Michigan Chapter

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Sulfide Mining in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Updates from the Yellow Dog Plains: 

Michigan Sierra Club Members:  Thank you for weighing in on Kennecott's "Woodland Road"!

Federal Agencies advise MDNRE to say "NO" to Kennecott's "Woodland Road"

Kennecott surprises EPA with news they don't need EPA's Underground Injection Control permit.

Thank you, Michigan Sierra Club members! 

Hundreds of you responded to the February 2010 Michigan Update that asked you to tell the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment to tell Kennecott "No!, they can't build an industrial haul road through wetlands." 

Federal Agencies Advise MDNRE to Tell Kennecott "NO", or Else 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), and Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) have written to the MDNRE that they should deny the wetlands fill permit that Kennecott needs to build the Woodland Industrial Haul Road.  They laid out their reasoning in an 18 page letter you can read here Essentially they told MDNRE the state has 90 days to have the applicant adequately answer the federal agencies' concerns, or the state should deny the permit, or Kennecott should apply for a Federal Clean Water Act Section 404 permit from the ACOE.  There's more in the letter.  Now we await MDNRE's response.

Here's what this was about.  Mine permit applicants are supposed to describe and weigh different alternatives in the application materials, yet Kennecott failed to even mention a new haul route in any of those materials.  Then a few months ago, after their mine permit was approved, Kennecott swoops in with a change proposing to slice through the heart of the undeveloped Michigamme Highlands to build an industrial haul road 22.3 miles long.  It would go from the mine site almost straight south to the Humboldt Mill, fragmenting wildland habitat, destroying over 30 acres of valuable wetlands that are home to an incredibly diverse array of bird species. Kennecott's "Woodland Road" would mean 23 stream crossings with six new concrete bridges, and 17 driveway culverts, among other things.  The Michigamme Highlands is home to the headwaters of the Yellow Dog River, Mulligan Creek and the Dead River.  The Sierra Club nominated this very area to be designated as a Biodiversity Stewardship Area in 2009, and it's no place for an industrial grade road.

Kennecott surprises EPA with news they don't need EPA's Underground Injection Control permit, subsequently MDNRE gives ok to "use the premises"

Kennecott contacted the EPA to inform them they no longer will require a federal Underground Injection Control Permit.  Kennecott's Jon Cherry then sent a letter to MDNRE's Forest Management Division Chief Lynne Boyd certifying they'd attained all required permits, and therefore "is now in a position to move ahead with Lease implementation."   Amazingly, the same day, Chief Boyd ackknowledged by return letter that requirements had been met, and that Kennecott may now use the premises, meaning they take possession of Eagle Rock and start building their mine.

Please take action - contact the EPA, let them know that you want them to carefully scrutinize the redesigned water discharge system, to assure that Kennecott indeed does not require the Underground Injection Control permit.

Sulfide Mining Issue background:

For several years mining companies have been prospecting for high-risk metals in our Upper Peninsula, including uranium and metals embedded in sulfide rocks.  Neither type of mining has ever been done without significant harm to water and land.  The problem with sulfides is that they chemically react with air and water to form sulfuric acid, and cause acid rock drainage that harms aquatic habitat and species that live there.  And uranium mining has harmed many people in our western states, afflicting some with cancer and other life-threatening problems.  

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What is the Sierra Club doing about the proposed mines?

The Sierra Club has taken several approaches simultaneously.  We had learned that Kennecott Eagle Minerals was prospecting in northern Marquette County, that they were considering a nickel and copper mine (and silver, gold, palladium, among others), and that the ores were embedded in suflide rocks.   

So we joined the two working groups to help write the Part 632 Non Ferrous Mineral Mining Law to govern all non-ferrous (non-iron) mining in Michigan, and the MDEQ rules to apply the new law.  We strongly pushed for requirements for thorough environmental impact assessment, robust public participation opportunities, and many other important components.

The Sierra Club has testified at hearings, we've worked with our allies to hold permit and public comment workshops, plus submitted extensive comments to the state agencies on the several Kennecott draft permits, which were the first applications to be filed under Part 632.  You may download the Sierra Club's comments opposing the Kennecott Eagle Mine Project here

In addition, in 2004 the Sierra Club Water Sentinels and the Central U.P. Group began an intensive water quality monitoring project in Marquette County on the Yellow Dog Plains in the Salmon Trout and Yellow Dog Rivers, and Cedar Creek.  See information about the Yellow Dog Water Sentinels and the Shakey Water Sentinels, or contact Rita Chapman.

In February 2006, the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club submitted a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Coaster Brook Trout on the federal endangered species list  (see details below).

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How YOU can help!

The Sierra Club has been on the front lines of the non-ferrous mining issue since we became aware of it.  You're welcome to join into our efforts by reviewing permit applications, starting and helping with water monitoring projects, visiting the areas where exploration and prospecting is happening, and spreading the word to your friends and family.  Check out the rest of this website, see the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Kennecott mine website for all permit materials, and become educated, and then join in.  Contact Rita Chapman or Marvin Roberson to find out more.

The first applicant: Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company, Marquette County

Kennecott was the first to apply to the MDEQ for a mine permit under Michigan’s new Part 632 Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Law.  They also applied for a groundwater discharge permit, an air quality permit, and to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) for a surface land use lease and for a mine reclamation permit.  They applied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for a federal underground injection control permit, under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.  Under these permits, Kennecott would build the first mine in Michigan to be regulated under the new Part 632 law, in order to mine nickel and copper from sulfide ores beneath the Salmon Trout River on the Yellow Dog Plains in northern Marquette County.

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Kennecott's Current Permit Status

Despite widespread and overwhelming opposition, the MDEQ granted all three environmental permits to Kennecott.  Likewise, the MDNR granted the surface land-use lease to Kennecott pending approval of all other permits, and has approved their mine reclamation plan.  Kennecott has yet to receive their Underground Injection Control Permit from the USEPA. USEPA held a public meeting on October 22, 2008, so that the public could ask questions about the permit application.  No hearing dates have been scheduled yet pending USEPA releasing their proposed decision.  Per the USEPA website a draft decision on the Underground Injection Control permit is expected to be released in mid-January 2009.   See also this Marquette Mining Journal article of December 6, 2008.

New Permit Applications from Kennecott - Humboldt Mill in Humboldt, Michigan

On December 19, 2008, Kennecott applied to MDEQ for another Part 632 permit to re-use the Humboldt Mill as a rock-refining site.  Basketball-sized rocks would be trucked from the mine on the Yellow Dog Plains, and crushed to sand.  The Marquette Mining Journal reports that "Water will then be added and the slurry will undergo a process to separate copper and nickel, which will be dried and shipped by rail car to existing processing facilities in Ontario.  Tailings from the operation will be dumped in the existing tailings pond at the mill."  The Part 632 permit documents state that water will be released from the tailings pond, with tailings left behind in the pond. 

The Sierra Club has begun review of Kennecott's newest Part 632 permit application.  The MDEQ expects their review to take several months.  Kennecott's Humboldt permit materials describe several other required permits, the list is in the permit application volume 1 pages 3 and 4.  (PDF file size approx. 560KB)

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Sierra Club's Petition to U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service to List Coaster Brook Trout

On February 23, 2006, the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club jointly petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Coaster Brook Trout as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  The Coaster was once prevalent in Lake Superior, but now has a resident breeding population only in the Salmon Trout River.  Habitat degradation by logging and road building upstream from spawning grounds have caused numbers to decline.  Now, there is the new threat of an acid-generating mine at the headwaters of the Salmon Trout.  For these reasons, the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club petitioned the USFWS to federally list the species as endangered.

Download the Sierra Club and Huron Mountain Club Petition and more information about the Coaster Brook Trout here. 

After the Sierra Club brought a lawsuit against the Bush Administration for failing to act on the Coaster petition, finally on March 19, 2008, the USFWS announced a positive 90-Day Finding, meaning they found that the petition has merit, and deserves consideration.  Public Comments were requested for the Final Decision and after the Sierra Club found errors in the original notice, the comment period was extended to September 8, 2008.  Most recently, while a decision was expected in December 2008, the petitioners and the USFWS agreed to delay the decision until April 15, 2009.  You can download Sierra Club and Huron Mountain Club’s original petition here, the Club's February 2006 press release, as well as the USFWS’ News Release about the 90-Day finding, and the USFWS Coaster Petition Fact Sheet.  For questions about any of these materials, contact Sierra Club Forest Policy Specialist Marvin Roberson, or call the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter office at 517-484-2372.

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Likely second applicant:  Aquila Resources, Menominee County

Drill rig in Stephenson, MI, only 1/10 mile from Menominee River.Six years ago, an outcrop of zinc, gold, silver and copper was found in Menominee County west of Stephenson not far from the Menominee River.  The Menominee River makes up part of our shared border with Wisconsin.  Aquila Resources has been prospecting ever since, working to delineate the ore body by drilling deep cores in the rock and analyzing their content and concentration.  Because the ore body is located in sulfide deposits, Aquila will need to apply for a Part 632 Non-Ferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Permit from the MDEQ.  They'll need a number of other permits as well, but are still at least several months away from applying as they finalize the required environmental studies and reports.  See Aquila Resources for their description of what they refer to as the Back Forty Project. 

In 2005, in response to the Menominee County mine exploration, the Sierra Club recruited local residents and volunteers to begin the Shakey Water Sentinels Project, a water quality monitoring project.  Under a water quality monitoring grant from the Michigan Clean Water Corps, we recruited local Sierra Club members, members of the Front Forty, and faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Marinette.  If the mine is developed, impacts are likely to include not only shifts in pH from the sulfide rocks exposure to air and water, but also stream degradation from the huge increase in local truck traffic.  Even development of more housing will cause changes to the Shakey River Watershed, where the ore body is located.  The Shakey River flows to the Menominee River near the Sixty Islands, that are situated between Michigan and Wisconsin.  

The Sierra Club and project volunteers have examined the land and watershed up close during monitoring activities, and it's not clear how a mine can possibly be built that will not harm water resources, since area streams are all fed by groundwater seeps that form streams, like those that flow to the Shakey River, that flow to the Menominee River.  In fact, the proposed mine site is less than a half-mile from the Menominee River.  We will monitor this potential mine site closely, as permit applications are forthcoming in the next several months.  To read more about the Shakey Water Sentinels, see our water monitoring webpage.

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