2005-12-15 / Front Page

Public Urged To Respond to Mining Rules

By Paul Gingras

Proposed sulfide mining operations in the U.P., and their potential for environmental damage, has prompted Congressman Bart Stupak to submit comments on the upcoming finalization of the rules governing new mines in Michigan. At a series of public hearings, Mr. Stupak’s aides have submitted his comments. He has called upon the citizens of Michigan to respond to the current draft of the new rules regulating non-ferrous (other than iron) mining in Michigan before time runs out to do so on Monday, December 19.

Public information meetings and public hearings sponsored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), as well as workshops concerning the potential impacts of sulfide mining by the National Wildlife Federation, took place throughout November and December.

“The rules that we are currently discussing lay the foundation for all non-ferrous (other than iron) mining in Michigan,” Mr. Stupak said. “It is important that we keep in mind Michigan’s environmentally sensitive location, potential health effects to residents, and long term economic stability of the region.”

Most mines in the U.P. have extracted iron oxide and native copper. The ores that Kennecott proposes to mine are metallic sulfides, combinations of metals like nickel with sulfur. When these types of rock are exposed to air or water, a chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid, the same acid used in car batteries. According to Hal Fitch, a geologist for the DEQ, the process can also release heavy metals like lead, zinc, and arsenic into groundwater and streams.

The first prospective mine to spark the controversy is called the Eagle Project in Marquette County. Its founder, Kennecott Minerals Corporation, a Utah-based company, is the closest to applying for a permit. According to Michelle Halley, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, Kennecott has collected the most ecological and mineral data.

A second mine of concern to Mr. Stupak is the Back Forty Project, a mine in Menominee County, near the Wisconsin border. It is promoted by Minerals Processing Corporation (MPC), a company based in Duluth, Minnesota.

There are at least 12 other sites of intensive mineral exploration, Ms. Halley said . One of them is a joint venture by Bitterroot Resources and Cameco Corporation, which is seeking uranium in the Upper Peninsula. According to Cynthia Pryor, executive director of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, the company has identified the resources it seeks and is waiting for the non-ferrous mining rules to be completed. Following that, she said, the company will begin operations.

Referring to the Eagle Project and the Back Forty Project, Congressional Aide Tom Baldini made the following statement on behalf of Mr. Stupak at the November 30 hearing in Marquette:

“The people who live in nearby communities to the proposed mining sites deserve to know the environmental risks by potential accidents that could contaminate their surface and ground water and adversely impact their public health.”

In his comments, Mr. Stupak noted the potential hazards to residents as well as his logistical concerns, such as who would pay for the implementation of legislative enforcement before mining could begin. He also said that measures would need to be put into place to ensure accountability if hazards were to occur, whether these hazards presented immediate problems or long-term concerns.

Mr. Stupak suggested that a surety bond, or another form of financial assurance, be required by the DEQ permitting process. Such a bond, he said, should hold companies responsible for paying to repair damages at least 20 years after the closure of a mine.

As an additional safeguard, studies of the geological and hydrological features of potential mining areas were also suggested by Mr. Stupak. These studies, he said, must be done by impartial and independent organizations.

“We cannot allow mining to begin until we know who will pay the implementation of the law, who will be held accountable for any possible long term damage from mining, and how we will go about requiring regular studies to ensure environmental and health damage is not occurring,” Mr. Stupak said.

“I’m not against mining,” he added. “However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t consider the potential hazards to northern Michigan residents and advise MDEQ of those concerns.”

Mr.Baldini said the Congressman plans to submit comprehensive written comments to the MDEQ.

Ms. Halley has attended all of the public hearings on sulfide mining in Michigan and said that she was particularly struck by Mr. Stupak’s statement of concern that the MDEQ does not have the resources to enforce the rules.

“It’s a valid concern,” she said. “And there is no easy answer. This is a real problem.”

According to Ms. Halley, a series of concerns were voiced by the public at the public hearings concerning sulfide mining.

“Public input at these meetings revealed that people want the rules to have provisions for regulating where mining should and should not be allowed,” she said. “They also want the rules to reflect the social and economic impacts a mine would have.

“Most people want to understand what to expect at the end of a mine’s life,” she added. “They want the decision to allow permits to be based on these concerns. They are not addressed in the current draft of the rules.”

Further concerns voiced by the public hearings were based on the current exemption of the necessity of liners to contain toxic waste rock, she said. Presently, the draft allows for the storage of toxic sulfide-bearing rocks directly on bedrock.

Ms. Halley also hosted National Wildlife Federation workshops across the state. These projects were designed to educate the public on sulfide mining, and she was impressed with the quality of the testimony put forth at the meetings.

Several key points were consistently voiced by Michigan residents at these workshops, she said. First, residents made it known that they wanted rules requiring protective liners for waste rock. Second, they wanted to be sure intensive analysis would be done to create rules governing transportation routes of the toxic sulfide ore. Third, there was a strong push by citizens for at least two years of intensive study of the flora and fauna at potential mine sites. Finally, members of the public insisted the DEQ allow for third-party hydrological surveys at mine sites.

“Michigan residents were very engaged at these workshops,” Ms. Halley said. “It is good to see our efforts paying off.”

The rules dealing with non-ferrous mining can be downloaded from the Internet at www. michigan.gov/org. A copy of the proposed rules can be obtained by contacting Susan Maul of the DEQ at (517) 241-1515.

Public comments concerning the rules can be sent to the following address:

Director Steven Chester

P.O. Box 30473

Lansing, MI 48909-7973

Phone: (517) 373-7917

Fax: (517) 241-7401

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