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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Environmental groups, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community question Lundin Mining's permit amendment request for Humboldt Mill tailings disposal

By Michele Bourdieu
This aerial photograph shows the Humboldt Mill Wastewater Treatment Plant and the north end of the Humboldt Pit Lake, referred to by the permit amendment request as the "Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility" (HTDF). (2017 Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

MARQUETTE --Environmentalists in the Mining Action Group -- part of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) -- along with the Concerned Citizens of Big Bay and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, have sent comments to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) expressing strong concerns about Lundin Mining's permit amendment request for Eagle Mine's Humboldt Mill.

The mining company has asked approval to place tailings to a higher elevation in the Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility (aka HTDF or the Humboldt Pit) than currently permitted by the Eagle Mine's 2010 mining permit. The public comment period, which followed a public meeting on Nov. 27, officially ended on Dec. 26, 2017, despite requests from concerned citizens that DEQ officials extend the comment period and provide more information. Here are some excerpts from the public comments:

Comments (summary) to DEQ from Mining Action Group: "Don’t Fill Humboldt Pit Lake with Toxic Mine Waste"
Posted Dec. 26, 2017 on their Web site*

The Public Comment period on Lundin Mining’s proposed "Humboldt Mill permit amendment request" came to a close at 5 p.m. today, Dec. 26, 2017. Members of the Mining Action Group participated in the Public Meeting held on Nov. 27. We thank everyone who attended the DEQ meeting and all of the environmental stakeholders who have voiced their concerns about this flawed permit amendment request.

Our Conclusion:

We are concerned that Michigan law (especially Part 301, with regards to the filling of Humboldt Pit Lake with toxic mine tailings) and the Clean Water Act are being applied inconsistently, and that regulations are improperly interpreted. The Humboldt Pit Lake is treated, simultaneously, as an "Inland Lake" according to Michigan’s Part 301 Inland Lakes and Streams Program, but not regarded as "waters of the state" under Part 31.

During the DEQ's Nov. 27, 2017, public meeting on Lundin Mining's request to amend the Humboldt Mill mining permit because of an anticipated increase in tailings to be added to the Humboldt pit, Kathleen Heideman of the Mining Action Group asks questions of DEQ officials concerning the mining regulations, in particular the interpretation of statutes to determine whether the Humboldt Pit qualifies for protection as an inland lake. Joe Maki, geology specialist of DEQ Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division, UP District, and Steve Casey, DEQ Water Resources Division Upper Peninsula District supervisor, reply to her questions. Also representing DEQ is Melanie Humphrey, geological technician, Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division, UP District. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

The DEQ’s stewardship of Michigan’s freshwater natural resources is the shared interest and responsibility of all stakeholders. Concerned citizens, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Community Environmental Monitoring Program, the Mining Action Group and other UPESG (Upper Peninsula Environmental Stakeholders Group) stakeholders have all expressed our concerns regarding Lundin’s use of the Humboldt Pit Lake as a "waste disposal facility" which appears to violate common sense, as well as the law. We ask the DEQ to regulate this body of water in full accordance with the Clean Water Act and NREPA, keeping in mind that Michigan citizens and the Escanaba River Watershed will bear the burden of these polluting activities long after Lundin’s mining and milling operations have ceased.

We believe the Humboldt Mill amendment request does not fulfill the requirements of Part 632. The applicant failed to provide an updated EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), failed to update the reclamation plan, dismissed the contingency plan, failed to provide a list of all additional necessary permits, and did not increase the financial assurity to offset the significant, permanent environmental hazards posed by additional tailings storage and reduced water cover at the Humboldt Pit Lake.

The Applicant has Not Met the Standard for Review

Furthermore, the DEQ has a statutory requirement under Section 324.63207 (6)(c) of Part 632 to "submit the request for amendment to the same review process as provided for a new permit application" and consolidate multiple permits into a single review process, to facilitate public participation.

The DEQ has Not Met this Statutory Requirement

The permit amendment request is fundamentally incomplete, as it falsely and narrowly limits discussion to a single permit condition; because Condition F.4 is being considered apart from other connected permits and deprecated permit conditions, steamrolling the permit process without offering an opportunity for public input; and because the applicant provides no supporting material, with no updated analysis of the cumulative Environmental Impacts.

"DEQ shall deny a permit if it determines that the mining operation will 'pollute, impair, or destroy, air, water or other natural resources or the public trust in those resources, in accordance with part 17' (Michigan Environmental Protection Act)."

This permit amendment request is obviously unsubstantiated and incomplete. Environmental stakeholders are unable to consider the implications of such a significant change, in the absence of monitoring data, modeling, and the lack of a revised EIA. Confident predictions made by Lundin’s experts in public presentations do not change our conclusion. Please deny the Humboldt Mill MP-012010 permit amendment request, on the grounds that it fails to meet the standard for review as required under Part 632.

Here is another aerial view of the Humboldt Mill Wastewater Treatment Plant and the north end of the Humboldt Pit Lake, referred to by the permit amendment request as the "Humboldt Tailings Disposal Facility" (HTDF). (2017 Photo © Jeremiah Eagle Eye)

* To read the Mining Action Group’s full public comments on the Humboldt Mill permit amendment request, click here and and follow the link at the end to access their pdf file with the complete comments.

Excerpts from comments to DEQ from Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), dated Dec. 21, 2017

In the cover letter to their comments, KBIC President Warren C. Swartz, JR, states the basic reason for the tribe's concerns about the Humboldt Mill permit: "Under the 1842 Treaty of LaPointe, KBIC reserved rights to hunt, fish, trap, and gather on traditional lands ceded to the United States. Today KBIC continues to harvest berries, medicinal plants, water from springs, fish from streams, and wildlife within the Escanaba River watershed for subsistence and cultural lifeways. The Humboldt Mill, and its water treatment outfalls, are in the Escanaba River watershed and within the 1842 Ceded Territory."

During the Nov. 27 DEQ public meeting on Lundin Mining's request to amend the Humboldt Mill mining permit, KBIC tribal member Jeffery Loman reminded the DEQ of the tribe's concern for migratory birds and other natural resources that could be impacted by the Humboldt pit/artificial lake. He suggested the DEQ seek the participation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in regulating the lake.

Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member, addresses Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality officials during the Nov. 27, 2017, public meeting on Lundin Mining's request to amend the permit for the Humboldt Mill because of anticipated added tailings in the Humboldt pit. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

In their comments, KBIC also questions Lundin's original EIA, which claims that Eagle Mine activities are not expected to harm threatened, endangered or special concern species: "What is being done to keep Threatened or Endangered and Special Concern species out of the HTDF? Especially if the lake strata turn over. If bald eagles or other birds fly into and land on the HTDF lake, what is being done to keep them off? There could be the potential for animal poisoning." 

At the beginning of their comment document, KBIC states, "Lundin Mining Company, Eagle Humboldt Mill is not prepared to request an amendment to their Mining Permit, MP 012010, Condition F4. This is due to the state of understanding of the pit lake now in 2017, the modeling performed to date and the unavailability of relevant data."

The document notes that before considering Lundin's request for a higher elevation of the tailings, the DEQ, the tribe and the public need to know and understand "the complex geochemistry and fluid dynamics of the current pit lake tailings discharge." KBIC also notes concern about very high salts from the Humboldt Mill that potentially threaten the top layer of cleaner water. They also question the modeling being done -- but not yet completed -- by Lundin, specifically modeling wind speed at which lake turnover and mixing would occur.

During the Nov. 27, 2017, public meeting on Lundin Mining's request for an amendment to the mining permit for Humboldt Mill, Chuck Brumleve, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) environmental mining specialist, asks Michigan DEQ officials several questions related to the regulatory limits for tailings in the Humboldt pit. Seated with him (second from left) is Timothy Dombrowski, KBIC Great Lakes resource specialist. DEQ's Joe Maki comments on the geochemistry of the Humboldt pit. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

KBIC also expresses several concerns about the shallow pit lake -- impacts that could result from raising the elevation of the tailings -- in the following comments:

"Without a satisfactory water depth over the tailings, as is requested by the Humboldt Mill's Amendment to Condition F.4, the lower anoxic layers will not develop and the sulfide reducing bacteria will not develop. The thin remaining top layer will stay mixed and oxygenated due to wind-driven upwelling and other natural processes. Metals will remain dissolved and water treatment will be required before discharge well into the future after the mill closes. The elimination of an anoxic layer and sulfide reducing bacteria significantly increases the risk of perpetual or at least long term pit lake treatment."

They add that the irregular pit bottom caused by the cone-shaped mounds of tailings under the water would prohibit the planting of wetland plants, which is a sulfide mining remediation technique that has been used in other pit lakes to produce anoxic conditions.

KBIC adds, "While Lundin goes to great lengths in the Request for Amendment to Condition F.4 to calm questions about a shallow water cover with no anoxic layer for managing the dissolved metals, we fear this removes another safety measure and increases the risk of this tailings disposal site to be a long term environmental problem for the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River, Tribes and people of Michigan."

KBIC's conclusions indicate their concerns for future generations and their unwillingness to take risks based on DEQ's acceptance of Lundin's questionable modeling:

"Lundin Mining Company will be in and out of here in a matter of less than ten years. The logic presented in the amendment request is short term when considering the centuries that the Ojibwa people have been in the area in the past and intend to remain into the future. While laboratory experiments are good starting points for input to modeling, we all know that the modeling of geologic systems over decades in the short term and centuries in the long term is an inexact science if for no other reason than models have not been around for these time periods -- it is a relatively new tool. To gamble the environmental health and sustainability of the Middle Branch of the Escanaba River on model predictions is a risk the mining company and the DEQ expects the tribes to take for little or no reward for the additional risk."

Concerned Citizens of Big Bay: Public needs more information

During the Nov. 27 public meeting, Gene Champagne of the Concerned Citizens of Big Bay asked the DEQ to extend their comment period because of the lack of information available to the public:

During the Nov. 27, 2017, public meeting on Lundin Mining's request for an amendment to the Humboldt Mill mining permit, Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay asks DEQ officials to extend the public comment period because of missing information needed by the public. He also asks DEQ to consider the impacts of the project as a whole rather than treating it in a piecemeal fashion. (Video by Keweenaw Now)

At one point during the Nov. 27 meeting, Joe Maki, geology specialist of DEQ Oil, Gas, and Minerals Division, UP District, stated that DEQ officials are willing to consider public comments that arrive after the deadline. Champagne took Maki at his word in sending the following comments on Dec. 28, 2017:

"Regarding 'Humboldt Mill MP-012010 Permit Amendment Request':

"I apologize for being late in sending my comments concerning this permit amendment request. The Dec. 26th deadline made it difficult to send my comments on time, as I have been traveling for the Holidays. I was also waiting until the last minute for information that was requested, and agreed upon with DEQ personnel at the public hearing November 27 at Westwood High School, that the information regarding geochemistry was necessary to make both good comment and good judgment on the requested permit amendment. I do appreciate that Joe Maki informed attendees at the November 27th public comment meeting that the DEQ does accept and take into account comments that are received after the deadline date.

"Two of the main points brought up in public comment on November 27th were the lack of geochemistry data and the lack of an anoxic layer being utilized in the 'pit lake.' Without these two pieces of critical information, along with several others, the permit is lacking in data to comment sufficiently on it, thus making it incomplete. At this point the DEQ has a due diligence to either deny the permit, or request further information and begin a new comment period of at least 90 days for the public to be able to dissect and understand, and comment on any new and needed information when it becomes available."

Maki also announced during the Nov. 27 meeting that the 28-day DEQ review of the permit amendment request, should DEQ come to a proposed decision on the permit, would be followed by a public hearing and another comment period on the proposed decision.

Several members of the public have indicated their dissatisfaction with the DEQ timeline, since they find it more difficult to persuade DEQ of their concerns once a "proposed decision" has been made; thus the need for the public to be fully informed at the time of the first comment period.

During the Nov. 27 meeting Carla Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay also questioned the meaning of "significant" as used by DEQ to determine that changes in the mining company's plans or actions are important enough for new permitting and public input.

Maki admitted that DEQ does not have a formal definition for "significant."

Editor's Note: For links to DEQ documents concerning Lundin's Humboldt Mill Permit Amendment Request, click here.