MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto tries to get back into the North Woods

Published by MAC on 2005-09-09

Rio Tinto tries to get back into the North Woods

Source: Al Gedicks, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council

9 September 2005

Kennecott Minerals has informed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that it intends to submit a mining permit application to develop the Eagle nickel sulfide deposit in Michigan's Upper Peninsula around November 2005.

Like the Crandon project in the Wolf River watershed, the Eagle deposit threatens the pristine Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout Rivers with sulfuric acid mine drainage and heavy metal contamination. The proposed underground shaft would extend beneath the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River.

The timing of Kennecott's permit is highly unusual. The State of Michigan has not yet come up with rules and regulations to implement the recently passed nonferrous metallic mineral legislation. Why is Kennecott submitting a permit application before the state has even agreed to a set of mining regulations? And why is Kennecott opposed to a hydrological study of the Yellow Dog Plains proposed by the U.S. Geological Survey?

While Kennecott denies they are opposed to the study, they have repeatedly said that the study would unnecessarily duplicate their efforts. Kennecott project manager Jon Cherry has written that "Kennecott has contracted qualified scientists to obtain regional and site specific hydrogeologic data from this area that conforms to the highest data quality requirements and is already available to the public." In other words, Kennecott doesn't want anyone collecting information that might contradict their paid consultants.

The larger context for this fast-track permitting process is that local opposition to the project is growing at a fast pace. There are more than half a dozen groups that are actively opposing the project, including Concerned Citizens of Big Bay, the Sierra Club, the Eagle Alliance, Save the Wild U.P.. Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve. Northwoods Wilderness Recovery, Students Against Sulfide Mining, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a business organization called Wolfpack.

In August 2005, the Northwoods Wilderness Recovery organized a trek via kayak, canoe and foot from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan to heighten awareness of the threats metallic sulfide mining poses on Great Lakes Waters. The event was called "Connecting Water, Connecting People" and was inspired by the Wisconsin Clean Waters Speaking Tour along the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers in 1996.

The first public hearing on the Eagle project drew about 400 people to an overfilled hearing at Northern Michigan University on August 4, 2005. "No sulfide mining" signs were very popular and the public testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to the mine. Most impressive was the enormous range of issues that were raised by hundreds of citizens who waited patiently during the three-hour hearing for two minutes to voice their concerns. State geologist Hal Fitch said much of the testimony raised "premature questions." From the perspective of the state, all citizen concerns are "premature" until the mine permits are issued.

The Wisconsin DNR said the same thing about public comments during the controversial Kennecott Flambeau mine in Ladysmith. Roscoe Churchill and Laura Furtman have been documenting the long term effects of the Flambeau mine and will be publishing this story in a forthcoming book and CD called "The Buzzards Have Landed: The Real Story of the Flambeau Mine". That open pit copper mine is now closed but the pollution from the reflooded mine pit contains contaminants 10 to 100 times higher than anticipated during the mine permitting process. Those contaminants are now showing up in elevated metals in sediments and crayfish in the Flambeau River below the mine site.

What is Kennecott's response to the elevated metals below the mine site? They have reduced their monitoring of the river. They did not collect sediment or fish samples in 2001 and eliminated crayfish sampling in 2002.

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