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State Gives Nod to Sulfide Mine

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A newly issued state sulfide-mine permit threatens Upper Peninsula streams like the Yellow Dog River. (Credit Joe Mielke/MLUI)

Opponents of a proposed sulfide mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have suffered another setback as the state continues to push the controversial project regardless of the dangers it presents to Michigan rivers.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved permits for the toxic mine. International mining giant Rio Tinto and its subsidiary, Kennecott Minerals Company, are seeking to build the mine directly underneath the Salmon Trout River in the Big Bay area. They expect to dig up hundreds of millions of pounds of sulfide to extract valuable copper and nickel.

The decision has prompted an uproar in the environmental community because, following the resignation of DEQ Director Steve Chester last month, the DEQ assigned the decision to an administrator who had just two weeks to review the details of the mine proposal before he approved it. Furthermore, the final go-ahead on the permits from Frank Ruswick, DEQ senior policy advisor, also retracted a request the agency had previously made to the courts asking a judge to review whether the mine could jeopardize a cherished Native American worship site near the area.

Cynthia Prior, a grass roots activist who lives near the mine site, is outraged at the DEQ’s actions. She said the DEQ was trying to push the mine through before the department becomes part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

“This was done on the day before the DEQ was to be dissolved,” Prior said. “How blatant can this be? This is a last ditch effort….to allow this mine on the Yellow Dog Plains before their authority is superseded.”

Michelle Halley, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said she too was profoundly disappointed with the move.

“Nobody knew they were even going to do it,” Ms. Halley said, adding all Michigan residents should be calling DNR executive Rebecca Humphries and Gov. Jennifer Granholm to demand they stop the mine.

The DEQ said the decision making process was entirely appropriate. Agency spokesman Robert McCann told the Associated Press:

“Based on our reviews and the hearing, their project meets the requirements of one of the most environmentally protective mining laws in the nation,” he said. “It will be up to Kennecott to live up to those standards, and we’ll make sure they do that.”

Kennecott Minerals spokesman Jon Cherry told the Associated Press: “We’re excited to get this project started and create jobs in Marquette County.”

Extracting copper and nickel from sulfide produces a leachate similar in composition to battery acid, and many are concerned the mine-to be constructed by Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott Minerals, could be a threat to both the river and nearby Lake Superior. There are also great concerns about the possibility that the mine could collapse, causing the state to lose the Salmon Trout forever. A rock mechanics expert, Dr. David Sainsbury, has previously said the mine proposal consisted of “technically antiquated, sloppy and equivalent to high school level work.” Our friends at Save the Wild U.P. in Marquette also tell us that when Sainsbury submitted a report on the matter to the DEQ, the DEQ “kept relevant information out of the public record on a possible collapse.”

As we reported earlier, there is a grass roots movement to put a ballot initiative about sulfide mines on the 2010 statewide ballot in Michigan. The matter could not come soon enough given the fact that several mining companies have purchased mineral rights throughout the U.P. from the state, and there is word that one mining company is exploring the possibility of another sulfide mine underneath the Menominee River.

The Great Lakes Bulletin news service also documented how secret political donations made by Kennecott Minerals made their way to both Republican and Democratic coffers in 2007. To this day, no one knows how much money was given due to loopholes in state campaign finance law.


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