By Carol Martin, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council
The Department of Environmental Quality announced on March 1, 2007 that it has withdrawn its proposed decision to approve a permit for the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company to conduct mining operations at the proposed Eagle Project Mine. The decision was made after discovering that two reports on the structural integrity of the mine were not properly made part of the public record or given a comprehensive technical review.
DEQ Director, Stephen Chester, has ordered a third-party independent investigation of the DEQ’s handling of the mining permit. The review was conducted by an independent team headed by Dr. Donald L. Inman, president of EcoLogic, Ltd. The full report is available on the website, www.michigan.gov/deq/, direct link is under Issue Watch, Kennecott Eagle. The investigation concluded that there was no intent to withhold information, however the report contains eight recommendations to improve the process. The DEQ intends to have an independent expert analyze all available geotechnical engineering data and information prior to making a decision concerning when the resumption of processing of the Eagle Project Mine application will take place.
Although this decision provides some breathing space, the battle is not over yet. Sulfide mining in Michigan and the Lake Superior Basin is a huge threat to the ecological health of the entire Lake Superior Watershed.
Scientists from United States Geological Survey (USGS) have been taking a close look at the whole region they call the Mid-continent rift system. They have found significant sulfide deposits containing varying amounts of nickel (Ni), copper (Cu), platinum-group metals (PGM’s), and cobalt (Co).
The Mid-continent rift system encompasses most of the northwestern portion of Lake Superior with favorable targets for mining identified on the Yellow Dog Plains and Echo Lake in Michigan and the Mellen Complex in Wisconsin. It also includes known sulfidebearing areas in the Duluth Complex in Minnesota. In addition, the USGS website identifies portions of the Mid-continent rift southwest of the Lake Superior region as possible areas that may also contain undiscovered sulfide deposits.
The major impacts of sulfide mining is the waste of the process used to extract the metals, commonly referred to as acid mine drainage, AMD. AMD is metal-rich water formed from chemical reaction between water and rocks containing pyrite, a sulfur bearing mineral. Metal-rich drainage can also occur in mineralized areas that have not been mined.
Sulfides decrease water’s pH, making it more acidic, and kill many aquatic organisms such as mosses and algae that form the base of the lake’s food web. This acid water can also be toxic to aquatic animals directly. As anyone who has fed a gold fish too much food will notice, solid waste decomposition can also raise the acid levels in water similar to what the addition of sulfites would do. High acidity in an aquarium can be seen to cause fish to shed the mucosal protective layer on their fins so they look ragged, become lethargic and have difficulty swimming. If left untreated, such poor water quality will result in the fish bleeding internally and dying in a short time. AMD can also contaminate drinking water. I know of no sulfide mining operation has not caused contamination or required expensive clean ups.
Kennecott Minerals, based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, now owns 462,000 acres of mineral rights in Marquette and Baraga Counties. It calls this its Eagle Project and its drill rigs dot the Yellow Dog Plains, some coming unnervingly close to the Salmon-Trout River that flows into Lake Superior. Kennecott Minerals says it’s looking for nickel, copper, gold, zinc and other base minerals, some of which are found in an ore called Yellow Dog Peridodite. Another valuable mineral found in Yellow Dog Peridodite is copper sulfide.
To keep posted on this issue and get involved, please visit the Save the Wild U.P. website, http://www.savethewildup.org/. For more information on the Yellow Dog Plains, visit http://www.yellowdogwatershed.org/html/mining.html
Thanks to Michelle Halley, National Wildlife Federation for details on the recent events.