaba river.
"Wetland mitigation banks are supposed to replace functional wetlands destroyed by development. Owners of such banks are given credit for restoring functional wetlands. I find it incredible that this mitigation bank will be allowed to receive wastewater from the Humboldt Mill," said Gail Griffith, emeritus professor of chemistry at Northern Michigan University and SWUP board member.
SWUP finds MDEQ's statement that Outfalls 001 and 003 "discharge to the same wetland" to be oversimplified since the route taken by the wastewater will be strikingly different.
"Wastewaters discharged from Outfall 003 would enter the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River at a location at least a mile upstream from Outfall 001 (See above SWUP map). In short, Eagle Mine’s total environmental footprint is expanding again," said Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP’s interim director.
Heideman adds she finds the discharge into the Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank very unusual.
"I spoke to a staffer from Michigan’s Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, someone familiar with NPDES permitting requirements and regulations concerning wetlands preservation, and they could not think of another situation in which a wetland mitigation bank would be allowed to intentionally receive wastewater discharges from a mine’s tailings facility," Heideman said. "Mitigation banks are required to be protected from contaminants, reviewed for biological integrity, and maintained in perpetuity. Anything less would be contrary to the administrative code which governs wetland mitigation banking."
Marquette attorney Jana Mathieu noted, "Humboldt Mill’s NPDES permit authorizes discharges that will, in the short term, degrade water quality in the Escanaba watershed. But it would be manifestly unreasonable, and clearly contrary to Michigan law, for the MDEQ to allow these industrial wastewaters to enter a state-registered wetland mitigation bank."
Poster of Humboldt Mill processing on display at the May 19, 2015, Eagle Mine community meeting held in Big Bay. The right lower photo shows part of the Humboldt Pit (Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility) The middle of the three photos above shows equipment for separating the nickel and copper. "We sink the nickel and float the copper," said Jeff Murray, mill site manager. Murray also noted the water is recycled as much as possible, with some water coming from the pit. The final, dried nickel and copper concentrates are shipped to Canada by rail for further processing. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
Steve Garske, botanist and SWUP board member, also questioned the quality of the wetland mitigation bank.
"I can't believe the laws (regulating wetland mitigation banks) intended for the landowner to dig out sand and gravel for commercial sale; let the hole fill with water -- including contaminated water seeping from an old tailings basin and wastewater discharges from the processing of copper-nickel-sulfide ore at Humboldt Mill; let whatever aggressive, weedy invasive plants that are around move in; put up 'no trespassing' signs; and call it wetland mitigation. Is anybody monitoring this? Something's gotta be wrong."
Save the Wild U.P. requested a site visit to review the Humboldt Wetland Mitigation Bank, but has received no response from the bank’s sponsor, A. Lindberg and Sons, who designed the proposed Outfall 003; MDEQ’s Water Resources Division declined to facilitate the site visit, according to SWUP. **
Since January, no public hearing has been scheduled for the NPDES permit. SWUP encourages concerned citizens to submit written comments, or request a public hearing for further review of this proposed permit modification and related environmental impacts.*
"Mine permitting keeps getting streamlined for the benefit of industry, while concerned citizens find the process time-consuming and opaque," Maxwell added. "Before the ink is dry on a permit, it is being revised, with additional loopholes and leniencies inserted. It is up to concerned citizens to follow every revision, ask questions, and loudly demand that due process be followed."
After taking a June 19 public tour of the Humboldt Mill, Horst Schmidt, a resident of Tamarack City, said he had questions about the water in the pit that weren't answered.
"Although Lundin runs an efficient operation, they are dumping the tailings into the old Humboldt open mine pit which is now a lake," Schmidt said. "Unless it's sealed, how can we know what is leaching through fractures into the aquifer? When the staff or Dan Blondeau, Lundin's local PR man, are asked questions beyond the soft ones, one gets non sequiturs from them about operational details."
According to Eagle Mine's Mariuzza, "The purpose of Outfall 003 is two-fold: first, it meets the permit requirement to establish an outfall at the post closure water release location; and, second, it allows for better water distribution and ensures the historical viability of the entire wetland is maintained."
After several calls to EPA Region 5, Keweenaw Now received this reply concerning the petition from SWUP: "EPA is in the process of reviewing a proposed modification to a state permit issued to the Humboldt Mill tailing disposal facility in Champion, Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality proposed the modification on July 2. EPA has received the petition from Save the Wild UP relating to this permit modification and it is being reviewed."
Mariuzza said she believed EPA did comment on the NPDES permit but she did not have details of those comments.
Asked whether Lundin is working on the hydrology study, Mariuzza said, "A work plan for the hydrologic study was submitted to the MDEQ in late May. The actual study will commence in late summer/early fall. The study will include determining impacts of discharges from Outfall 001 and Outfall 003, if approved for construction."***
* Click here to access the permit, a fact sheet and the DEQ's responsiveness summary (responses to earlier comments). New comments can be sent to Samuel Snow at email@example.com before midnight, Aug. 3, 2015.
** Click here for the full SWUP press release. Keweenaw Now left messages for A. Lindberg and Sons, but did not receive a reply for this article.
*** Replies to Keweenaw Now's questions to Kristen Mariuzza were relayed to us by Dan Blondeau, Eagle Mine senior advisor in Communications and Media Relations.