MAC: Mines and Communities

Activist-Turned-Miner Discusses Failures in United States and Michigan Environmental Law

Published by MAC on 2010-12-13
Source: Headwaters News

Environmental legislation in the United States is often touted (at least domestically) as the most protective in the world.

Rio Tinto would seem to agree: at the company's 2008 AGM, CEO Tom Albanese insisted that Michigan's new mining law is among the "strongest nonferrous mining laws in the world."

Despite this "strong" law, mining and exploration companies have descended upon the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, searching for deposits of precious and base metals, as well as uranium.

Neighboring Wisconsin, which has a straightforward and commonsense mining law requiring a company to prove it can mine safely before commencing activity in the state, hasn't seen serious, non-ferrous, mining exploration for a decade.

Rio Tinto insists that it is compelled to observe a strict standard in Michigan.

However, junior companies - perhaps more dependent on outside investment for projects -  readily acknowledge that the state's mining law is "industry friendly". Aquila Resources, now planning, with HudBay Minerals, to open a gold mine on the largest river in the area, has said as much.

Orvana Minerals, planning its own copper mine less than two miles from the shore of Lake Superior, agrees.

In 2009, Bill Williams, Orvana's VP for corporate development (and former VP at Freeport-McMoRan), told a reporter that his company is only interested in mining in Michigan because of the state's friendly legal structure.

"That's why I could take this to my board," Williams told Michigan Science. "That's why we came to Michigan to invest. We felt it was very transparent. We already knew the permit process is a one-year process. If things work out well, I think there is a future for our company in Michigan."

Now, Orvana's project coordinator for its planned Copperwood project, and a former environmental activist, is lamenting the lack of environmental protection afforded by national laws, and Michigan's mining law specifically.

Activist-Turned-Miner Touts Orvana Project's Virtues and Failures in Environmental Law

By Gabriel Caplett

Headwaters News

3 December 2010

Dave Anderson is the first to point out the possible disconnect between a life's work protecting the environment and his new position as Orvana Minerals' project coordinator for its planned Copperwood mine, north of Wakefield.

"I was on the Rainbow Warrior Greenpeace vessel when we parked in front of Stone Container and I was on the tracks in Bad River when we stopped eleven billion gallons of acid from coming into the UP, and I was in Crandon for ten years," explained Anderson, referencing some of the more controversial regional environmental battles of the past two decades. "This project that I'm working on now is very different."

Anderson told the roughly twenty attendees of a public forum, held at the Ford Center in Alberta Thursday and hosted by the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, of his decades-long work as an activist and scientist. Anderson worked with national environmental groups, Native American tribes and local citizen groups to fight controversial mining and paper mill proposals in the region. It was only after years of failing to find enough work as an environmental consultant that he landed the Orvana job.

Anderson, while carefully avoiding a discussion on the specifics of Rio Tinto's controversial Eagle mining project, contrasted Orvana's Copperwood venture with a project involving more environmental risk, such as Eagle. For starters, the copper ore at Orvana's project doesn't contain pyrite, which readily creates acidic mine drainage, one of the most serious and persistent environmental problems in the world today.

Anderson says "Lake Superior is the most important" resource to protect, a tall order considering Orvana's project is so close to it. The Copperwood mineshaft, if opened, would be located roughly two miles from both Lake Superior and the prized Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park. Ore would be mined toward Lake Superior, but Orvana would stop short of mining directly underneath the lake.

Anderson admits the most controversial aspect of the mine proposal are company plans to both withdraw water from Lake Superior to use in the milling process and discharge treated wastewater back into the lake. The solution, he says, is to treat and continually recycle the water, preventing excessive industrial use of what is the cleanest of the Great Lakes.

According to Anderson, other efforts to protect the environment will likely include the use of a "continuous miner" machine that would grind the rock below the surface-reducing dust emissions at the surface-and gravity-feed it to a conveyor system, a process he describes as "the most economically or green" method available. Anderson says countries "more advanced" than the United States are already using this mining method and seems to lament the weaknesses in federal and state environmental laws, including Michigan's "Part 632" mining law that regulates nonferrous, or non iron ore mining in the state.

"The US is a long ways behind in environmental protection," says Anderson. "The fact that the Clean Water Act originally intended to end discharges to surface water obviously has not reached its goal and we basically, like 632 did, we basically created a process to allow these things to occur."

Anderson, who says he was an active observer while Part 632 was being hashed out by a group of politicians, regulators and industry and environmental representatives says he realized, during that process, that the new law was designed to allow new mining activity.

"There was a certain point in time when all of a sudden the lights came on, at least me, and I said this isn't a rule about stopping mining, this is about how to go from A to Z to get a mining permit," said Anderson. "There was really nothing in 632 that said if you do all this stuff and we don't like it you don't get the permit."

Anderson suggests the mining industry feels more comfortable navigating state, rather than federal laws, at least in Michigan. When forum attendee Doug Welker asked if the company could avoid pollution problems on the surface by putting waste rock back into the mine shaft, Anderson said doing so would require an "underground injection control" permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, a complicated process.

"At this point in time, in the industrial world, [it's] seen as an impossible thing to do," said Anderson. "If you have an agency that doesn't have a timeline, can't assure you that you can get a permit, and you know that with that federal permit comes a whole world of other litigative hooks. . .even if it makes sense economically, even if it makes sense environmentally, even if it enhances worker safety, you won't do it because, right now in the mining business, it's a big no-no."

According to Anderson, regulatory costs are important for Orvana to consider because the Copperwood project is small and low grade-less than 2% copper-but would still cost $143 million to develop. Copper prices have to remain relatively high for the mine to open. Even if the venture proves highly profitable, which would allow Anderson to implement a number of environmentally-protective measures, including the use of wind turbines to power a small portion of the mine, he acknowledges the project will inevitably cause at least some damage.

"I'm not telling you that this is a panacea of little green people running around with flowers in their hand," said Anderson. "It's not, it's a mine; it's gonna have a footprint, it's gonna use a lot of power, it's gonna have a lot of waste rock, and it's gonna affect the immediate area."

Perhaps unusual coming from an industry representative, Anderson admits that Orvana's project, while creating some jobs, is not going to solve the region's economic problems on its own.

"A hundred jobs for ten years is not the end-all-be-all to solving all of the economic issues in the western UP," said Anderson. "Even though the Gogebic Range has had mining for a hundred and twenty years, this isn't going to solve the western UP's unemployment problem."

In order to provide a benefit beyond short term mining jobs and mining tax revenue, Orvana is supporting projects not directly related to the mine's operations, including $8,000 in annual scholarships to local students, a "six figure" donation to the Gogebic Range Water Authority and donations to "silent sports" groups.

"Orvana is a very charitable organization," said Anderson.

Orvana is also working with other private landowners, including timber companies, in efforts to accommodate the North Country Trail on the company's private lands and potentially help move the trail away from the mine, perhaps to a more scenic location along the Presque Isle River or Lake Superior.

Orvana doesn't have a mine plan completed, but has already garnered full support for the project from most local units of government, some local businesses and sportsmen and environmental groups, like UP Whitetails and Ducks Unlimited. The company plans to submit a mine application in Spring 2011 and hopes to begin mining by 2014.

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