The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) held a public hearing from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 25 in Westwood High School’s auditorium in Ishpeming, Mich. at which about 150 people were in attendance.
The public hearing was held in order for the MDEQ to formally consider public and tribal dissent regarding the most recent draft of the Eagle Mine’s Groundwater Discharge Permit (GWDP), which critics said loosened regulations on discharged contaminants, removing numeric limits on some and making many self-reported by the owner, Lundin Mining Corp.
Earlier that day MDEQ officials held a meeting with the tribal council of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) on the same subject in recognition of their formal designation as a sovereign government.
The hearing began with a presentation by MDEQ District Supervisor Steve Casey, who also moderated the following question and answer session and public comment period. He was accompanied onstage by three other representatives of the DEQ Groundwater Permits Unit from Lansing: Unit Chief Rick Rusz, EQA Jeanette Bailey and Geologist Jeff Warner.
The presentation covered a number of concerns the MDEQ identified in previous talks and presentations by critics of the GWDP. Topics included the proper application of the statute, concerns around uranium, the mine’s non-compliance, the Salmon Trout River, hydrogeology and background water quality.
Casey said via email it was a very successful outreach.
“Our objective was to improve understanding regarding DEQ’s role in administering statutes [and] rules, especially groundwater rules,” Casey said. “The feedback we received during and after the meeting leads us to believe that was successful.”
In the presentation, Casey said the expected effluent levels for nickel, aluminum and uranium were far below the legally required limits and that uranium is naturally-occurring in wells throughout the U.P. He also said background concentrations of vanadium and pH accounted for the raising of the permit levels for those constituents.
However, experts and community-members in attendance questioned the reliability of the cited background levels, due to exploratory drilling and other invasive activity at the mine site predating the background level tests. They called attention to the lack of a thorough independent hydrogeological study of the affected areas to accurately assess environmental impacts.
Jessica Koski, KBIC technical mining assistant and tribal member, expressed her appreciation on behalf of the community that MDEQ consulted with KBIC members earlier in the day.
“We also recognize that the Eagle Mine has an exceedingly high potential to generate acid and associated heavy metals in one of the Great Lake’s most pristine watersheds that deserves the most protective regulatory arsenal possible,” Koski said.
KBIC Geologist Chuck Brumleve criticized MDEQ’s interpretation of the statutes in place for mine regulation.
“The interest should be in what’s best for the environment, not the applicant,” Brumleve said. “Agencies don’t exist to be advisers to industry.”
Big Bay resident Gene Champagne called attention to the lack of numeric limits in the permit and called for limits and penalties.
“Logically, economically and historically, the only [thing] that’s going to prevent [the mine] from exceeding limits is if the mine knows they will cease operating if they reach them,” he said.
Sarah Culver, representing herself, talked about growing up in Grand Ledge, Mich. where pollution has severely polluted the Grand River. She said the Yellow Dog Watershed is a terrible place for a mine.
“We have 17 percent of the world’s fresh water,” Culver said. “Hard rock mining has polluted more water in this country than any other activity.”
A number of commenters brought up the location of the hearing as a point of contention, saying that it should have been nearer an impacted community or in a population center like Marquette.
Save the Wild U.P. Director Alexander Thebert said after the hearing that she was encouraged by the public turnout despite the inaccessibility of the location, but was critical of MDEQ.
“I thought the DEQ [was] oftentimes quite patronizing,” she said. “I thought it particularly disheartening that they used information to justify what they are [doing] that they wouldn’t release to the public in advance of the hearing.
“[Attorney] Michelle Halley is correct that they’re using Orwellian doublespeak [in] asking for public comment,” Thebert said.
Casey said the MDEQ will review their hydrogeological study results and consider all statements made at the hearing.
“All of the comments that we’ve received to date are important and we will be making some changes to the permit as a result of them,” he said.
Eagle Mine Media Relations Advisor Dan Blondeau asserted in an email the mine’s commitment to protecting water and the environment through their reverse-osmosis water treatment system.
“We welcome anyone that has questions about our facilities or performance to take a tour of the mine site,” he said.