Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Flip-Flop on Mine Threatens State Waters

Why the sudden change to approve copper-zinc mine? Will it pollute Lake Michigan?

By - Aug 20th, 2019 12:45 pm
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Aftermath of the Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil. Photo by TV NBR [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Aftermath of the Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil. Photo by TV NBR (CC BY 3.0)

This is a story about an open pit copper, zinc and gold mine on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan that could pollute the waters of both states, including Lake Michigan and also endanger sacred burial grounds of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin. Scientific staff of both the State of Michigan and federal EPA had significant concerns about the proposed mine with the homey name of the Back Forty Project, and were unsatisfied with responses by Aquila Resources, a Canadian start-up company with no experience operating such a mine. 

Yet there was a dramatic change by the EPA and the mine was allowed to go ahead. “Suddenly there’s a meeting at the EPA and it is now withdrawing its objections to the project,” says Janette K. Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law group representing the Menominee Tribe. “The EPA did an about face.”

Brimmer tells Urban Milwaukee she can’t say why that happened, but concedes, “it’s no secret that the Trump administration is no fan of environmental protection.”

As it happens, the decision was overseen by Region 5 of the EPA, which is run by Cathy Stepp, the former head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Stepp got the DNR job despite the fact that she was a high school graduate with no scientific credentials who helped run a small home construction company with her husband. Then Gov. Scott Walker explained his choice, saying he “wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality” to run the agency.

Stepp turned the DNR into an “anti-science agency” where policing of pollution declined drastically. Former DNR Secretary George Meyer has said Stepp would be remembered for “dismantling significant portions of environmental protections in the state,” which made her the perfect choice for regional EPA administrator for a president who loves picking opponents of regulatory reform to run federal agencies. The region Stepp oversees includes six states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio — and the most important part of that job is to protect the Great Lakes, which contain 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water.

Which is something the mine proposed by Aquila Resources could threaten. The mine would operate on 83 acres and its pit would be 2,000 feet by 2,500 feet, and 750 feet deep, as the Detroit Free Press reported last week, and would be located just 150 feet from the Menominee River. This is one of the most important rivers in Michigan, part of a system that drains more than 4,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, and flows into Lake Michigan.

According to staff evaluating the project for the EPA and State of Michigan, “The mine would send acidic mining wastes into the river and surrounding waterways, which would then spill into the Great Lake,” the Free Press  reported. “More acres of wetlands would be harmed than the mining company was projecting, evaluators found.” 

The story noted the mine is expected to produce 521 million pounds of zinc, 51 million pounds of copper, 24 million pounds of lead, 4.5 million ounces of silver and 468,000 ounces of gold. But that’s just the ore, which will be extracted from huge amounts of rock. 

“70 million tons of acid-producing waste rock and milled tailings would be produced,” the Sierra Club has estimated, “far larger than the Crandon mine proposal defeated in 2003 after more than 30 years of opposition.”

Michigan’s agency overseeing the project was then called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose administration has been blamed for negligence in the Flint water crisis. 

“The DEQ emails, letters and memos show concern that Aquila Resources… was understating the project’s impact on the river and surrounding wetlands,” the Free Press reports. “The methods Aquila was using to measure wetlands impacts were improper, and the mining company wasn’t changing them, DEQ staff said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shared similar concerns, documents show.”

Rather than making changes to address these concerns, Aquila Resources “just kept blowing it off and arguing with regulators,” says Bremmer, who has reviewed the many thousands of documents produced by the DEQ and EPA. 

Eric Chatterson, a geology specialist in DEQ’s Water Resources Division, wrote there was a “high likelihood” that crushed minerals and ores from the mine “will be observed in the groundwater that discharges to the Menominee River and Shakey River.” The Shakey is a 26.2-mile-long river in the Upper Peninsula which helps drain a rural forested area of the UP and then flows into the Menominee River, which empties into Lake Michigan. 

Chatterson added that the problems would continue when the mine ultimately closed, as groundwater would flow into the huge pit created and come into contact with waste rock. Sulfide ores exposed to air and water undergo chemical reactions that create sulfuric acid that harms water quality and is toxic to fish and smaller aquatic organisms, the story noted.  

“Aquila’s permit request, according to DEQ staff, was also failing to capture the mine’s full impact on surrounding wetlands, which are vital to natural habitat, erosion protection and water quality,” the story reported. One DEQ memo said the groundwater model Aquila Resources was using “provides little to no use in assessing impacts to nearby wetlands.”

The EPA shared the DEQ’s concerns. Christopher Korleski, director of the Water Division at EPA’s Region 5, wrote that the company had not yet demonstrated “the mine site plan is protective of water quality throughout the life of the mine and post-closure,” the story noted.

“But two months later Korleski changed his stance: ‘Based on the information EPA has received from Aquila, a number of objections identified in EPA’s March 8 letter have been resolved,’ he stated.” And the Michigan DEQ went along with the EPA. 

“Nothing changed” to justify this flip-flop, as Brimmer told the newspaper.  “The data didn’t change. Nothing changed other than, presumably, the politics.”

This was some years into a long process of regulators painstakingly reviewing the Aquila proposal. One thing that did change was that someone with a “chamber of commerce mentality” took over as EPA Region 5 administrator; Stepp assumed the position just five months before this flip-flop. 

Eight months after this decision, on January 25, 2019, a 28-story high tailings dam in southeastern Brazil collapsed, “releasing almost 3 billion gallons of sludgy mine waste,” as longtime mining expert Al Gedicks wrote in an April Op Ed for Urban Milwaukee. “The spill flooded nearby homes, submerging cars and buses under a river of reddish-brown sludge. The death toll so far has risen to 228 with an estimated 49 people still missing and presumed dead. This is Brazil’s deadliest-ever mining accident.”

Gedicks, an emeritus professor of environmental sociology at UW-La Crosse and executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, noted that “the same design for storing mine waste, known as the upstream dam construction method, will be used by the Back Forty mine in Michigan.” Which suggests the potential damage from this mine could be catastrophic. 

And even if that doesn’t happen acid mine drainage from the 70 million tons of waste rock created would be “toxic to fish and wildlife due to dissolved metals and contaminants such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, copper and many others. These contaminants would threaten the Menominee River and eventually Lake Michigan,” Gedicks wrote.

The location of the mine “has special significance for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin because it is their original homeland,” Gedicks noted. “The Menominee River is named for the Menominee Indians, who… occupied the Menominee River area for millennia, until an 1836 Treaty with the US forced them to cede their original territory in Michigan…The mine site is located on the traditional lands of the Menominee Nation that include prehistoric burial mounds, village sites, raised agricultural beds and dance circles.” 

The decision by the EPA and Michigan to allow the mine was made quietly in May 2018, and got little media coverage. It was only in the past week, some 15 months later, that the Free Press and Wisconsin Public Radio covered the decision. That’s because a federal suit was filed by Earthjustice and its lawyers highlighted documents showing the concerns of regulators were ignored when the mine was approved.

The mine is just across the Wisconsin border, some 50 yards away, and may be just as important to the watershed of this state as the Upper Peninsula. How does the Wisconsin DNR view this issue?

“The mine is Michigan, and therefore the Wisconsin DNR does not have jurisdiction,” Sarah Hoye, communications director for the agency, told Urban Milwaukee. “Michigan has the permitting authority.”

But she adds that Wisconsin has been “working very closely” with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy,” which has succeeded the DEQ. Is her agency concerned about evidence showing Michigan approved the mine despite concerns of regulators about its impact? I asked. 

Hoye offered a diplomatic non-answer. “We are very informed on the process, plus knowledgeable about Michigan’s permitting,” she wrote. “We will continue to work closely with Michigan EGLE.”

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3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Flip-Flop on Mine Threatens State Waters”

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    It took nearly 3 decades to stop the proposed Crandon mine. The opposition to that project began with members of the Menominee Tribe. It took a coalition of Tribes, sport fishermen, environmental activists and others to stop the proposed Crandon mine. Another coalition needs to form soon to slow down the march of those who would abuse the earth forever in the interest of short-term, personal profit. I would listen to the Menominees first and foremost before I considered other voices on this “Back 40” mining proposal. The Menominees have been the most exemplary stewards of land in the state of Wisconsin. .

  2. deezer56 says:

    It is shameful the legacy of Walker continues to haunt and harm Wisconsin’s environment I agree with Mr Martinsen that the coalition formation needs to start immediately.

  3. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Thank you, deezer, for acknowledging agreement with me re the need to form a coalition on this matter. Let us start now by contacting potential activists. The Menominee folk musician and Native American story teller Wade Fernandez promoted opposition to the “Back 40” mine proposal at the Shawano Music Festival in August this year. He could be reached for info on the status of the opposition and the players in that realm. I plan to speak with members of MATC’s Local 212 of the American Federation of Teachers – an organization that is geared to stand up vs powers gone mad. The music community and the teaching community could be parts of a successful coalition, yet we need to get more partners in this endeavor.

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