Eagle Mine permit considered illegal by opponents

Michael Williams

Dissenters at Eagle Mine’s public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 13 believe the mine’s new permit is illegal. The permit almost doubles the water discharge volume from the Humboldt Mill into the Escanaba watershed. Homeowners and environmental advocates claim that the permit violates state mining regulations, which mandate due process and active state oversight of non-iron discharge into water bodies.

Dissenters argue the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality does neither adequately. The department monitored the hearing. Dozens of people spoke at the hearing and said they were concerned this new permit does not address the oversight issue and felt the regulators pushed the permit through with little public input.

Justine Yglesias, a senior earth science and environmental policy major, spoke at the hearing and is concerned about the Department of Environmental Quality and Lundin Mining Corporation’s cooperation. She says they act as if they don’t understand the wetland systems and that the water testing is given to Eagle Mine before being made public.

“I think it’s pressure from the mining company and money,” Yglesias said. “They write up this permit in a fast way for the company to do their job. I think they should make [the testing results] public before they give it to Eagle Mine.”

Rio Tinto bought the Humboldt Mill in 2008, before they transferred Eagle Mine to Canadian company Lundin. The plan was to retrofit the mill to 21st century standards and use the same infrastructure for Eagle’s purposes. Humboldt Mill processes the ore from Eagle Mine and has been in use for decades for various companies and purposes.

“We spent over $5 million cleaning up the Humboldt mill site, the past mining waste,” Dan Blondeau, Eagle Mine’s communications adviser said. “That was all completed before we started construction at the mill.”

In an agreement with the state, Lundin self-monitors its water discharge. It reports its water discharge rates based on monthly averages. Chuck Brumleve, a geologist and environmental mining specialist, thinks this method is flawed. To him, relying on monthly averages, when water flow is highly variable, even day to day, permits lenience in the pollution discharged from the mine. This means pollution flowing from the mine can change each day and Eagle Mine can determine when to record their data.

Save the Wild U.P. director Kathleen Heideman requested the permit include regular independent water testing in at least three places, upstream, at the mill and downstream, to gauge the before and after effects of the water contamination. She’s also concerned about contamination in sediment and that moving downstream.

“If you look at a river during a flood event, the sand gets scoured out,” Heideman said. “If you had a season or two or three years without a flood event, there’s a lot of potential contaminants in the sediment, then that gets blown downstream to someone else who’s less lucky during a flood event.”

Blondeau knew these arguments.

“It’s concerns and questions we’ve heard before,” Blondeau said. “I think the [Department of Environmental Quality] is doing a good job of addressing them. There has been redundant questions. Everyone has the same concerns, water quality, air quality.”

The Escanaba River watershed and its adjacent wetlands are eligible to receive “Superfund” status from the EPA, meaning the ecosystem already has copious pollution and hazardous waste from now defunct Callahan gold mine. If approved, it would qualify for federal funds to alleviate the contamination. According to Brumleve, that would not necessarily prohibit the new permit from being approved, as Superfund monies are allotted for past pollution, not ongoing pollution.

Also contentious in this debate is the ambiguity surrounding water temperature. Radical and abrupt changes in water temperature impact wildlife very quickly, sometimes promoting die-offs of species adapted to those conditions.

Eagle Mine’s discharge may be twice the temperature of the perpetually cold Escanaba watershed. In September, their discharge registered above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, though the standing watershed was reading only 40 degrees. The wildlife impacts from variable temperatures cannot be recorded until damage is done.

Homeowners and dissenters to the mine questioned outright the “social and economic” benefits mentioned with vague description in the permit’s public notice. One homeowner, who claimed that Eagle’s discharge is flooding his backyard and damaging his basement, threatened to sue the state Department of Environmental Quality and Eagle Mine if his damage was not addressed. He invited citizens to come look at his property. Environment Quality District Supervisor for Water Resources Steve Casey joked about the threat twice after the homeowner left. The homeowner, who lives in Humboldt township, declined to comment further.

As Eagle Mine’s foreseeable lifespan is under two decades, Humboldt Mill will only be operating as long as the digging. Most Humboldt township residents drink well water, which may be contaminated long after the plant closes, according to one resident who spoke at the hearing. A representative from the Humboldt township board presented a statement of disapproval over the new permit at the meeting, which was signed by every member.

Jeffrey Loman is a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal member and former federal oil regulator. He has been critical of the operation for years. His statement condemned minimal oversight for fragile watersheds and addressed the notion of Humboldt’s social and economic benefits.

“I think I’ve met every local person who works at Eagle Mine and I know them by name,” Loman said, addressing the panel. “Tomorrow morning before you drive back to Lansing and for those people that live in Marquette, do yourself a real act of enlightenment and drive to the parking lot where Eagle Mine workers board the bus. Once you get there, take a look at the license plates of those vehicles. Utah, British Columbia, Ontario, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, all over the country. That’s who they’re employing.”

The Department of Environmental Quality used Tuesday as a forum to hear public concerns, but made no promises about the future of the permit or its oversight.

“I know you expect us to have all the answers,” Casey said, “but not tonight.”