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Red-Flag Review Finds Big Holes in Sulfide Mine’s Wetland Permit

STEPHENSON, MI  — The Front 40 Environmental Group and the Mining Action Group (MAG) of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC), working with regional environmental allies and fishing organizations, have secured an independent red flag review of Aquila Resources’ Back Forty Wetland permit application. The review was provided by the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2) which analyzes mining applications and provides objective research and technical advice to communities impacted by mining. 

The Wetland application includes technical information regarding wetland hydrology, direct and indirect impacts to wetlands from the proposed sulfide mine and the on-site milling operation, a compensatory wetland and stream mitigation proposal, and more.  CSP2’s technical review was completed by Dr. Kendra Zamzow (Ph.D., Environmental Geochemistry) and Dr. David Chambers (Ph.D., Geophysics). 

CSP2’s report flags significant omissions in Aquila’s permit application, especially concerns related to the Feasible and Prudent (Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable) Alternatives analysis, the fundamental test of any wetland permit:

  • “An environmental analysis needs to be conducted comparing the new proposed facility siting impacts on wetlands with the siting approved in the mining permit. The proposed single mine waste storage area is now two areas, and is much larger. The description of what is to be contained in each is inadequate and there is no description of the protections to be put in place.”
    • “The former site plan was discarded in part because waste would be ‘less dense’ than anticipated. There is no explanation for what is behind the anticipated change in waste material density that drove the need for the greater area required for waste disposal…. “
    • “Given the terrain, direction of water flow, and proximity of valley wetlands and the River, this poses risks to wetlands – and aquatic resources in the River – that have not been analyzed.”
    • “Although there is no formal proposal for underground mining, it is reasonable and foreseeable. Therefore the full potential life of the mine should be considered when evaluating feasible and prudent alternatives that are the least damaging to wetlands.”
  • “An economic analysis needs to be conducted to determine the feasibility of moving the mill out of wetland areas.”
  • “It appears that most of the stream and wetland impacts might be avoided if the mine facilities could be moved further upland to a dryland site, possibly on other state lands.”

Under Michigan regulations, Aquila bears the burden of demonstrating that either (a) the proposed activity is primarily dependent upon being located in the wetland, or (b) there are no feasible and prudent alternative, and they must show they are using all practical means to minimize impacts to wetlands. According to CSP2’s review, “The mining permit and wetland permit are inextricably linked. The location and size of proposed mine site facilities as presented in the November 2017 Wetland Permit Application are different from those presented in the Mining Permit Application, and pose risks to wetlands that have not been analyzed.”

“This red flag review underscores our existing concerns. Aquila’s Wetland permit application is shoddy. It is mired in untested assumptions about wetland hydrology, and the whole scheme hinges on a facility design which nobody has reviewed, much less approved,” said Kathleen Heideman, a member of MAG. 

Front 40 and the Mining Action Group will deliver CSP2’s review to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at the Public Hearing on January 23rd, and ask that key finding and recommendations be incorporated into the Wetland Permit review process.

“As soon as we saw the extent of the facility modifications, we asked the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals to immediately require Aquila to apply for an amendment of the Back Forty Mine permit, or review the facility changes along with the Wetland permit – but they’ve refused to consider these questions until after the Wetland permit review is done,” said Heideman. See: “Significant Changes to Aquila Back Forty Mine” bit.ly/Back40-changes.

“How many wetlands will be destroyed or impaired by the Back Forty? These wetlands are just in the way – Aquila will mine them out, or fill them in, or the surface water will be diverted, or they’ll be buried under mine waste tailings and waste rock storage areas. Are all of these wetland losses unavoidable? That’s the big question,” said Steve Garske, a member of MAG. 

“Aquila seeks to destroy 28.4 acres of wetlands in order to build a sulfide mine on the bank of the Menominee River. It is an alarming proposal, given the proximity of wetlands to the river, and concerns about the company’s plan to follow the orebody deeper underground. This site is complex, hydrologically, with wetlands on all sides, flowing in different directions. And the total wetland impacts may be significantly underestimated, since additional years of underground mining would greatly increase the groundwater drawdown,” said Heideman.

“Local residents are very frustrated, understandably. Aquila is using a bait-and-switch strategy. Since the facility’s impacts on wetlands are at the heart of the review, it would have made more sense to scrutinize all the proposed changes to the design first, before submitting the Wetland permit application. Aquila does everything backwards,” said Ron Henriksen, spokesman for the Front 40 group.

“Our goal is to identify errors and inconsistencies between data and Aquila’s predicted impacts to wetlands. We want to ensure that concerned citizens, stakeholders and environmental regulators are fully informed as to the true impacts of this permit,” said Nathan Frischkorn, a Fellow with the Mining Action Group. 

A broad coalition of fishing groups, residents, tribal members and environmental groups are united in their opposition to the Aquila Back Forty project. Downstream communities are concerned about potential impacts to drinking water and tourism, and have passed resolutions against the project. Marinette County unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Back Forty; additional resolutions have been passed by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, Amberg, Peshtigo, Porterfield, Sister Bay, Wagner, the City of Marinette, Door County, Oconto County, Outagamie County, Shawano County, Menominee County, and Brown County, which includes the city of Green Bay. After concerned citizens levied significant pressure on local officials, Menominee County became the first county in Michigan to pass a resolution opposed to the Back Forty mine. 

“The Menominee River is my friend. It gives me and my fishing friends a lot of excitement when those bass, especially the big ones, are seen and when they strike at our flies. The Menominee is a valuable resource that shouldn’t be damaged or destroyed, which is why I’m working to protect it from the problems the proposed Back Forty mine would cause. I don’t want to lose the river to a polluting metallic sulfide mine,” said Dick Dragiewicz, an avid fisherman.

If fully permitted, the Back Forty will be a large open-pit sulfide mine on the bank of the Menominee River, the largest watershed in the wild Upper Peninsula of Michigan, only 100 feet from the water. Milling, using cyanide and other chemicals, and mine waste will be stored at the mine site, with some tailings waste remaining permanently. Most of the rock will be “reactive” or capable of producing acid mine drainage (AMD) when exposed to air and water. AMD devastates watersheds: it is difficult and expensive to remediate, and may continue leaching from the tailings for hundreds or thousands of years. American Rivers named the Menominee River to their list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” in 2017.

Fundamental objections to the Aquila Back Forty project remain unresolved, and two contested case petitions have been filed: one by an adjacent landowner, and another by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. The Back Forty Wetland application is currently under review by the public, tribal stakeholders, environmental groups, Michigan DEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“Wetlands are strictly protected under both state and federal law. Before wetlands can be destroyed, the company needs to demonstrate that wetland impacts are unavoidable. They’ve failed that test. I don’t see how this permit will pass muster with environmental regulators,” said Heideman.

“This mine threatens cultural and natural resources of the Menominee people, and the Shakey Lakes Savanna, a globally unique habitat. The Menominee River is the worst possible place for an open-pit sulfide mine. Aquila’s plan for on-site milling is especially dangerous, and needlessly destroys wetlands,” said Horst Schmidt, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition.

Independent review of the Aquila Back Forty Wetland permit is made possible by the generous support of groups and individuals concerned about the future health of the Menominee River. Working collaboratively, the Mining Action Group of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition and the Front 40 secured small grants and donations from Freshwater FutureSuperior Watershed Partnership, the Western Mining Action NetworkDuPage Rivers Fly Tyers (DRiFT), Northern Illinois Fly Tyers (NIFT), Badger Fly FishersM&M Great Lakes Sport FishermanWisconsin Smallmouth AllianceFly Fishers InternationalGreat Lakes Council of Fly Fishers International, the Emerick Family Fund, and individual fishing enthusiasts throughout the Great Lakes area.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

A Public Hearing for the Back Forty’s Wetlands, Lakes and Streams permit application will be held at 6 p.m. Central on January 23, 2018 at Stephenson High School, located at W526 Division Street, Stephenson, MI 49887. Note: due to public interest, the hearing has been moved to the school’s large gym. The deadline for submitting written comment is February 2, 2018.

“Sixty Islands section of the Menominee River, riparian wetlands located approximately 200 feet from the proposed Project Boundary, Aquila Back Forty Mine site, January 9, 2018. Photo by Kathleen Heideman, Mining Action Group.”

FRONT 40 RECEIVES
FRESH WATER HERO AWARD

Have you ever received shocking news that left you with that horrible gut-wrenching feeling in your stomach?

The founders of Front 40, a grassroots organization in Menominee County, Michigan, had that feeling when they found out that a mining company had leased thousands of acres of state-owned minerals on the shores of the Menominee River.

Local residents responded by organizing Front 40, an environmental group dedicated to ensuring that metallic sulfide mining operations are not allowed to adversely impact our rivers, lakes, groundwater and lands. The Front 40 name is in direct response to the “Back Forty” venture that was created by the mining interests.

Front 40 has played a critical role in creating public awareness of mining exploration currently taking place in Menominee County. They have informed citizens and elected officials of the reality of community economic issues typically involved with mining operations.

Front 40’s leadership on mining issues has resulted in several municipal resolutions against the Back Forty mine and increased understanding of the threats to water resources from open pit sulfide mining. Freshwater Future is pleased to present Front 40 with a Freshwater Hero Award for their work to prevent waters from being impacted from mining development.


Eagle Mine Buries Underground Collapse

Marquette, MI — Concerned citizens are publishing the details of an underground collapse incident at Eagle Mine, citing grave concerns with the company’s lack of transparency. The revelations follow several “Eagle Mine Community Meetings” in which the company failed to disclose the details of a significant incident that happened in 2016.

“I attended Eagle Mine’s meeting anticipating some honest discussion of their 2016 underground collapse. Instead, they demonstrated how to use a virtual fire extinguisher to fight a virtual fire. Their 2016 safety review mentioned only medical incidents: a contractor who fell from a ladder and sprained an ankle, an employee who experienced a heart attack, etcetera. Eagle claims that ‘providing transparent information is important to the way we do business,’ but Eagle Mine’s behaviour is anything but transparent,” said Jeffery Loman, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal member and former federal oil regulator.

“Representatives of Eagle Mine failed to address the collapse until they were asked by a concerned citizen at a community meeting in Big Bay, at which point they tried to claim it was an insignificant and harmless incident,” said Nathan Frischkorn, a resident of Marquette.

“Eagle Mine’s failure to disclose a serious underground collapse is outrageous, in light of their request for more permits to expand mining into the new Eagle East orebody. Permitting hinges on public accountability. At the same time, Eagle Mine wants to remove more ore from the very highest levels of the Eagle Mine – a move which experts have long warned could cause the mine’s ceiling or ‘Crown Pillar’ to cave in,” said Kathleen Heideman, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) board member and a member of the Mining Action Group.

RUMORS SURFACE

Rumors of the underground collapse at Eagle Mine first surfaced in fall of 2016, when a story circulated that some “mine contractors” had quit over an underground incident they felt was “dangerous.” Responding to the direct question “Was there a partial pillar collapse?” Eagle Mine confirmed that an incident had taken place, but did not use the term “collapse” and provided only a few details:

“In early August, there was a fall of ground incident that occurred during aroutine blast in an active stope. The fall of ground occurred due to an unidentifiable natural horizontal feature that failed during a blast, causing a section of ore to fall. Eagle Mine safety standards require all employees to be on the surface during a blast, therefore no employees were underground or at risk at the time of the incident. The situation was identified by employees during the post-blast inspection. Eagle Mine notified the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) who conducted an investigation.  MSHA notification is required whenever an unplanned fall of ground occurs at or above the anchorage zone in active workings where roof bolts are in use.”

Documents received in May of 2017 from the federal MSHA via a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request filed by a local concerned citizen make it clear: the unplanned “fall of ground” was a significant “large block failure.”

  • Eagle Mine’s Wilhelm Greuer told the MSHA investigator, “this was a wake up call.”
  • A large portion of an underground stope unexpectedly collapsed. The mining term used by the company is an “unexpected fall of ground.” It was described by MSHA  inspector as a “substantial” event, and could have happened at any time.
  • While it is true that no one was working in the drift below the stope when it collapsed, a crew of Cementation employees had been installing rock bolts into the stope prior to the collapse. It could have been a fatal accident.
  • The “unidentifiable natural horizontal feature that failed” (as described by Eagle Mine) was actually a fault, a critical fracture or flaw within the orebody. Was it truly unidentifiable – or simply unidentified? The geological fault or crack ran diagonally through stope 1485 on level 215, which is a “secondary” stope (unit or compartment of ore) contained between two primary stopes, which were already mined out and backfilled. A large quantity of ore below the fracture collapsed without warning. Mining experts describe these fractures as “rock discontinuities” and have warned that the Eagle orebody is filled with hard-to-map “smaller-scale discontinuities that could weaken the rock mass.”
  • The blast that “triggered” the collapse actually took place elsewhere in the mine, in another stope. Eagle said the collapse took place in an “active” stope, but it was not targeted for blasting when it collapsed.
  • The stope dimensions were approximately 33 feet wide by 80 feet high. A working access drift (tunnel) had been widened to the full width of the stope, further destabilizing the ore block. MSHA’s report states “the back broke approximately 9 meters (30 feet) above the existing 20 foot cable bolts.”
  • According to the MSHA investigation, the bolts that were installed “represented approximately one-quarter of the capacity” that was actually necessary for supporting the ore block.

CONCLUSIONS

Alarmingly, MSHA concluded that “because the planar discontinuity (…) was unanticipated, and the failure block was too large to support with a reasonable bolting system, it must be assumed that similar discontinuities could be encountered, any time.”  For greater stability, MSHA recommended leaving ribs of ore in place between stopes to increase safety: “rib pillars should be left in place in secondary stopes to provide physical, standing support.” According to Parker, this mining method was recommended from the beginning. Why was this common sense safety practice (leaving ribs for better support) not done? Simply put, the company did not want leave behind valuable ore. Full-stope mining means taking everything – leaving no ore behind.

While questions were raised about the integrity of cemented backfill, MSHA concluded “this event is not considered a backfill failure issue.” In the wake of the incident, however, several changes were made to Eagle Mine’s backfill regime: changing the cement recipe, heating water before adding it to cement, and even the method of cement placement. Edges of backfilled stopes were found to contain voids and loose material, which may have further contributed to the instability of the ore block.

It is not clear whether MSHA’s recommendations were suggestions or requirements, or whether Eagle Mine has modified their mining practices to avoid future unexpected collapses.

“Criminally defective decisions made by the Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) caused the permit to be issued despite obvious and serious legal and technical shortcomings. Eagle Mine’s permits were built upon false design and false data provided by amateur consultants who blatantly fabricated numbers, maps and sections which are in no way representative of the conditions in and around the orebody. The mine owners and their consultants still share responsibility for these errors, some of them life-threatening, all of them jail-worthy,” said Jack Parker, a veteran miner and mining consultant.

“Lundin and the Eagle Mine management have demonstrated to the general public what we have known all along: they will withhold information from the public if it might be damaging to their image. Lundin could have disclosed this information at the Eagle Mine forums held last fall or last week. They chose not to,” said Gene Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay.

“It is incomprehensible why Lundin would widen the access drift below the stope without providing additional support. The MSHA report indicates that the affected area was only 28% supported. Greed is indeed a powerful force. This was not the fault of some overactive employee trying to impress the bosses and become employee of the month, as suggested by Matt Johnson’s comment in the Big Bay meeting. Someone gave the order to widen that stope. The public needs to know who. This was an accident waiting to happen and possibly could have happened without a blast occurring and while our working neighbors and relatives were still underground,” said Champagne.

EAGLE WANTS TO TAKE MORE ORE

Prior to the collapse, Eagle Mine submitted a stability report to the MDEQ, seeking to revise the mine’s critical “Crown Pillar” design. Lundin wants to extract an additional two levels of ore from the top of the orebody. The Michigan DEQ reviewed and quietly granted their request, with no opportunity for public comment. Reports were made available only recently, after a request made by the Upper Peninsula Environmental Stakeholders Group.

Lundin Mining acknowledges in their most recent Technical Report on Eagle Mine that “due to the location of the mine under a significant wetlands area and overburden cover, a crown pillar is necessary for the Eagle Mine to prevent surface subsidence and/or large-scale collapse.” The precise thickness and strength of the mine’s “crown pillar” or rock roof has been a hotly debated issue for more than a decade. Several mining engineers, after examining drill cores and rock quality data, have concluded that Eagle Mine’s design is fundamentally unstable, based upon flawed or falsified stability data. Some stated under oath that a crown pillar less than 300 feet thick would be likely to collapse. Eagle Mine, with DEQ’s approval, has now thinned the crown pillar from 287 to only 95 feet, in order to extract more ore.

“Eagle’s secretive behavior, in the wake of the collapse, is alarming. Is Eagle Mine stable, as the company insists, or will unmapped faults prove catastrophic, as experts have warned? Nobody wants to see a serious collapse at Eagle Mine. That would devastate the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River, directly above the mine,” said Alexandra Maxwell, Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve administrator.

“No one in the Upper Peninsula should feel comfortable about the planned activities at Eagle until the financial responsibility assurances required by government regulators are at least an order of magnitude greater than what they are today,” said Loman.

“In light of last year’s significant underground collapse, which was hushed-up and passed off as a minor fall of ground incident, an independent professional review of the Eagle Mine’s data and design is needed. Ultimately, the Michigan DEQ must take steps to correct this unfortunate situation and forestall others. Mining of the Eagle East orebody must not be permitted until Eagle Mine’s design and rock data finally pass muster,” said Parker.

MORE INFO


A Michigan Mystery

On December 28, 2016, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a press release. Within hours a second, revised news release was issued. Although the subject was the same (the status of Aquila Resource’s mining permit applications), many statements in the first release were omitted in the second.

Including:

  1. “The department gave conditional approvals to…..”
  2. “…Faces significant remaining hurdles”
  3. “The Mining Permit is not effective, meaning no mining or site preparation may commence until the applicant acquires all necessary permits and has provided the MDEQ with the required financial surety.”
  4. “Additional information on requirements for approval of the Nonferrous Metallic Mineral Mining Permit (Mining Permit) is online.” Why were these statements removed? Was it because they aren’t true? No, each statement appears to be a verifiable fact! Were they removed because they contradict the mission statement of the MDEQ?No, the MDEQ’s mission statement is included for us in both releases. So, this is the latest big “mystery” surrounding the MDEQ. WHO AUTHORIZED THE CHANGES AND WHY WERE THE CHANGES MADE? We can only speculate about the reasons for their omission and only the MDEQ can solve this mystery. Contact Joe Maki, 906-250-4015, maki8@michigan.gov for answers.


Thank You

Front 40 would like to thank everyone who has supported us in our environmental fight against the Back Forty (proposed mine) Project.

That includes everyone who: wrote letters to the editor, attended forums, asked questions in public meetings, contributed financially, put out yard signs, spoke up at environmental meetings, wrote letters to DEQ, attended township and county meetings and voiced their opinions, spoke up in private meetings with friends and neighbors, wrote letters to government officials, helped in any way with our efforts to inform private citizens and elected officials about the realities surrounding metalic sulfide mineral mining.

Front 40 Environmental Fight has been involved in this effort for the last 12 years. We need your continued support and encouragement. We must continue this difficult, grass-roots work against a well-organized and well-financed adversary.

If we find ourselves hesitant to speak up and share our thoughts, we may benefit from the advice of Dr. Karam, a one-time Prime Minister of India, when he says, “Let difficulties know that you, too, are difficult.”

Let’s continue to voice our environmental concerns.

It is the feeling of Front 40 that, inasmuch as, the mining interest does not have all the pertinent information needed for the DEQ to approve/disapprove the mining application, a final decision should be delayed.

– Front 40

From the DEQ

The web address directing people to the web site that has the Back Forty Project updates and documents needs to be corrected as soon as possible in the Public Notice, including sending a correction for the publications.  The correct address is:

http://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,4561,7-135-3311_18442-359902–,00.html