Sep 19, 2007

Battle over sulfide mining permit pits traditional foes

The fight over granting a mining permit for Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company to mine copper and nickel in the Upper Peninsula is pitting a couple of old foes against each other; environmentalists and labor unions.

The company wants a permit for the mine located in Michigan’s largest undeveloped tract in southern Marquette County’s Yellow Dog plains under the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River that flows directly into Lake Superior. The decision makers from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took public comment Wednesday at the Lansing Center before it makes a decision. No decision will be made until at least Nov. 14 at the earliest, and DEQ and DNR officials made no comment and only took testimony from the public at the hearing.

The mine needs five permits to begin operations, and the five officials who will make the decision on each permit were on hand for the hearing. The company must obtain a mining permit, a groundwater discharge permit, an air use permit, a lease from the DNR for use of state-owned surface property and a mining reclamation permit. Public hearings were held last week in the UP, and many UP residents make the trip to Lansing to testify again. Many UP residents have formed a Marquette-based, grassroots organization called “Save the Wild UP” to fight the mine.

“I think protecting the area is far more important than my personal gain,” said Andrew Sorney, an engineer who lives near the proposed site. “I believe the area needs to be protected.”

Opponents of the mine say it will drain the aquifer, destroy wetlands, destroy wildlife habitat, destroy fisheries, pollute the air and pollute the water. But environmentalists are extremely concerned about the effects of the sulfide produced at the mine. It’s an unwanted substance that is combined with the nickel that when it comes into contact with the air or water produces acid that leeches into the groundwater and runoff to the river and to Lake Superior. Although ore mines have existed in the UP for many years, the new mining technology is causing new concerns, despite new, tougher mining standards in Michigan.

“We need to be very specific about what we require of these mines; this permit does not adhere to the standards of the statute,” said James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, and a member of the workgroup that helped write the new mining standards. “I believe a new generation of mining is going to come to the UP, but it’s not Kennecott.”

Although the speakers advocating rejecting the permits outnumbered those urging approval of the permits by a more than 2-1 margin, there were some supporters.

“We believe this project is critical to help grow and diversify our economy in Michigan,” said Doug Roberts, Jr., the Director of Environmental and Energy Policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Wages and jobs in Michigan continue to fall: this project will help stabilize wages and the economy.”

Proponents of the mine say it will create 120 permanent jobs in an area that desperately needs jobs, create 300 construction jobs, have a payroll of $8-10 million, create numerous spin-off jobs and be the only mine in the U.S. producing much-needed nickel.

“This project will benefit this area,” said Tony Retaskie, the Executive Director of the Upper Peninsula Construction Council. “I personally feel this mine will benefit our community, as mines have for more than a 100 years.”

Some supporters believe the company has met the strict guidelines to be environmentally safe and have reduced the potential for acid to develop.

“We feel that both jobs can be created and that the natural resources can be protected,” said Mike Fikes, the Legislative Director for the Michigan Laborers’ District Council that represents 13,000 active and retired construction laborers in Michigan. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Some opponents said the jobs the mine would bring would only be a short-term gain that would harm the economy of the area in the long run and not solve the unemployment problems in the long run.

“I think this is just a bad business decision,” said Duncan Campbell, a businessman from East Lansing. “We are destroying our tourism industry, our water and our habitat.”

Opponents of the mine brought forth a number of objections, including the reputation of Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company.

“There are volumes and volumes of information on Kennecott front the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency),” said Ray Francis, a contractor from Traverse City. “Their track record is not very good.”

Many people were upset that the DEQ has not had an independent review of the data supplied by Kennecott, especially on the toxic air and metal residue put out into the atmosphere by the ventilation system.

“I am deeply, deeply troubled by the fact that the DEQ seems to be accepting Kennecott’s data without doing their own due diligence on it,” said James Campbell of Northville, who also owns property near the mine. “The miners are going to wear breathing devises, but the air is being emitted unfiltered.”

There was considerable concern over air pollution caused by the ventilation system that consists of exhaust air from the mine being vented through a 50-foot tall stack with no air pollution controls. Phil Power - the former owner and publisher of HomeTown Communications Network and founder of The Center for Michigan, a non-profit and nonpartisan "think-and-do tank" – presented evidence of the harm the air pollution will cause. He said the underground blasting of copper and nickel would create a plume of toxic dust particles that will cause serious harm to the flora, fauna and fish in the pristine area.

“This is not just anti-mine rhetoric,” Power said. “It is based on Kennecott’s own supplied data.
“We strongly urge the DEQ to obtain an independent study of these dust particles.”

Concerned citizens can still submit written comments by mail or e-mail until 5 p.m., Oct. 17. Comments can be mailed to: DEQ/DNR Kennecott Comments
Office of Geological Survey
P.O. Box 3025
Lansing, Michigan 48909-7756.

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