New sulfide mining proposal sparks criticism

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The state has already approved one controversial mine in the Upper Peninsula, and other companies are poised to start the lengthy permit application process.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environment approved a permit for the Kennecott Minerals Co. Eagle project in the Yellow Dog Plains earlier this year, and now the company awaits a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the meantime, Aquila Resources Inc. is considering a large zinc deposit in Menominee County and intends to submit a permit application later this year or in early 2011.
Aquila is an exploration company based in Stephenson that has partnered with a Canadian mining corporation called HudBay Minerals, Inc. The two are in the early stages of planning a mine called the Back Forty Project, and in January announced a budget of $18.5 million.
The proposed mine would be similar to the one Kennecott hopes to operate in the Yellow Dog Plains.
Aquila and HudBay want to extract zinc, gold, copper and silver from the sulfide rock deposit, according to Tom Quigley, Aquila’s president
But Rita Jack, the Cleanwater Program director for the Sierra Club, said there are serious environmental consequences.
“If that mine goes through, it would be a combination deep-shaft mine and also a surface mine,” Jack said. “There’s a lot more risk of acid mine drainage. Unless they build a heck of a roof over the top of the whole thing, they can’t keep rain and snow from getting inside.”
Some U.P. residents are worried about potential environmental hazards the new mine could produce, and a group calling itself the Front Forty has assembled to fight the Back Forty proposal.
“Approximately seven or eight years ago, Aquila started doing exploratory drilling along the banks of the Menominee River,” said Ron Henriksen of Lake Township, a Front Forty member. “Local citizens found out about this and were concerned with the history of sulfide mining and its impact on water and the environment.”
But Quigley said that all mines have the potential to hurt the environment, if not operated carefully.
“Modern mining companies operate responsibly with improved technology and understanding of environmental issues,” he said. “Mining regulations require responsible mining. Failure to demonstrate this will lead to no permit being issued.”
Under Michigan mining law, companies submitting a permit application must include an “environmental impact assessment,” detailing how the mine will run with minimal effect on the surrounding environment. The application also requires a plan to prevent hazards, such as acid drainage, and to show how the company will handle any accidents.
Henriksen said that the state has done a poor job of enforcement.
“It’s nice to have a law,” he said. “But a law’s only good if it’s enforced and, unfortunately, with every law you have the law and then the rules that are followed.”
Steven Wilson, supervisor of the minerals and mapping unit of the Michigan Geological Office, said that sulfide mining can be done safely if the proper steps are taken. Otherwise, it can have devastating effects on the environment.
“If sulfide gets in contact with water and air, acid can be produced,” he said. “If you were to take any of these ores and bring them up and lay them at the surface, you’re not immediately going to have acid drainage coming from them. You could pick the ore up and handle it and you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Now over time, drainage can happen.”
Henriksen said that the primary goal of his Front Forty group is to inform the public about the proposed mine and about sulfide mining.
“None of us are experts,” he said. “We just try to go out and educate people and give them information. They don’t have to believe us. We’re just a group that’s concerned with the hazards of sulfide mining.”
Jack said that while Aquila is still exploring the area, the Sierra Club is acting.
“We did start a water monitoring project similar to what we have going on in the Yellow Dog Plains,” she said. “The Sierra Club has been doing baseline water quality monitoring on all the streams. If something goes wrong, our guys are going to know about it.
“We’re doing the same thing in Menominee County,” she said.
The Front Forty and other environmental groups argue it’s impossible for companies to fully prevent acid drainage, which they say would contaminate the rich supply of water sources in the U.P.
Henriksen said that there are other dangers associated with sulfide mining, such as toxic chemicals released into the air.
“You have other hazards when you grind the rock up,” he said. “Besides the minerals, you bring up arsenic and toxic chemicals.”
The Geological Office’s Wilson said mining companies use a process of bringing up the ore and moving it along the surface while being constantly covered to lessen exposure to air and water. For example, water exposed to the sulfide would be purified on-site in a plant, then released back into the groundwater supply through pipes.
He said that if companies are extremely careful, mining can be done safely.
For example, Kennecott’s 8,000-page application described in detail the steps it would take to prevent acid drainage.
He said that if Aquila can follow a similar process, the environment would not be at risk.
“Kennecott put a number of people into that report, a number of consulting companies and a number of public hearings,” he said. “Aquila doesn’t get a free ride just because Kennecott got their permit. They still have to carry their own weight and make their case.”
Aquila’s Quigley said that there would be many economic benefits from a mine in Menominee County.
“It will lead to more than 100 new, high-paying jobs, as well as many support jobs,” he said. “It will also pay taxes locally and state-wide. Furthermore, the mine will be a domestic source of important metals, rather than sourcing from other countries that may lack environmentally protective mining regulation.”
Henriksen said members of the Front Forty are willing to discuss the issue.
“We’re not just a bunch of old, crabby, retired people,” he said. “We’re always open to listen to both sides.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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